SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — 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.
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 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.”
“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.
Women hold leadership positions in the church but aren’t allowed to be bishops of local congregations or presidents of stakes.
The Utah-based faith of 16 million members worldwide 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 women to lead the opening prayer at the faith’s twice-yearly conference.
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.
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.
Written by BRADY McCOMBS, Associated Press.
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