In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “solemn assemblies” are rare occasions that mark some of the religion’s holiest transitions, like the installation of a new prophet, the dedication of a temple, or the canonization of scripture.
They’re not usually surprise events. But President Russell M. Nelson, speaking this morning on the first day of the church’s two-day General Conference, dropped a bombshell when he said that Sunday’s meetings will feature one. He did not discuss why or give much indication of what church members should expect, though he mentioned that there would be “unique announcements” during the meeting. Naturally, Mormon social media has been alive with speculations.
Many progressive Mormons would like to see Pres. Nelson announce an expansion of women’s roles in the conservative denomination. Fueling that possibility is the fact that in the weeks leading up to the conference, he asked women to study passages of scripture that relate to the priesthood—specifically, Doctrine and Covenants 25, 84 and 107.
In the Saturday morning session, Pres. Joy Jones of the Primary spoke of women having full access to priesthood power and seemed almost apologetic that it is only late in life that she has realized she has that access herself.
It’s possible that these are hints of an announcement Sunday about a more visible leadership role for women. What that might look like—the Relief Society taking over the church’s disaster response and spearheading a global effort to fight Covid-19? Women being empowered once again to give blessings for healing in a time of widespread illness?—is entirely conjecture.
On the conservative side, hopes abound that The Family: A Proclamation to the World might finally be canonized as an official part of the scriptures. This document features several assertions beloved by conservative church members, including that women’s primary role is to nurture children, that marriage is to be strictly defined as being between a man and a woman, and that fathers are to preside over their families.
Since its creation in the mid-1990s the Proclamation has functioned as a de facto scripture, quoted often in General Conference and posted prominently in many Latter-day Saints’ homes, but it has never been officially elevated to the status of canon.
Perhaps Sunday will be the time. If that happens, it’s easy to envision a prominent role for First Counselor Dallin Oaks, who has been the Proclamation’s most vocal champion.
In addition to announcing the solemn assembly, President Nelson also asked church members watching General Conference around the world to bring a white handkerchief to participate in a global, all-digital “hosanna shout” on Sunday. The purpose, he said, is to express gratitude to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.
Hosanna shouts, in which members wave handkerchiefs and shout in unison, “Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna to God and the Lamb” three times, typically occur at temple dedications, not at the church’s twice-yearly General Conferences. But little about this conference is by the book: because of the spread of Covid-19, there is no live audience, and the selections by the Tabernacle Choir are from earlier recordings. The prophet and his counselors are observing social distancing by sitting many feet apart from one another and recording their talks from a near-empty room in the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City.
It’s intriguing that President Nelson is instituting the hosanna shout on the perfect day in the Western liturgical calendar: Palm Sunday. Shouting “hosanna” on Palm Sunday is a sacred tradition for Christians all over the world, as they commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. At that time, Jesus rode a donkey while crowds lined the streets to welcome him by shouting “Hosanna!”
But re-enacting this scene is not common for Latter-day Saints, who celebrate Easter but do not generally mark the other days of Holy Week. Mormon worship services on the Sunday before Easter do not explicitly reference Palm Sunday or its traditions.
Maybe the church is beginning to pay more attention to it. In 2016, Dieter Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote a short article for children explaining the traditions around Palm Sunday and what the celebration means. “Now, especially during the week from Palm Sunday to Easter morning, we turn our thoughts to Jesus Christ, the source of light, life, and love,” he said. “He gave us His gospel. The gospel is the good news of Christ. It is the way of hope and joy.”
Scheduling an unusual hosanna shout on Palm Sunday may just be a fortuitous coincidence. In any case, the point of a hosanna—which beseeches Christ, as the followers lining the street in Jerusalem, to “save us!”—is certainly timely for a global pandemic.