This last Sunday, we had combined Relief Society and Priesthood opening exercises owing to the Young Women needing rehearsal space for a fireside planned for that evening. Forgotten announcements of the switch resulted in a slow but eventual gathering. In the temporarily combined room, the seating arrangement resulted in a change in the average seating patterns, which in turn resulted in people sitting and chatting with people whom they might not routinely sit with. This was not uncomfortable for me; I rather like a good mix up- besides- it was just for opening exercises.
In this, I began to notice something interesting. It seems to me that “average” church meeting small talk is along the line of “how are you/your family doing?” But in this meeting, and in other interactions I have had in the last few weeks with church members, the small and big talk is focused on the recently announced change in missionary age.
In nearly every conversation, the reaction is one of happy excitement; 18 year old males who had thought they had a year to prepare are suddenly, yet happily questioning if they should go sooner. Further, it seems to me that a very large number of women between the ages of 19 and 20 have already spoken to their bishops and are in the process of submitting their papers (I personally know of 3).
Interestingly, in this combined meeting moment, a member of the Stake Presidency pointed out an observation of his that seemed to almost border on a concern. This was that males still had to be ordained as Elders before they could serve; hence, they would need to be sustained in Stake Conference. I do not know why this seemed to concern him (perhaps a Stake admin issue that could be challenging?), but I could not help but consider the implications in relation to age. Based on a male’s birth date, high school graduation date and stake conference scheduling, it is possible that he could very well still be 19 years old the soonest he is eligible to serve a mission.
If this is the case, and a young man was anxious to serve a mission, is there an equality argument for males to forgo Melchizedek priesthood ordination in order to be as readily eligible to serve as un-ordianed women? It seems to me that a general consensus is that the redefined age policy will increase the number of women who choose to serve missions. If this is the case, could the ritual for men’s mission preparation be amended to forgo ordination? It seems unlikely to me for the church to relinquish ordination, yet it begs the question if men are still required to submit to the cultural ritual of ordination, should not younger missionary sisters also be subjected or invited to participate in similar preparatory rituals? In short- are women a step closer to ordination within Mormon ritual and theology as a result of theis age change?
But let’s take this a step further in regard to ritual. I presume that before this new missionary age announcement, that the majority of Mormon women who take out their endowments for the first time are married or about to be married. This is based on an (admittedly) older statistic that the average age for first marriage for women in Utah is 22. With the younger age of females serving missions, and the church policy of ordination and endowment in preparation for a mission, it seems to me that on average, more and younger Mormon women will be eligible and encouraged to engage in the temple endowment as a routine part of preparing to serve a mission.
Because of this, I can’t help but wonder if this will effect a change in the endowment ritual. The temple ceremony is traditionally described as being based on biblical traditions and symbols, as a means of worshipping God and with a focus on eternal families. The family is considered “central to God’s plan” in Mormon ideology, a concept that bleeds into nearly every aspect of Mormonism, including the temple. Congruent with the Family Proclamation, traditional marriage is the doctrinal requisite foundation for families.
The Mormon concept of marriage is often patterned on the Bridegroom (Christ) and the Bride (Christ’s church), as modelled in the New Testament and Pearl of Great Price. Though I believe this to be symbolic and therefore not literal direction in regard to gender roles within a marriage, the patriarchal structure of the institutional church most often does not agree with my interpretation as a matter of masculine/patriarchal (rather than divine) culture. Likewise, the symbolism and pedantry associated with the tradition of the temple and temple marriage (when interpreted literally) places women in a ritualised secondary position to their husbands, perhaps as a result of the temple being the first and only institutional rite for women within Mormon theology.
And yet- if there is an increased number of women who seek the ceremony and tradition of the temple endowment in preparation for missionary service, it seems fair, if not obvious– to anticipate and seek– a change in the traditional interpretation associated with marital gender roles within the temple ceremony. In short, I believe an extended effect of the change in missionary age for women is that both women and men will disavow unequal traditional marriage interpretations commonly associated with the temple because more women will seek the temple ritual outside of (or prior to) marriage.
Just as I liked the “good mix up” that came from the temporary realignment of routine sitting habits as a result of the combined opening exercises in Relief Society and Priesthood, I see no problem with the development of parallel ritual within Mormon culture for both women and men in and out of the roles of wife and husband. What’s more, I hope that the change in missionary age and its associated implications for the tradition of taking out endowments before service will positively effect the temple ritual in terms of justice, opportunity and privilege for both genders, thus removing any subservient dogma associated with the literal (rather than symbolic) roles of Bride and Bridegroom.
Have you had any lingering thoughts about the changes in further association with the policy change in missionary age?