I’m going to be talking about temples, including some details of the ceremonies. If you’re not interested in reading about these, I’d suggest you stop reading.
Other parts in this Series:
In the previous part of this series I touched on sects that have temples; sects that have rituals/ordinances like the Initiatories & Endowments & sealings & work for the dead and a brief overview how they have changed over time. I left the post off with a list of questions. I will repeat the list again, and then examine each question individually and give my opinion on the matter.
- What is the point of a temple if there is a precedent for performing practically every ritual/ordinance without them?
- If the fundamental covenants and rituals/ordinances of the temple can change, what exactly is their point?
- If the temple rituals can be changed or removed, could it change again in other fundamental ways to exclude outdated ideas and beliefs?
- Who has the authority to change the ceremonies and how often should they be allowed to change?
- If God used 19th century techniques to communicate covenants in the Endowment ceremony, why can’t 21st century techniques be used today? What would the Endowment and the temple look like if there wasn’t a masonic influence?
1. What is the point of a temple if there is a precedent for performing practically every ritual/ordinance without them?
I think having a place set aside solely for reflection and meditation, teaching and learning, cultural development and community building, traditional rituals, choirs and concerts, art galleries, dances, and potlucks is a pretty common human phenomenon. To me, that is what the temple should be. The temple should be an epicenter for everything Mormon and be open to everyone.
In addition the temple should not be ridiculously ornate. King Noah’s temple was singled out for being extravagantly decorated and it is implied that this is a very negative thing. Most temples within the Mormon tradition are very beautiful, but that beauty comes at a pretty high price, which I think is a practice that should be discontinued.
2. If the fundamental covenants and rituals/ordinances of the temple can change, what exactly is their point?
I think this question requires us to not only look at what these rituals really mean to us as a community, but what rituals mean to humanity as a whole.PhD of religious studies Andrew Henry of the youtube channel “Religion for Breakfast”has an episode entitled “What is Ritual?” that gives a pretty decent look into what ritual is and what its purpose is. In short, he theorizes that ritual is an assertion of difference from the ordinary; it is the framing of the actions, not the actions themselves, that makes them rituals. He gave the example of the sacrament: sipping water doesn’t inherently have anything ritualistic qualities to it, but when you organize with others in a special place at a set time and say special words, sipping water can become a ritual.
The next natural question is “Why do we have ritual?” Abigail Brenner M.D. wrote an article in “Psychology Today” which seeks to answer these questions in an easy to understand way. Her article “10 Ways Rituals Help Us Celebrate Our Lives” is a quick and easy read, which is why I won’t repeat the whole list. However, the things that stuck out to me the most about the purpose of ritual is to interrupt the ordinary flow of life, provide a communal sense of belonging, celebrate the passage of time, celebrate a coming of age, mark a commitment, and/or provide a sense of renewal.
So, in short, a ritual is a certain set of actions that can mark certain occasions and commitments or invoke certain emotions. With this definition in mind, let’s examine what these could mean for the temples’ ceremonies.
The Baptisms for the Dead is usually the first temple ceremony people participate in. The purpose of this could be seen as connecting you to the past; being a part of a bigger picture. I personally don’t see much value in doing proxy work for the dead, as rituals are for the living.
The Washing ceremony’s purpose could be seen as to provide a sense of renewal and cleanliness. The Anointing ceremony’s purpose could be seen as to provide a sense of worthiness and confidence.
The Endowment is a bit more complicated. The Endowment has been referred to as a “ritual drama”; it was meant to be a theatrical production that was performed by actors in front of a live audience. This, in itself, necessitates meeting in a special place at a special time for a special purpose, because its not everyday that you take part in a theatrical experience. Within this drama the patrons participate in this performance by wearing certain clothing, performing certain actions, saying certain things, and making certain commitments. These all tend to invoke a sense of rebirth and communal belonging in temple patrons. Oftentimes the first time someone attends an Endowment ceremony is a coming of age rite, because it is usually performed in early adulthood.
3. If the temple rituals can be changed or removed, could it change again in other fundamental ways to exclude outdated ideas and beliefs?
The first time I went through the temple I was presented with the most current snapshot of the Endowment along with the belief that it had been unchanged since the inception of the ceremony, which itself was an ancient and restored ceremony. However, I know better now.
We are able to illustrate how rituals have changed throughout the years, often to come into compliance with cultural norms. I talked a bit about these in the previous part of this series of posts, but I think they bear repeating.
- The Oath of Vengeance and polygamous marriages were completely removed to prevent being seen as anti-American.
- The Washing ceremony went from being done naked in a tub with a literal washing to an open poncho with a symbolic washing on different parts of the body to a jumpsuit with a symbolic washing only on the head – all to not be seen as sexually invasive.
- The preacher was removed to stop antagonizing other religions.
- The Endowments had all of the penalties modified to be less gruesome in the early 1900s and then removed entirely for the same reason in 1990.
- In 2019 the Endowments were altered to become more egalitarian.
Honestly, I see absolutely no reason why the temples’ rituals couldn’t change in further fundamental ways in order to better facilitate the purposes that we examined in #2.
4. Who has the authority to change the ceremonies and how often should they be allowed to change?
This is really the fundamental question. Who are the arbiters of our heritage and its rituals? Do we get to have a say in them? Are we allowed to express it in other ways?
Within the LDS church that authority rests solely with the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. No variance in the temples’ rituals are allowed or tolerated. In my essay “If Mormonism is going to survive, it will not be within an LDS context.” I discuss why this is such a poor model for leadership. Suffice it to say, the LDS church is lead by a straight, caucasian, patriarchal gerontocracy. This leads to very little social progress, and leads many people feeling disconnected from the purposes of our rituals that I outlined in #2.
However, one important thing to keep in mind that even right now the LDS church is not the sole arbiter of these rituals. Many other Mormon sects have their own versions today. This opens up who exactly owns these rituals. In my opinion, they belong to the Mormon people as a whole. It is our heritage’s rituals, and since we are the inheritors of this heritage, we have the ability to interpret and reinvent them however we see fit.
This brings us to the second half of the question: how often should they change?
The best way I have heard these rituals described is an oral tradition. While I recognize that the various churches may have a scripts they use to train temple workers, the temple patrons themselves never read any of the rituals; they are experienced solely through an oral method.
Oral traditions tend to stay pretty similar from generation to generation. However, details often change to reflect the new generations’ understanding and interpretation of the story. These traditions can be an organic tradition that is ever evolving. Depending on the tradition these can vary not at all or quite a bit. This definition of the temple rituals fits pretty well.
So, with this in mind, the temples’ rituals should change whenever we feel like it needs to.
5. If God used 19th century techniques to communicate covenants in the Endowment ceremony, why can’t 21st century techniques be used today? What would the Endowment and the temple look like if there wasn’t a masonic influence?
This is a topic so big, that I have decided to make this part 3 of the series. Stay tuned for more!