Women and children will now be able to serve as witnesses to ordinances performed within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, after a historic announcement on Wednesday morning.
“When I saw the email my first reaction was just joy. I felt pleasantly surprised in the best way,” said Arianna Rees, a Cache Valley native and freelance journalist who writes about faith, current events and social issues.
The church’s president, Russell Nelson, made the announcement during an annual meeting for church leaders and officers that typically precedes the October General Conference for the Utah-based faith.
In the Latter-day Saint tradition, when a baptism or a temple marriage ceremony called a “sealing” is preformed, the ordinance is witnessed by two individuals who watch to make sure it is done correctly.
Previously, these witnesses had to be ordained to the church’s all-male priesthood. Under the new policy, any baptized member, including children and youth, can be a witness for any baptism performed outside of the temple.
For proxy baptisms for the dead performed inside the temple, witnesses can be either youth or adults who hold a current temple recommend, a card provided by ecclesiastical leaders to verify personal worthiness required for entering the temple. During temple sealings, witnesses can be any adult who has a current temple recommend.
The announcement this week follows changes made in January to the faith’s temple ceremonies which include making the language more gender-inclusive.
“That meant a lot to me earlier in the year,” Rees said. “To see this change in addition to it, it makes me happy that we as women can be more involved in the temple. We can play more of a role. There are so many active women in the church who are just praying for opportunities to be more involved and to be seen, and I think that this is such a welcome change.”
Many people shared similar reactions to the announcement on social media, including Utah State University senior Daria Griffiths, who said this particular policy had recently been on her mind.
“It is a faith-promoting moment because it helps me feel like I have a place just as much as anybody else,” Griffiths said.
For others, the emotions associated with the announcement were more complicated. Debra Jenson, a professor at USU, said she would have loved to have her grandmother be a witness at her wedding, but instead the role had to be filled by a stranger.
“It is really lovely whenever we take a step forward toward full equality in the church,” Jenson said.
However, Jenson also said the excitement she felt after first hearing about the policy change was tempered when she read the specific language in the announcement.
“We seem to have a habit of whenever we advance the status of women in the church, we advance children with them as though they are equal or the same thing and they are not,” Jenson said.
Although Jenson is excited about the new opportunity teenage girls in the church will have for service, she said she is frustrated to have her place as a woman in the church continually equated with that of children.
Jenson said she was also disappointed that the same church article announcing this policy change included statements she said are harmful to queer church members, including reaffirming the church stance that gender is defined as a person’s biological sex at birth and that marriage is between a man and a woman.
“I know that there are people who are in pain today because of that language that for some reason had to be added,” Jenson said. “It is unfortunate because we could have had this moment where we celebrated this really important step forward for members of the church.”
Overall Jenson said it is important to her to celebrate progress while continuing to move forward.
“That is one more thing we can check off the list,” Jenson said. “Now let’s talk about the next thing.”