When I received my endowment a month before I left on my mission, I had no idea what covenants I would be required to make. I prepared myself as thoroughly as I possibly could. I read The Pearl of Great Price twice because my dad told me a lot of the endowment content could be found there. I attended two temple prep classes, one in my singles’ ward and one in the home of my family ward former bishopric member. I even read Boyd K. Packer’s The Holy Temple, which, as far as I could tell, revealed absolutely nothing about the endowment ceremony in 200+ bone dry pages. I fasted and prayed and studied and confided my anxieties about the unknowns of the temple to my mom and my priesthood leaders, who reassured me I’d be fine.
And I still found myself completely blindsided by that first covenant in the endowment: that I had to bow my head and pledge obedience to a husband who didn’t even exist. I remember looking, panicked, at my escort, my mother, out of the corner of my eye. “Is this okay?” I tried to telegraph to her. “Are we really okay with this?”
I could hear her voice cut through the unison female voices as we chorused “Yes.” My voice rasped like a door slamming shut.
Afterward, I felt like I couldn’t bring it up, like that part of the endowment was a dirty secret we weren’t allowed to mention. To talk about it would be to acknowledge the disparity, to suggest that it wasn’t normal, to admit that there was a snake in Eden.
In Mormon circles, the term “priesthood creep” is used to describe the broadening of priesthood responsibilities: when policies are changed so that holding the priesthood becomes a prerequisite to performing a task that formerly didn’t require it. Examples include giving healing blessings, dedicating graves, and serving as stake financial auditors. The term is derived from “mission creep,” which is defined by Wikipedia as “the gradual or incremental expansion of an intervention, project or mission beyond its original scope, focus or goals.”
I’m going to suggest another Mormon-specific variant: sacred creep. Sacred creep occurs when topics that should be fair game for discussion are labeled “sacred” to shut down discourse. We’ve witnessed this in regard to Heavenly Mother for decades: the cultural narrative has been that we aren’t supposed to speculate about her because she’s “too sacred” to talk about. Sacred creep also manifests when we feel we can’t question things because it would challenge the status quo: the assumption is that the reason things are the way they are is because that’s how God wants it, i.e. it’s sacred. Gender roles laid out in the Family Proclamation are labeled “divine design” and “sacred responsibilities,” placing them above critique. Questioning anything that is considered sacred and thus divinely appointed is treated like steadying the ark or corrupting divine doctrinal pearls with grubby human hands.
The “creep” phenomenon is not limited to sacred things: there is also “standards creep.” Members of the Church are so anxious to keep the rules, we often become more and more conservative “just to be safe” and to avoid crossing a line inadvertently. Despite correlated policies, we see the phenomenon of “looking beyond the mark” from both leaders and individual members in everything from what women are allowed to do in our wards (“women can’t be in a church building without a priesthood holder”) to the dress code we abide by (“women should dress to cover garments even if they haven’t been endowed”) to the tithing we pay (“tithing must be 10% of gross, not net”) to the food we eat (“no coffee flavored ice cream”). It’s fine to have personal codes that differ from the group, but when these unnecessarily strict standards creep into talks or lessons and are projected onto other people or lauded as being extra righteous by members or leaders, it’s a problem.
Sacred creep is the secrets version of the Pharisees’ treatment of the Law of Moses: if not revealing the signs and tokens of the temple is the rule, then not disclosing the covenants is even better, and avoiding speaking about the content of the ordinances except in the vaguest of generalities is safest of all. We label them sacred and thus taboo, building so many fences to keep us from the edge that we forget where the edge was to begin with. Case in point is the concluding sentence in the First Presidency’s public statement coinciding with the temple changes: “A dedicated temple is the most holy of any place of worship on the earth. Its ordinances are sacred and are not discussed outside a holy temple.” Apart from being a much broader nondisclosure mandate than we actually covenant to in the temple and a major instance of sacred creep, this directive serves both to discourage members from processing the temple changes or problems together and to discredit the people and entities that speak and write about the temple.
The irony is that the temple changes came about precisely because women spoke up about the problematic aspects of the ordinances: members who hadn’t attended the temple in awhile were sent surveys asking about their experiences, and dozens of men and women were interviewed at length by the correlation department in the months before the new script was rolled out. Women giving voice to their experiences directly informed the changes that were made. But now we’re being told we can’t speak: not about the ordinances themselves, not about the changes, not even about the fact that changes have occurred.
Silencing–particularly of marginalized groups–is a weapon of oppression, and it has been used against women in the Church for nearly two hundred years. In every context I can think of–professional, religious, political, relationships–people must be permitted to discuss things they find problematic or troubling because secrecy, even and especially about sacred things, creates an environment where abuses can occur unchecked. Not allowing discussion of the temple changes erases women’s pain and experiences as well as minimizes legitimate questions about what these changes mean.
Unlike priesthood creep, which, because it’s often codified in policy, we generally can’t do much to change, combating sacred creep is possible. If we resist the cultural norms that encourage silence, we can reclaim ground from sacred creep by speaking out about problematic (or beneficial!) aspects of our doctrine and practice. When others use sacredness as an invocation for silence, we can respectfully push back with reasons why discussion is important. We can point out the glaring absence of Heavenly Mother in our theology and assert that the “she’s too sacred to talk about” rhetoric is not doctrinal. When someone attempts to shut down conversation about the changes or the sexism inherent in the temple, we can share our experiences while explaining that it does not violate our covenants to do so and that sacred does not mean secret. When pushing back against doctrines that are harmful for many, like gender roles or LGBT issues, we can assert that understanding of what doctrine is evolves over time and point to the Adam God doctrine, the temple changes, polygamy, and the temple and priesthood ban for blacks as examples.
I will fight sacred creep in my personal sphere by teaching my daughters and my son exactly what they will covenant in the temple and by modeling that no facet of the gospel is too sacred to examine, talk about or question.
If we use our voices to break the silence, we’ll break the taboos.