In a move that seems designed to provide more gender equality for Mormon teens, the LDS Church is making small changes regarding who can officiate in temple rituals.

Effective Jan. 1, Mormon boys who are ordained as priests (as young as 16) will be able to perform vicarious baptisms for the dead in LDS temples and act as witnesses to the ritual, a rite formerly reserved for adult males.

LDS girls ages 12 to 18 will be able to assist with baptistry assignments currently done by adult female temple workers.

Further, annual “Priesthood Preview” presentations in LDS congregations will be modified to include not only 11-year-old boys, who will be ordained to the faith’s all-male priesthood at age 12, but also 11-year-old girls, who will not.

The new gathering will be called “the Temple and Priesthood Preparation” meeting.

“This will be an opportunity for priesthood, Primary [for Mormon children under 12], and youth leaders to help girls and boys, and their parents,” according to a letter from the faith’s governing First Presidency, “understand the significant blessings of temple service, priesthood service, and making and keeping sacred covenants.”

All these revisions are spelled out in the letter to be read over the pulpit Sunday to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Rosalynde Frandsen Welch, a Primary president in St. Louis, welcomes the inclusion of males and females in the meeting for 11-year-olds.

In the past, Welch has been “bothered by the obvious gender disparity on display in the Priesthood Preview,” she wrote Thursday in an email.

Last year, her Missouri stake (a regional group of LDS congregations) organized a “temple preparation” meeting for 11-year-old boys and girls, Welch said, “basically as described in the new directives, preparing them to attend the temple for baptisms.”

The children attended together, she reported, “and there was a sense of achievement and momentous maturity for both girls and boys.”

Welch is “delighted” to see this pattern now replicated worldwide.

This is a “good beginning that reframes the children’s transition to the church’s teen programs in terms of parity and equal importance,” she said, while noting that “disparities remain.”

One of the differences is the witness role, which will continue to be a male-only assignment.

Mormon writer Emily Jensen is especially incensed by that.

“Women have served as official witnesses in both recent Mormon history and early Mormon history,” Jensen said. “Not having women as witnesses downgrades their spiritual authority for really no good reason and multiple bad ones.”

The Utah-based blogger wonders if LDS leaders understand the obvious irony for Mormon women being barred from serving as witnesses.

They covenant at their own baptism to “stand as a witness” — typically at age 8 — and they repeat this mantra “to stand as a witness at all times, in all things, and in all places” every week as teens, Jensen said, “and then are not actually given space to do so.”

It is wrong to insist women have a “full voice in our church,” Jensen said, “when we cannot officially speak/sign as witnesses.”

Blame LDS apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, who would become a church president, for reserving that right for males. Until the 1950s, Mormon women routinely served as witnesses in the temple, according to LDS history researcher Ardis Parshall.

Smith was surprised in 1959, when he heard that women witnessed temple marriages in Alberta, Parshall reports. “He asked for the temple president’s authority, and learned that it was a longstanding practice, based on ‘Item No. 53’ in the written instructions given to temple presidents.”

To that, Smith replied, “Where the idea of having women for witnesses for marriages began I do not know, but my training convinces me that it is the proper thing to have the priesthood not only officiating but witnessing the ceremonies of the temple.”

It has been that way, Parshall said, ever since.