The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Monday that some changes had been authorized to the temple endowment ceremony, but did not specify what those changes were.
"Part of the temple experience includes the making of sacred covenants, or promises, to God," the announcement read. "Most people are familiar with symbolic actions that accompany the making of religious covenants (such as prayer, immersion of an individual at baptism, or holding hands during a marriage ceremony). Similar simple, symbolic actions accompany the making of temple covenants."
The endowment ceremony is an important ritual in the church, in which church members make sacred covenants and engage in ordinances they believe are essential for eternal exaltation in the highest level of heaven. It centers around a ritual retelling of the cosmic drama of creation and the choices of Adam and Eve.
The ceremony has changed over time, most notably in 1990 and again in 2019. In January 2019, the church dropped language about women hearkening to their husbands, expanded the role of Eve, and shortened the length of the ceremony.
In October of 2019, it revised the temple recommend interview questions — the script of a conversation a member has to have with local leaders before being declared worthy to enter an LDS temple. Those changes included new wording for questions about members' commitments to live the church's teachings about chastity and its rules against drugs and alcohol. It also dropped the phrase "night and day" from a question about whether members were wearing their sacred garments.
Because of the sacred nature of temple ordinances, the church has not tended to publicly comment on or explain these changes, and it looks like this new announcement will follow that tradition. "Given the sacredness of the temple ceremonies, we ask our members and friends not to engage in speculation or public discussions about these changes," it says. "Rather, we invite Church members to continue to look forward to the day when they may return and fully participate in sacred temple work prayerfully and gratefully."
However, Mormon discussion groups and online forums are already alight with exactly the kind of speculation the press release discourages. A recurrent theme in that speculation is that the changes may be intended to eliminate physical touch in the endowment ceremony. As the press release indicated, the ceremony has long included "simple, symbolic actions" that accompany the covenants individuals verbalize; some of these involve clasping hands, for example. It is possible that during a time of the global Covid-19 pandemic, such physical actions are being discarded as too dangerous and prone to spread disease.
However, all such speculation will remain hypothetical for the moment, as the church's 168 temples around the world are operating under a severely restricted metric due to the pandemic. Currently, some temples are closed altogether and others are in Phase 1 of reopening, which means they are only performing "sealings" (temple weddings) of living couples so they can be considered married for time and all eternity.
On July 27, 12 temples will enter Phase 2 of reopening, which means they will perform all of the usual ordinances for living members, including endowments, sealings, and initiatory anointings. Four of those temples are in the United States, six are in Europe, and two in Asia.
However, no temples will be open for any rituals in which living members perform those ordinances on behalf of their deceased ancestors until Phase 3, which has not yet been announced for any of the church's temples.
RNS will continue to follow the story as it develops.