(RNS) — In my previous column, I explored how changes to the temple recommend interview, or TRI, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might affect Mormons around the world.
In that column, we looked specifically at the new wording about chastity and what could happen for church members who disagree with the institution's official stance about, for example, same-sex marriage. About the former, my take was "We'll see"; on the latter I pronounced myself "worried."
Here, I'll delve into Sabbath-keeping, the Word of Wisdom and whether Latter-day Saints are still expected to wear their temple garments around the clock.
Wearing garments 'night and day’
The removal of “night and day as instructed in the endowment” from the temple recommend interview resolves a weird problem that was present for years: The endowment ceremony itself didn’t explicitly have people covenant to wear the garment “night and day.” The “night and day” language was added to the TRI process in 1976; 20 years later, the phrase “in accordance with the covenant you made in the temple” was inserted as well.
So for at least four decades, round-the-clock garment use has been the expectation as specified in church curriculum as well as in a separate set of guidelines that local leaders were instructed to read to members to explain what it meant in practice to wear the garment “throughout your life.”
Those guidelines stipulated, for example, that it was not acceptable to remove the garment “either entirely or partially, to work in the yard or for other activities that can reasonably be done with the garment worn properly beneath the clothing.”
That wording has now been amended. The yard work example is gone, as is the statement that “it is expected that members will wear the garment both night and day, according to covenants made in the temple.” The general advice not to neglect the garment for activities that “can reasonably be done” with it on remains in the new wording.
Where does this leave us? Perhaps members going forward will have more latitude in deciding for ourselves what “throughout your life” might entail. What is “throughout”? Chipotle has franchises throughout the country, but they’re not in every town. It’s good to exercise throughout our lives, but that doesn’t mean we exercise 24/7. Are garments now in that category?
I frankly don’t know. It would be quite unexpected for the church to formally announce that wearing garments all the time is no longer required. I’d be surprised to hear any official statement clarifying the church’s intent about garments. (For one thing, the institution would shrivel from embarrassment to have sustained media attention on Latter-day Saints’ underwear.)
What seems more likely is for a don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach to gradually take a stronger hold among young members, some of whom already regard the specifics of garment-wearing with more latitude than their elders. (See here for that data.)
Bottom line: Oh Lord, “bottom line” is a terrible double entendre where garments are concerned. Move along, people.
The new TRI is the first instance I have seen of Sabbath-keeping referenced as a prerequisite for entering the temple, which is fascinating. I wonder whether this presages a more sustained and serious emphasis on observing the Sabbath. It seemed that the church was moving in this direction several years ago (see here for my comments about it in 2016), but it has not been consistent.
Sabbath-keeping is the spiritual practice that has most transformed my life — more than prayer, church meetings or Scripture study. It has added a rhythm and cadence to my relationship with God and my dealings with family and friends. It has saved my sanity during times of a ridiculous or unhealthy workload, and called me back to serenity. It helps me remain mindful of death and eternity. It is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, a sacred architecture, God’s palace in time.
So, needless to say, when I heard that the TRI was going to mention the Sabbath for what I believe is the first time in our religion’s history, my ears perked up.
The TRI’s new focus on our Sabbath observance both at home and at church is in keeping with the new “home-centered and church-supported” emphasis of Nelson’s presidency, offering the chance for a more wholistic approach to spiritual practice in all areas of life. In our era of endless distraction and consumerism, I would greatly welcome this.
What it will look like is an open question. It remains to be seen whether Latter-day Saints can promote the Sabbath without turning it into a checklist of “acceptable” things to do and not do. We default to that line of thinking so easily. I hope we will emphasize the reasons for the Sabbath and why it can transform our lives, rather than simply reiterating the same list of “DON’TS” over and over again.
Bottom line: Cautiously optimistic.
'Understanding' the Word of Wisdom
Many Latter-day Saints are buzzing with questions about the switch from the traditional “Do you keep the Word of Wisdom?” to “Do you understand and obey the Word of Wisdom?”
One of the more surprising findings of the Next Mormons Survey was how many young adults who were otherwise orthodox members of the church are not “squeaky-clean” observers of the Word of Wisdom. Four in 10 said they had consumed caffeinated coffee in the last six months, for example, including some who held a current temple recommend.
Two months ago, the church announced a stricter interpretation of the Word of Wisdom, putting the kibosh on areas that had not been explicitly named before. Vaping is now forbidden, not just tobacco; green tea is on the naughty list; and drinks that are based in coffee are not OK, even if they are not explicitly labeled as coffee. In a rare stab at humor, the church has advised youth, and presumably all members, to avoid any drink ending with –ccino.
Now, it seems, the TRI wants to expand the conversation about what the Word of Wisdom requires. However, as a friend pointed out to me, “understanding” may have broadening consequences, albeit unintended ones. The Word of Wisdom has undergone major changes in its interpretation and application over time. An “understanding” that begins to ask why we now focus on some phrases and not others, and why practice was different in the past, may lead to uncomfortable questions.
At best, this could open up some new areas of discussion. Perhaps our meat-loving people will suddenly rediscover that the Word of Wisdom is not really on the side of the no-holds-barred carnivore. At worst, it could lead to even more legalism than we already have, in which a cuppa matcha is responsible for derailing someone’s eternal future.
Bottom line: We’ll see.