Within hours of when he was formally accepted as head of the Mormon Church ("sustained" in Mormon jargon), new Mormon Prophet Russell Nelson began announcing major changes to Mormon practice. Some touched on hot-button issues in the broader society, such as measures to reduce the dangers of sexual abuse by local church leaders, and the choice of an Asian-American and a Latin-American apostle. (An apostle is one of the top 15 Mormon leaders, in line to become a Prophet himself, if he lives long enough. They are all male.) But there are two other big changes whose importance for the lives of Mormons takes some explaining. They and the measures to reduce the dangers of sexual abuse by local church leaders might have been in the works in any case, but a Prophet's views can often be decisive in what gets put in place.
One of the big changes that is more important than it sounds is to the organization of Mormons' 3-hour block of Sunday meetings. (They are not all in the morning because multiple Mormon congregations usually share a meetinghouse and someone has to take the afternoon shift.) "Sacrament Meeting," named after the Mormon terminology "the sacrament" for communion has everyone together, including very young children. Sunday School separates adults from children, other than the adults tending to the children. The third chunk of time then additional separates adult men from adult women. It used to be that during that time, men who had held moderately high local church office ("high priests," often somewhat older) would be separated out from the men who hadn't ("elders"). Now all the adult men will be together, deemphasizing that status difference and also likely having leadership of that group of all the adult men devolve on more experienced men. This is a big sociological change because older and younger men will now be interacting significantly more. Also, the deemphasis of the status difference between men who have held moderately high local church office and those who haven't extends to the whole of Mormon men's religious experience, not just what happens for one hour on Sunday.
The other change that is more important than it sounds is to the Mormon Church's program of monthly visits to every member, which was called "home teaching" when by men to the whole family and "visiting teaching" when by women to other women. Now the goal of monthly visits has been relaxed, but the expectation of being on top of how families and individuals are doing has been raised. In addition to relaxation of the goal of monthly visits, the program of "ministering" that replaces home-teaching and visiting-teaching does not involve set-piece messages sent out from Mormon Church central. So the new program encourages people to "get real" rather than just go through the motions. It remains to be seen what "ministering" turns out to be in practice, but it could be an excellent step towards encouraging people to care for one another in a more authentic way.
There is a key change attendant on the program of "ministering" represents an important step towards gender equality in a church where "patriarch" and "patriarchal" are very positive words, and women cannot hold the priesthood. Home teaching, visiting teaching and now ministering are normally conducted by pairs. Under the older programs, teenage boys were involved in home-teaching, but teenage girls were not involved in visiting teaching. But both teenage boys and teenage girls will be involved in ministering. This is in line with another step toward gender equality a few years ago when the minimum age at which a Mormon woman could be a Mormon missionary was reduced to 19 from 21, encouraging more women to get the leadership experience of serving a mission.
I have links below to posts that explain more about the home teaching and visiting teaching and about two things I don't think will change any time soon within Mormonism: antipathy toward gay marriage and exclusion of women from the priesthood. I also have a link to a rundown of the administration of the Mormon Prophet who preceded Russell Nelson: Thomas S. Monson.
I have to admit I am surprised by the scale of the changes Russell Nelson has ushered in for the Mormon Church. There was little indication in what he had done as an apostle before become Prophet that he would be that innovative. However, the structure of Mormon leadership at the top emphasized following more senior leaders enough that a leader's true views are often only revealed when he rises to the very top.
Don't miss these posts on Mormonism:
- Inside Mormonism: The Home Teachers Come Over
- Will Women Ever Get the Mormon Priesthood?
- The Mormon Church Decides to Treat Gay Marriage as Rebellion on a Par with Polygamy
- The Message of Mormonism for Atheists Who Want to Stay Atheists
- How Conservative Mormon America Avoided the Fate of Conservative White America
- Flexible Dogmatism: The Mormon Position on Infallibility
- The Mormon View of Jesus
- David Holland on the Mormon Church During the February 3, 2008–January 2, 2018 Monson Administration
Also see the links in "Hal Boyd: The Ignorance of Mocking Mormonism."