SALT LAKE CITY -- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Wednesday the faith will allow women to be official "witnesses" at two key ceremonies where they were previously only allowed to observe, marking the latest small step toward breaking down rigid gender roles in the religion.
The policy change adds to a long list of significant moves made by church President Russell M. Nelson during his first two years as he builds a transformative legacy.
It was Nelson’s second noteworthy change on women’s issues after he previously revised a sacred temple ceremony to give women a more prominent role.
The 95-year-old Nelson said in a news release that women can now serve as witnesses at baptisms for the living and dead and at a ceremony inside church temples for married couples called a sealing, which the faith believes unites the couple for eternity.
Only men had been allowed to be official witnesses previously. Women still won’t be allowed to perform the baptism or sealing ceremonies.
Nelson said leaders are “joyful” about the changes and explained that the “adjustments allow for covenants to be planted in the hearts of people living in different times and circumstances.”
The news triggered surprise and excitement among church members on social media. Feminist advocates applauded the move but said much is left to be done for full equality that many believe should include allowing women to be ordained.
“This is definitely a step forward, and it’s exciting,” said Debra Jenson, a church member and supporter of the group Ordain Women. “But there’s still quite a ways to go. Full equality means full equality. We’ll celebrate this, and we will keep pushing forward.”
Jenson, a 42-year-old professor from Ogden, said women should also be allowed to conduct the baptisms and sealings.
The change comes ahead of the faith’s twice-annual conference scheduled for Saturday and Sunday in Salt Lake City, where church leaders give speeches with spiritual guidance and sometimes announce new initiatives or policies.
The role of women in the religion has been an ongoing debate for years with some members of the faith pushing for more equality and increased visibility and prominence for women.
Women hold leadership positions in the church but aren’t allowed to be bishops of local congregations or presidents of stakes, which are geographic areas similar to Catholic dioceses. The church’s highest leaders, including the president and his support group called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, includes only men.
The Utah-based faith of 16 million members worldwide, widely known as the Mormon church, reserves the priesthood and the highest leadership positions for men but has made several changes in recent years to involve women more amid a heightened push for equality by Latter-day Saints’ women’s groups.
The changes have included appointing women to three high-level church councils previously reserved only for men; allowing women who work at church headquarters to wear pantsuits or dress slacks instead of skirts or dresses; and allowing woman to lead the opening prayer at the faith’s twice-yearly conference.
Ordain Women had been asking for the latest change for several years, said Lorie Winder Stromberg an executive board member. She said they still want women to be ordained for full equality but are thrilled with another “incremental change.”
“It’s really important that we overturn or challenge any barriers to women’s equality and women’s ministry,” said Winder Stromberg, 67, a retired editor from Los Angeles.
Mary Ellen Robertson said the long-overdue move hopefully signals more changes that will recognize the vital role women play in the faith.
“Women do a lot of unsung work in the church and do a lot behind the scenes to keep it running,” said Robertson, 51, a longtime advocate for women’s equality in the faith. “I would like to see more opportunities for women to serve in visible, public ways.”
Latter-day Saints women’s groups have escalated their advocacy in recent years, with growing online and social media communities helping women from around the world discuss the causes they want to champion.
They’ve celebrated several victories even as they seek more meaningful reform.
Among other things, a 2012 rule change lowering the minimum age for missionaries, from 21 to 19 for women, opened the door for many young women to fit in 1 ½-year missions before they start careers or get married and start families.
There have been setbacks too. In 2014, the church expelled one of the founders of Ordain Women, Kate Kelly, from the religion for her public advocacy of positions that oppose church teachings.
The latest change was announced in a news release that included highlights from a meeting Wednesday between Nelson and other high-ranking leaders in the church.
In that meeting, the second-highest ranking member of the faith, Dallin H. Oaks, reaffirmed its opposition to gay marriage and the belief that the gender assigned at birth is “essential to the plan of salvation.” The faith teaches that homosexual relations are a sin, while at the same time urging members to be kind to LGBTQ people.
Oaks told members to be understanding and respectful with LGTQ people, while questioning why they are like they are.
“We do not know why same-sex attraction and confusion about sexual identity occur,” Oaks said. “They are among the challenges that persons can experience in mortality, which is only a tiny fraction of our eternal existence.”