The LDS Temple Endowment is an extraordinary thing. It is central to a mature Mormon’s religious life, but if you ask one simply to explain what it is most of us will struggle to come up with a coherent response. What even is this thing?! A series of covenants? A blessing? A ritualised story? Immersive theatre in the round? Performance art? It is so many things at once, and its origins are exactly that – a buffet of individual rituals and covenants and teachings that include prayer circles, hand gestures, symbols, annointings with holy oil and water and blessings with roots in the ordination rituals of ancient Jewish Tabernacle priests, chanted prayers, new names, ceremonial robes, ‘magic underwear’, promises of deification, and creation mythology.
Claims are made about the experience promising peace and answers and clarity in a stressful and confusing world; a refuge from strife. We are encouraged to go to the temple to seek personal revelation about our most important life changing decisions. We expect going through it to solidify a person’s faith into something lasting and mature. After participating for ourselves we return to reach out to our ancestors and perform the same rituals for the dead, continuing the most ancient forms of animist religion where reverence, prayers, ceremonies and offerings are directed towards dead ancestors who are believed to still be around us and watching over us, and in need of our care and interventions to aid them on their journeys through the afterlife.
So how on earth did a new religious movement emerging from the evangelical Puritan and Protestant religious world of the rationalist, Enlightenment era early 19th century eastern United States end up doing this crazy stuff?! Heavily influenced by their experience of Freemasonry, Brigham Young and his fellow apostles constructed a total ritual experience from all the fragments and doctrines that Joseph Smith had taught to them before he was murdered to create a religious service that is a wonderful layer cake of meanings and possibilities. Some see it as a perfectly formed and profound ordinance that has hardly changed since the first biblical temples, others as a flawed mess that has rightly required several phases of reform and editing in its nearly two century history.
For some it is an oppressive shockwave still reverberating through our religion from the darkest days of polygamy and the treatment of women as property; others find it empowering and feminist. We love it. We loath it. We laugh at it. We laugh with it…..and then it tells us to promise not to laugh loudly! As a school teacher I can testify to the complete futility of telling people to stop laughing at something that is clearly a bit bonkers, however seriously one may take it oneself. So how on earth are we meant to take it seriously when we struggle to even say what it is? And when it has a name ripe for double entendres?
I have been blessed since my endowment aged 18 in 1989 to live 40 minutes’ drive away from the London Temple, and while my busy life has made it impossible to be anything close to a frequent participant, I have been a regular one. I have been well endowed!! I loathe bits of it, I have a quiet chuckle at bits of it, and mostly I love it more and more every time I go, although perhaps not for the reasons traditionally expected of me.
I have experienced the endowment before and after Gordon B Hinckley’s 1990 reforms when he removed the bloodthirsty masonic ‘penalties’ for revealing its secrets that were ritually enacted throughout the endowment service and cast a sinister and disturbing pall over the whole thing. I have not been enough of a tourist to get around much, but have participated in endowments in the London, Provo and Preston temples, and also a ‘live’ session in the Salt Lake Temple, where my British Brigham Young University student parents were married, before I went into the Missionary Training Centre in Provo.
I did not have time to go in when it was open, but one of my favourite temple experiences was nipping out of a hotel next to Central Park in New York on a school trip a couple of years ago late at night to walk around the block to the Manhatten Temple, a delightful and surreal piece of Mormonism inserted into the heart of the model modern city. A perfect plume of steam was rising up from an altar of road works in front of it like all the films of New York I had seen growing up, and also like the smoke of the burnt offerings on the open air altar of the ancient desert Tabernacle of Moses. Across the road flowing with busy yellow taxis was the Lincoln School of Performing Arts, to the left a bright red logo shone in the darkness on the CNN building, and somewhere round the corner were the Sesame Street studios. Standing on the beehive insignia on the immaculate granite sidewalk in front of the Temple I was standing on holy ground, my spiritual home, in the heart of the archetypal urban Babylon. I was part of the international community of Latter-Day Saints. As an honorary lifelong Londoner I adore the idea that our religion can flourish in the city and that a temple doesn’t have to be in a landscaped garden. Our religion must be able to be relevant to people who don’t live physically or psychologically in Midwestern agricultural towns or middle class suburbs. Its architecture is pretty simple and functional – it really isn’t beautiful on the outside – but for all these things that it represents the Manhatten Temple may actually be my favourite now.
I have been married twice in the London Temple, the second time when given pretty much no choice but to become a polygamous Mormon sealed to two living women when it was made clear that cancelling my first sealing after divorce was not going to be an option the institution of the Church would play ball with, despite my expressed wishes. I discovered to my amazement and horror that a temple marriage sealing wasn’t a voluntary covenant after all – it was spell cast upon me that could become a curse controlled by other people who did not have my best interests in mind and that I could not shake off like something from a fairytale. The institution’s instinct to assert its authority and control over my free will was far more powerful than the instinct to bless and protect.
I have been present in the same room as those sealings when my recently baptised Granny was sealed by proxy to my recently departed Grandfather and to their 6 adult children who they raised as diligent Mormons, including one who died in her own young motherhood. So the Temple has been the setting for my family’s most frustrating, abusive and unsettling experiences with the sealing-empowered priesthood authorities and practices of the Church, and our most profound, unifying, healing and transcendent experiences.
My conclusion then, as with so many things in real life (and real life in any religion), is that there is good, bad and hilarious in everything. I can be completely honest about all these dimensions and live with their contradictions and complexities. The tensions they create are the places where I gain some of my most profound insights into Life, the Universe and Everything.
Eugene England expressed this in his book ‘Why the Church is as True as the Gospel – Grappling Constructively With the Oppositions of Existence’:
“Just before his death Joseph Smith, also with prophetic perception, wrote, “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest” (History of the Church, 6:428). By “prove” he meant not only to demonstrate logically but to test, to struggle with, and to work out in practical experience. The Church is as true — as effective — as the gospel because it involves us directly in proving contraries, working constructively with the oppositions within ourselves and especially between people, struggling with paradoxes and polarities at an experiential level that can redeem us.”
Part of the life-enhancing fun of my faith journey has been working out which of the good, bad and hilarious things is which, and sometimes changing my mind along the way. This has taught me to have some humility, some courage, a sense of humour, and always an open mind to new insights. At its best, that seems to be ultimately what the temple and its strange collage of initiations and endowments and sealings is all about. While offering a sanctuary from the complexity and worries of life on earth, it also embraces and engages with those befuddling complications and adds a few more of its own.
I am going to share some of my specific thoughts about the endowment now with the caveat that I am not going to reveal any details that I have covenanted not to, a reminder to readers that what we covenant not to reveal in the endowment is only the specific details of each sign and token, and that pretty much everything else is in the public domain in books about the temple by LDS apostles and prophets and other approved curriculum materials. The Church recently released a film about temple clothing, the Wikipedia page about the endowment is informative, and if you want to know every detail, the scripts for all the versions of every incarnation of the endowment have been easy to find on the internet for years, so I am not going to pretend they aren’t, while honouring my promises.
I love how Protestant the endowment is – like our baptism and sacrament rituals, the endowment is shorn of every scrap of unnecessary elaboration. Even where symbolic priesthood robes are required the costume only allows for the merest hint of embroidery. You listen to the Word, and what it means to you is between you and God – noone really talks about it or interprets it for you officially. There are ambiguous positions about whether it is all symbolic or literal, and a range of opinions in between. Did Adam and Eve really live in a garden without any dinosaurs and eat forbidden fruit? Is it all an archetype of how men and women are, like a sacred version of ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’? I get a lot out of viewing it from that perspective.
If people push it they usually get fobbed off with ‘pray about it’ or maybe an interview with a member of the Temple Presidency who may offer what in effect are personal opinions, or something someone told them when they asked. Or you could wade through a long esoteric book by Hugh Nibley who looked for matches in ancient Egyptian and early Christian rituals and get a couple of ideas from that. Generally though you really are on your own to interpret them as you see fit and as the Holy Spirit communicates to you.
A dear friend serving in a temple presidency said to me that offering an interpretation of the endowment’s meaning is inappropriate because it is up to each individual to receive spiritual insights about it for themselves that may not be relevant for someone else. A sceptic might say that this is a convenient way to avoid having to officially make sense of something inherently nonsensical, but he very much sees it as something to grapple with and appreciate over time by and for yourself. I love and agree with his open-minded approach and hope he doesn’t mind me going to town sharing my personal opinions and insights here – I mention what he said to indicate that I don’t claim anyone else has to share or agree with any of my opinions or experiences with the temple. It may be completely different for you, “and that’s OK!” as the immortal and wise Stuart Smalley used to say on Saturday Night Live…before the comedian who played him went on to become one of the more sensible voices in the USA’s Senate. Because real life is crazy like that.
I love how Catholic the endowment is. Normally the Mormon experience of sacred space and architecture verges on puritanical minimalism – our chapels are sparse, generic buildings, devoid of symbolism beyond vague visual motifs involving threes for the ‘Godhead’, the Mormon Trinity. There are centrally approved artworks in European style and European frames on the walls featuring European Jesus / ‘Bjorn Borg in a Blanket’, and very little of any local cultural artistic expression.
But in our luxurious and exuberant cathedral-temples with their murals, paintings and stained glass windows telling the stories of our heritage and the soul’s journey, architectural styling and detail reflecting the local cultural norms and history, prayers for the dead, and blurring the boundaries between this life and the next, we go vigorously Vatican. We have a classical golden angel in ancient Athenian attire on the spire, and these days a faux-marble Romanesque broad-shouldered Jupiter-Jesus in a toga statue in the visitors centres, the Mormon Pieta, for pilgrims to venerate. How that ever became a thing in Mormonism is beyond me, but it’s all the rage now. Give it 20 years and people will be kissing them and touching them for miracles at this rate.
Temples celebrate the close kinship and community of the living and dead members of the holy congregation, praying for and communing with our dead ancestors who suffer or thrive in the next world depending on our prayers and ceremonies for their progress and redemption from purgatory, or “spirit prison” as we call it.
The endowment tells a story loaded with veneration of the saints. Saint Eve is our Mother Mary, having prayerful visionary compassion on all of humanity and submitting to God’s will for her to be a Mother so that we can be sanctified. Saints Peter, James and John bring truth and power to mankind. Saint Michael the Archangel is a powerful member of the heavenly host. Salvation is a team effort involving all of us to create and redeem us. Our rituals and works, gilded with divine love and clerical authority and holiness, use Saint Peter’s keys to seal on earth and in heaven. Holy men from the past appear in visions to tell our leaders where to find their relics entombed in the ground, and we build some of our temples in places sacred to our foundation stories, which Mormons love to make pilgrimages to.
We embrace robes and ritual, hand gestures imbued with profound meaning; we receive stigmata and contemplate the suffering of the crucified Lord with our own bodies like St Francis. Blessings are given and received by touch and anointing with holy water and holy oil, as well as speaking and hearing.
I had an epiphany in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral on my first solo date with my wife (…I should emphasise we didn’t just lurk in crypts!) as I looked around at the usual collection boxes for coins alternating with racks of burning candles. Little prayers and pleas for loved ones written on small pieces of folded paper were tucked in among the dribbles of melting wax. In the past this had always seemed completely alien to my Mormon religious norms; pagan, superstitious and desperate. Exploiting grief for money. But this time I suddenly realised what a fool I had been – this was no different to paying tithing to enter the temple and say prayers for the dead or the very ill. The chapels above our heads were originally financially endowed for monks and nuns to pray for the souls of wealthy donors regularly throughout the day, just as our orders of temple-working monks and nuns perform daily rituals and prayers for the dearly departed dead.
I am very proud of my Great Aunty Queenie, my Roman Catholic grandad’s sister, who was a nun in the order of the Little Sisters of the Poor and dedicated her life to the service of God and suffering mankind. But there was always a distance of confusion and disdain for the alien superstitious mumbo jumbo of Catholicism with its strange pagan festivals and obsession with martyrdom and suffering, and relics of the dead.
Mormons are sometimes criticised for doing weird rituals at altars for dead people in our temples, but since the 8th century every altar in a Catholic church or cathedral has had to contain a relic of a martyr or saint in order to be consecrated (preferably large enough to be a recognisable piece of their body) and this goes for lots of Anglican altars too, so I’m pretty bullish about being criticised by them for dabbling in necromancy. At least we don’t have to have actual bits of dead bodies present to do our thing!
But I now feel a growing connection with Aunty Queenie’s religious world as I realise how we have far more in common with Catholics than the evangelical Protestants I used to think were our natural peers as proselyting Reformers, despite their deep hostility to Mormonism.
I love how in the endowment the deepest secrets are the simplest things – obedience to God, sacrifice of selfishness for something better, seeking truth, fidelity to your spouse, consecrated service to others. In some ways the endowment covenants are basically the same as the baptismal covenant, so this journey to the highest level of Mormon ritual feels like coming full circle back to the basics. This was particularly striking in the 1980’s after my teenage years had been awash with the wide ranging speculative doctrines and study of Journals of Discourses that used to be the norm in the Church. It was completely reasonable to expect to be inducted into an even more complicated and gnostic body of knowledge in the temple endowment then, and therefore completely surprising to find it does the opposite in many ways.
It is also a relief because initiates go into their endowment with basically no idea what they are about to be asked to make eternal covenants about under immense social pressure not to walk out halfway through, which is inexcusably unethical when you think about it objectively. At least when one finds out what the covenants are they mostly represent concepts and principles one is already familiar with from the scriptures.
The crescendo of the service after being promised royal kingdoms and thrones to sit on in heaven is not to actually sit on a throne. It is to gather in sometimes extremely awkward discomfort in a circle of prayer before the metaphorical throne of God, the only condition for participation being having no malice towards the other members of the circle, and a heart full of compassion. We plead with God to bless the most distressed, the most needy, whose names have literally been written on scraps of paper like the prayers in the Canterbury crypt. We pray for the shoulders that carry the heavy burdens of responsibility and leadership, the young, the missionaries tramping about out there in the difficult world. Our hearts pour out from the temple altar in unified compassion for the suffering of the world. That’s what being an enthroned God or holy monarch is all about in Mormonism – totally giving yourself to the glorification and development of others, not glorying in receiving adoration on a throne. I love that.
The chapel of Scala Sancta – “the Holy Steps” – in Rome has a 28 step marble stairway which Emperor Constantine’s devout mother brought home from her relic-hunting tour of the Holy Land. They are believed to be the steps from Pontius Pilate’s palace that Jesus ascended to his trial. Today pilgrims ascend them on their knees, stopping to pray on each step. It is incredibly painful and while I wouldn’t say my experience on them was as ‘spiritual’ as it was for my Catholic colleague as he recited rosary prayers on each step, for me it was profound to experience trying to focus on spiritual things while powerfully distracted by physical pain. It was a small insight into Christ’s suffering and how it takes grit and determination for us all to focus and persist in faith and good works when it is really difficult and painful. In Mormonism we usually avoid any kind of flagellation and intentional physical pain (although psychologically of course we can do self-harming guilt trips at an Olympian level) but in the prayer circle if you are tall like me with a tiny wife it gets very uncomfortable indeed pretty quickly, and we have a tiny taste of the vicarious and empathetic suffering that so many Catholic rituals encourage.
The prayer circle is also an act of trust that the usually old man leading the prayer will speak clearly enough to be heard and repeated, and not ramble. It is the only time in Mormonism that we repeat the words of a prayer said by someone else in a call and response format that is the norm in Catholic liturgy.
It also provides one of the moments that is most ripe for comedy. Will the old man leading the prayer mumble a really long sentence that we will struggle remember and repeat, or will he remember to chunk it up into smaller pieces? You just never know, and the collective panic when the prayer starts to veer off the road of comprehensibility can be a hoot and induce one of those ‘Why am I here, what am I wearing, and what the heck am I doing?!’ moments. It may not quite be the Twelve Tasks of Hercules, but it takes some courage to step up and volunteer to be in the prayer circle.
I love the idea of ‘sealed’ families, voluntary covenants highly conditional upon personal choice and commitment and endurance, a fragile thing that can disappear in a blink if we do not continually feed and choose it. The highest glory we can aspire to is to be a family, to love our spouse and children and devote ourselves to facilitating the wellbeing and education of the next generations. We are not wasting all the time and energy we invest in our marriage and family relationships – they are the goal of our existence and spiritual journey, not the distraction from the holy life that family is seen as in many Christian traditions. It just doesn’t make sense to me that when we go to heaven everyone reverts to being generic individuals for whom our experiences and relationships on earth have become an irrelevance, however blissed out the ecstasies of worship on offer there might be. I love the idea that ultimately all our families can be sealed to each other in a universal internet of relationships where every friend is also a relative.
I loathe how the temple sealings make ‘family’ an idol that diminishes and demoralises the huge percentage of my LDS brothers and sisters who are single, divorced, married to a non-Mormon or LGBTQ. I loathe watching the distress of Church members who are not sealed to their children, or whose children have left the Church. I loathe watching the distress of the widows who were sealed to their deceased husband and now find themselves in an impossible quandary because if they want to marry again a single Mormon man will not want them because they cannot be sealed to them, and they so often end up turning to a non-Mormon to live with or marry with all the uncomfortable compromises that often involves personally, spiritually and morally; whereas a widower can be sealed in the temple to as many new Mormon wives as he finds. Mormon widows suddenly find themselves toppled from the security and status they once had and abandoned to roam in the marital wilderness while the men can carry on as normal, although some of them also struggle and end up choosing remarriage to non-members. Jesus was very specific about how we treat widows and orphans being the litmus test of our morality as a Church. I loathe that widowers and widows who remarry each other just for this lifetime cannot fully invest in that relationship or expect it to continue into the next life. But I love how that works for some of my friends who do not want to compromise their adoration of their first spouse.
I loathe how our excitement about having the concept of sealed families has morphed into an aggressive political crusade against civil rights for people who do not practice monogamous heterosexual marriage, and all the shameless hypocrisy involved in the very same arguments that used to be used against Mormon polygamy now being deployed by Mormon leaders against other minority groups who are deemed an existential threat to the ‘traditional natural family’ like Mormons used to be. I don’t want to watch my Church die on that hill – we have so many other, better principles to institutionally martyr ourselves for, or better live for, that don’t involve such brazen double standards and whitewashing of history.
I loathe that because of the institution’s policies a remarkable, faithful woman who had prayed for a temple marriage for decades had to wait until after our civil marriage before we could even apply for a sealing clearance, even though we had done nothing wrong and the Church encourages the belief that starting a marriage with just a civil ceremony is a shameful failure or at best inferior. Many members have been catapulted out of the Church from a starting point of complete devotion by the shock of discovering how unjust, arbitrary, inconsistent, theologically confused and indefensible some of the regulations around divorce and temple sealings are.
I loathe how our crowning glory theologically – eternal families progressing towards theosis as outlined in Doctrine and Covenants 132:18-20 which provides a lot of the language and concepts for the sealings and endowments – is so thoroughly tainted by the history and vile scriptures of polygamy in this Section that demean and enslave women and mock their free will. After some pushing we finally received an ‘official’ doctrinal explanation of why still being sealed to my first wife, even though she has left me and participation in the Church but said she did not want our sealing cancelled, would be of any benefit to her. The answer from somewhere in the echelons above was that it guarantees her a place in the ‘First resurrection.’ No explanation of why, but the only place that idea can be found in the scriptures is D&C section 132. Its text was committed to paper by Joseph Smith under extreme pressure from his exasperated family, outlining the rules governing polygamy which he had already been secretly practicing and teaching for years, often behind his first wife Emma’s back, but never put into writing. (When her brother in law Hyrum presented it to her, Emma gave him what he described as the most severe talking to of his life, and a few days later seems to have thrown a copy of it into the fire, or insisted Joseph do so depending on which account is more accurate.)
Although we depend heavily for our eternal marriage theology on selected verses from this scripture, when you just read it through from beginning to end it becomes a horror story, a manifesto of sexist oppression that demeans women as property. It states that if they object to their husbands adding more wives to their marriage they should be ignored and God will ‘destroy’ them as ‘transgressors.’
Intriguingly it also promises that anyone who enters a sealed marriage in the temple has their ‘calling and election made sure’ to use the Mormon jargon – the get out of jail free card for Mormons who will still scoff at the corruption of medieval popes selling papal bulls of forgiveness being a sign of the ‘Great Apostasy’. Couples sealed by the Holy Priesthood are promised that whatever sins they commit short of the unforgiveable sin, they will still have a place in the Celestial Kingdom and the first resurrection (hence my first wife still benefitting from a sealing she has otherwise abandoned) after doing some purgatory time to be punished by Satan for those sins:
“…if a man marry a wife according to my word, and they are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, according to mine appointment, and he or she shall commit any sin or transgression of the new and everlasting covenant whatever, and all manner of blasphemies, and if they commit no murder wherein they shed innocent blood, yet they shall come forth in the first resurrection, and enter into their exaltation…” D&C 132:26
Section 132 takes a chain saw to several otherwise fundamental Mormon principles regarding respecting free will, and what we were always taught growing up about the existing wives’ permission being essential for polygamous marriages to proceed, which this scripture calls ‘the law of Sarah.’
It says a lot about the power of the cognitive dissonance and indoctrination we collectively normalise that we have created such a powerful firewall between what Doctrine and Covenants 132 actually says in its text in our canonised scriptures and the rest of our beliefs and practices. Still, a polygamous blast from the past reached through that barrier and the passage of time to grab me and my marriage by the throat, just as it did to thousands of Mormon marriages in the polygamous 1800’s and early 1900’s, and triggered a disempowering nightmare.
There has been some intensive spinning by Bruce R McConkie and others over the years to contradict or neutralise its worst statements, but they are all still there in our canon. The guarantees of exaltation regardless of righteousness or blasphemes which Section 132 gives to everyone who is sealed in the temple have since been translocated to the secretive and rare ‘Second Annointing’ only administered in the temple to the faithful elite, and which they are sworn to keep secret.
But that’s not what the scripture actually says. So party on people! The Church teaches us that being married in the temple is a call to the highest standards of faithfulness and righteousness, but the actual scriptural instructions for the whole concept say you can binge on blasphemies and nearly all the possible sins and still be exalted, so in fact it is quite the opposite. The pressure is off! I mean, even if you don’t want to snort cocaine in an orgy and drink champagne from your temple shoes, you can at least quit having guilt trips about not doing your home and visiting teaching. Surely the satanic buffetings for that small infraction can’t hurt too much on your way to the Celestial Kingdom.
And even then the wording of Section 132 is suspiciously wishy washy in verse 19: “Ye shall come forth in the first resurrection; and if it be after the first resurrection, in the next resurrection”, so the first resurrection ticket isn’t even guaranteed. For this we are made to suffer the indignities heaped upon so many of us instead of simply ending temple sealings at the moment of civil divorce.
But I love the way Section 132 pretty much acknowledges that Joseph Smith committed adultery and sinned against Emma with the polygamous liaisons he did not tell her about in the awkward marriage reconciliation negotiation verses…and I loathe how Joseph gets rewarded and promised exaltation out of this mess while Emma is just threatened with destruction. Let’s crawl out of this depressing rabbit hole…..
…into another one. I loathe the male chauvinism of the Endowment – Women come to the temple and see their deepest fears come true – they are subservient to men. They make covenants with God through their husbands rather than in their own right. They have to hide their faces in veiled shame to approach God in prayer. As soon as Adam is established as ruler, Eve stops talking to spiritual beings or receiving revelatory insights. We see behind the scenes into heaven where the team planning and delivering creation deliberate and Heavenly Mother is not seen or mentioned…or the Holy Ghost, who maybe is Heavenly Mother in disguise! Either way, no women.
I love how feminist the Endowment is – Eve is totally the hero of the story! As Genesis 3:6 describes, when she looks at the fruit she uses multiple intelligences to decide what to do – her practical intelligence says it is good for food, her aesthetic intelligence tells her it is beautiful (as an artist I have to endorse the idea of being willing to suffer and die for beauty) and her intellectual intelligence and curiosity tells her it is a key to greater knowledge and wisdom. She understands that to resolve the contradiction between the commandments God has given them to multiply, but not eat the fruit because it will make them mortal, they have to self-sacrifice.
She is the first and greatest Christ-like archetype, consciously choosing to suffer pain and death in order to give us all life. The men like Moses usually presented in our curriculum as ‘types’ or archetypes or living symbols of Jesus don’t come close. She is a visionary strategist, ambitious, loving and seeking truth and knowledge above all other things, whatever the price. She is a boundary-breaking explorer who wants to progress and grow. She is brave in the face of uncertainty, danger and physical suffering. These are all attributes traditionally attributed to strong males, particularly in the medieval Christian culture that absolutely demonised Eve, and with her all women, as weak and corrupting influences. To them, and many people still today, women are the downfall of men, ruled by their emotions and bodies rather than their minds, unable to think boldly, or most importantly strategically, and therefore unsuited to the rigours of political or commercial or spiritual leadership. So the endowment takes the philosophical foundation myth of western sexism and oppression of women and assertively kicks it into a shredder.
Women are promised they will be queens and goddesses. They wear the robes of the Aaronic and Melchezedek priesthood which they have not needed to be ordained to, participate in all the same rituals, and are inducted into the same knowledge and covenants as the ordained men. Women even administer some of the priesthood ordinances when they annoint and bless women in full priestess-representing-Jesus mode in the ‘initiatory’ rituals. Priesthood is as priesthood does! So we have a female priesthood in the Church, at least in the temple if not in the playpen of the wards and stakes where the boys and men are getting extra training to do it properly because, as D&C 121 makes clear, they have a major tendency to screw it up. Technically they need to start specifically proving that they will not abuse an endowment of power before being allowed near the temple.
I love how the Endowment continues the most ancient cultural ritual traditions of all – the tribe gathering to tell and retell the stories of its creation myths and heroes, the eternal struggle between good and evil, how the plants and animals and people came to be and why they do what they do, or have certain roles and powers in our physical and spiritual ecosystems. It guides us through the transition from Dreamtime to the time and world we live in now where the places and creatures in the stories have become avatars or symbols, shadows of the momentous events and struggles in the primordial age of creation.
I love how the endowment translates these stories into a medieval pageant, a Mummers play, a Pilgrim’s Progress of Adam the Everyman and Eve the Everywoman facing and overcoming the challenges along the way. It is performance art, kinaesthetic learning, immersive installation, theatre in the round. Its varied physical, auditory, verbal and visual ingredients fire all our mechanisms for learning and present us with different kinds of symbology that allow the Spirit and our current experiences and interests to roam and find personal meanings as we interpret it. They can yield very different but helpful insights and interpretations each time we go. Its weirdness and mysteries give us a lot of freedom to decide what it means for us, which a less eccentric experience would lack.
The accounts of the original endowment in Nauvoo Temple sound like they would blow your freaking 19th century mind! They took all day, and as you proceeded from one curtained space to the next you would encounter the characters in the stories who would perform and talk to you. A brilliant dissertation installation by one of my fellow Arts students set up in the university chapel a maze of huge white sheets where every space involved a different sensual experience of things like music, or a smell or woodchips under your bare feet. Imagine Lucifer coming at you in an enclosed space to gloat about his power and then being defeated by the heroes. It must have been a pretty intense virtual reality experience.
I adore the endowment for its laughter! How can you not laugh? Or wonder for a moment at whether ‘The Lord’s Annointed’ really knew what they were doing when they put this crazy thing together? For me the laughter began in my own endowment – a nervous 18 year old finally being let into the strange secret world my parents and their peers and the Church leaders and Authorities valued above all else…and had told me next to nothing about. I was an artist with a VERY vivid imagination fed by years of consuming and making elaborate fantasy artworks – I was expecting full-on Dungeons and Dragons, runes on paving stones on the floor, and standing naked in the light of a burning torch in a dark catacomb after the minimal preparation I had. It had mentioned lots of symbols and having parts of your body blessed and anointed, but explained very little.
My first chuckle was the realisation that after all my extravagant expectations this was going to be about as exotic or exciting as a sacrament meeting. The second came when my parents and the Stake President and adults I had looked up to all my life donned the robes of the Holy Priesthood…and suddenly I was at a guild meeting of artisan bakers! If the Swedish Chef from the Muppets had appeared at the altar proclaiming “Chicky in the basket!!” at that moment I would not have been surprised.
And then there was the film. Oh, thank You Dear God for the pure camp genius of the film. It took a few years at Art college after my mission researching postmodernist pastiche to fully appreciate and adore all its retro-chic kitsch facets, but what a smorgasbord of fun it was.
Now, I am blessed to be British, so I have grown up with our possibly unique total adoration of very camp gay national treasures like Kenneth Williams and Boy George. The one genre of theatre all Brits experience and share regardless of social class or education is Christmas pantomimes. Pantos tell the stories of traditional fairy tales like Peter Pan, Aladdin and Cinderella with loads of audience participation and filthy double entendres for the grown-ups. Boys are played by girls, and old women are played by old men in the most over the top drag humanly possible. Think LDS roadshows on steroids that break all the rules in the Handbook, on purpose, with glee and contemporary political satirical commentary, often delivered directly to the audience in moments that break the 4th wall. It has to be experienced to be believed…which some people have also said about the endowment, funnily enough…
So imagine my secret joy when discovering that our very serious American religious leaders who had filled my teenage years with every kind of sexually repressive and homophobic message and guilt trip possible from their unworldly Rocky Mountain citadel made a FABULOUS Panto, complete with a villain who threatens the audience, naïve protagonists in peril and heroes to the rescue, and instructed us to treat it as our holiest religious ritual, the apex of our spiritual lives – the way to reach out and touch the face of God! And not only was it pure panto, with terrible wooden or totally over-the-top acting by the glorious Lucifer giving it lip-curling gusto just like a Panto Dame, it was also rampantly Batting For The Other Team. The Nearly Dead White Males who pontificate against ‘counterfeit families’ signed off on a bold contribution to gay cinema, and made us pay 10% of our income to see it. Over and over again.
Divine beings wafted about in voluminous sparkly satin robes with massive beards and long perfectly set permed white hair like aryan Barry Whites, as if they had just wandered in from Disco Heaven at Studio 54 to plan their next party in their dressing gowns…surrounded by actual giant pink pillars. In Eden immaculately quaffed and manicured naked Adam and Eve sat around stroking furry animals with unsettling sensual intensity like Bond villains, surrounded by rainbow coloured shrubbery.
The Let’s Make a Temple Film Committee have probably never heard of French portraitists Pierre et Gilles who photograph and digitally remaster celebrities surrounded by brightly coloured plastic flowers. I had already chuckled about this connection with the scenes of Adam and Eve tastefully framed by flowers and foliage to hide their naughty bits, but a few years ago the old temple films were digitally remastered by somebody who must have had their computer screen colour settings under par. What unfolded when the screen descended from the Endowment Room ceiling and the lights went down was a version of the familiar old film of such searing technicolour intensity it was like a psychedelic acid trip created by Pierre et Gilles. It was the perfect swan song for a kitsch classic. I for sure had an intense religious experience ponderising that, although perhaps not for the reasons originally intended.
I will sorely miss the old film, but to my joy the new temple films are ravishing in their gorgeous high definition footage of the natural world’s landscapes and creatures and beautifully sketched and painted plants and animals – high art meets David Attenborough and the Lord of the Rings movie credits. They also still have delightful moments of terrible soap opera acting, plus some more contemporary twists. There’s a profoundly melancholy bald Emo Lucifer who is like a hybrid of Marvin the depressed robot in Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy and Varys in Game of Thrones. Adam and Eve worry and weep like snowflake metrosexuals, taking plenty of time to pause and think about the enormity of what they are doing instead of just getting on with it. We have now reached Latino Level soap opera acting. The final step will be Sri Lankan Level. If you have never seen a Sri Lankan soap you must – it has Latino Level over-emotion but adds showing each dramatic moment about 20 times over so you can relish the shocked expressions on literally everyone in the room, one at a time, and sometimes twice.
And now we also have a Made in Chelsea meets Hip Hop video Jehovah literally casually leaning back chilling with his homies on his bling golden throne in what seems to be an exclusive nightclub with loads of OTT gold leaf and expensive granite if my memory serves me right. My mind boggled at that one – what on earth were the directors thinking?! Unfortunately one cannot book in the foyer which of the 3 new films you are going to get so I’ve only seen that one once so far. I’m still looking forward to catching the legendary third one which apparently has slightly brownish people as Adam and Eve – the only Mormon race revolution we are likely to get in my generation the way things are going. It’s got to be a bit weird when your religion’s holiest ritual is like getting a ticket to see a mystery premier at the cinema and there are going to be a few people in the audience when the film begins thinking “Oh no, not this one…I was hoping it would be the other one.”
And the funniest thing of all is despite all of this they want us to make a sacred promise not to be light-minded or laugh loudly, which I hope still leaves some room for a quiet chuckle. Karl Bath said ‘Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God’ and I just love all the absurdities of the temple films. The journey to the temple is so deadly serious with years of waiting, mountains of doctrinal complexity, probing self-reflection in recommend interviews and a life dedicated to a very demanding set of standards to even get in. Yet when you finally get to it the secret / sacred crescendo of that long journey is a bunch of surrealist amateur dramatics and swishing about in hats.
I just love that – it says, to me at least, ‘Stop taking yourselves so seriously! What were you really expecting?!’ and ‘Look at all these people taking themselves and this whole thing so seriously, but be still and know that I am God…and I definitely have a sense of humour!’ It is like the best and purest virtues of laughter – laughter that releases tension, celebrates the absurdities of existence as a cause for joy rather than depression, and empowers you to stop being afraid of totalitarian systems or leaders. People got up the courage to face down or endure fascist and communist dictators by making fantastic political cartoons and jokes about them. In a Church that now concentrates arguably far too much power in the hands of its top leaders, who have not presented any of their major doctrinal or policy changes to the general membership for a ‘common consent’ vote since 1978, God seems to have made sure there is a built-in release valve from the pressure of their assumed infallibility, strategically placed at the heart of the whole edifice.
At times in the endowment I hear laughter with true humanity and soul rather than the satanic humourlessness described so beautifully in Umberto Ecco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’ and the script of the film of it. In this story William of Baskerville struggles with a nasty medieval librarian monk called Jorge to find the last copy of a missing book by Aristotle about laughter and humour that Jorge is murdering people to hide from the world. Mormons sometimes discuss what the injunction to avoid loud laughter, which is repeated a few times in the Doctrine and Covenants, means. The conclusion is usually that it means we should not mock sacred things – some things are beyond the reach of comedy or satire and lose their holiness if we are not incredibly reverential when talking about them. This feeds into a lot of LDS cultural norms that get out of hand to suppress honest and open discussion, or people challenging the wisdom of the ‘man-made good ideas, programs or expectations’ President Uchtdorf warned us against in his October 2015 General Conference talk ‘It Works Wonderfully’. ‘The Name of the Rose’ is a perfect book to explore that whole premise in much more depth and perhaps reach different conclusions:
“Jorge: Laughter kills fear and without fear there can’t be any faith. Because without fear of the devil there is no more need of God.
William: But you will not eliminate laughter by eliminating that book.
Jorge: No, to be sure. Laughter will remain the common man’s recreation. But what would happen if, because of this book, learned men were to pronounce it permissible to laugh at everything? Can we laugh at God? The world would relapse into chaos.”
“William: “The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt….I hate you, Jorge, and if I could I would lead you downstairs, across the ground, naked, with a fowl’s feathers stuck in your asshole and your face painted like a juggler and a buffoon, so the whole monastery would laugh at you and be afraid no longer…to say to all: He was announcing the truth to you and telling you that the truth has the taste of death, and you believed, not in his words, but in his grimness…..God allows you to imagine a world where the presumed interpreter of the truth is nothing but a clumsy raven, who repeats words learned long ago.”
“In that face, deformed by a hatred of philosophy, I saw for the first time the portrait of the Antichrist….the Antichrist can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth….Jorge feared the second book of Aristotle because it perhaps really did teach how to distort the face of every truth, so that we would not become the slave of our ghosts. Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from the insane passion for truth.”
Perhaps one of the hidden gems in the endowment, which says truly wonderful things about embracing all truth, not just bits of it, is this insight – that in a world where we only see the truths of God ‘in a glass darkly’ we must always be prepared to have our assumptions about even the most revered doctrines about God turned on their head. We cannot make any of them our idols or fully trust them – they must all be susceptible to laughter and even mockery to remind us that no human yet knows the whole truth, and any of our most cherished beliefs could in truth be ludicrous and laughable distortions of the real truth we will one day discover.
As the Radio Free Mormon podcaster expressed so brilliantly recently in his episode 17 ‘True Believing Mormon’, Joseph Smith was very assertive that Mormonism should be literally defined by embracing all truth from any source, and should avoid the limiting written creeds of the apostate Christians which build walls around their doctrines and understanding that they cannot break through. Joseph pointed out that the scriptures only damn people for not having any faith, not for believing too many things, so he intervened to defend members on trial for apostasy because they had added beliefs to their Mormonism that made other leaders uncomfortable. He really valued freedom to think outside the box as not just a right but absolutely essential if we are ever to get to really know as much as God.
As he discusses with Benedictine Jorge, William is a Franciscan monk, his order founded by St Francis who famously did counter-intuitive, disruptive and comical things like preaching to the animals to challenge the pharisaical orthodoxies of his age that were crushing the flower of the gospel in his Church, as President Uchtdorf would put it. He and many other religious reformers like the prophet Hosea who married a prostitute and gave his poor children crazy names, Isaiah who walked around naked for 3 years (or at least in his undies according to more prudish Christians who can’t cope with Isaiah 20) and Elijah who lay in the street for over a year playing with tiles and a skillet, cooking his food with dried human poo and burning his hair, all used irreverent humour and attention-seeking public performance art to challenge their societies’ assumptions. They physically demonstrated that real religious truth is not in the things religious people make sacred and impervious to laughter.
Maybe that’s one of the things God wants me to remember and represent when I go to the temple. For some reason I often turn into a disruptive klutz when I step through the front door, accidentally upsetting the equilibrium by outrageous faux pas and slapstick physical humour. I cause a kerfuffle by making it into the temple chapel in a short sleeved shirt before being hurried out by alarmed attendants to change into a long-sleeved one. The last time I was doing sealings was for my diligent temple-worker mother in law’s ancestors and I could feel myself going into a visual tunnel as I knelt at the altar. I thought I could tough it out – it’s not the kind of thing you want to interrupt – but ended up passing out on the altar and came too, legs akimbo, slumped on the floor with my horrified wife calling my name and hoping I hadn’t died. I just don’t seem able to do dignity.
I recently went to a Christian bible seminar in London with a dear friend who I met at Christian Union at university and introduced to Mormonism. He reminded me that at his endowment on the way up to the prayer circle I tripped over and literally fell flat on my face on the floor. It says everything you need to know about what a calamity I am at the temple that I had completely forgotten that even happened. How do you forget a humiliation like that?! It’s like inviting Harold Lloyd or the Keystone Cops in an old silent movie inviting me to the House of the Lord to turn it momentarily into a house of disorder, like the Lords of Misrule that William of Baskerville appreciated.
In fact it seems I have actually been called by God to be that funny guy. My patriarchal blessing was given to me by a holy poet for whom I will always be grateful. He turned 90 this year. It says “I bless you with a joyful heart, that you shall bring balance and true relaxation into your life and the lives of others with a merry quip and a happy thought, so that all things be not solemn and dark…for the gospel is not a grey and forbidding thing when taken in the round…..your Heavenly Parents rejoice over you; sometimes they are anxious; and indeed they do chuckle on occasion.”
So what some of my concerned family members see as my worryingly reckless and irreverent responses to overbearing pompous General Authorities or other things they hold sacred doesn’t come out of nowhere. As an 18 year old I was introduced in the most solemn way my religion allowed to the idea of humour being an essential ingredient in the gospel, and one of the divine attributes, like the young novice Adso is by his older and wiser mentor William in ‘The Name of the Rose’. I was told to remind everyone, like William does, that truth does not have the taste of death. (…Death Eaters! Harry Potter reference! Tick.) And who gets told in their patriarchal blessing that Mr and Mrs God are actually for real laughing at them?!! Seriously?! Best. Blessing. Ever. My apologies to everyone with really boring ones.
As well as all this frivolous…or deeply profound…light relief, I love how the temple provides us a rare opportunity to be deadly serious – sombre, earnest, philosophical. To put aside all the clutter and trivia that overwhelm modern adult life and contemplate the nature of existence and the universe and our place within it. To make the most serious commitments possible before God and His angels.
I loathe how temple work for the dead is a massive waste of time and money and a diversion from helping the living. Surely Jesus cautioned his disciples “Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:60). Some Mormons become total fanatics, neglecting family duties, missing family events and failing to be present to nurture their grandchildren to hide away in a place they cannot go, constantly repeating time-consuming rituals and “repeating words learned long ago.” I should add, since I have mentioned her, that my amazing human dynamo mother in law does both temple and family spectacularly and goes the extra mile with both. I’m not talking about you Mummy in Law! (She’s a true redhead – you can’t be too careful.)
I love how the temple teaches and reminds me, and makes me prove that I really believe, that every person matters. Vicarious temple work is the pure love of Christ in action, casting bread on the waters without necessarily expectation of reward or immediate gratification or gratitude from those you help. An extreme Zen discipline. Like the cloistered monks and nuns who never interact with the people in the world but devote themselves to making everything better, as they see it, through the service of ritual and prayer for the living and the dead.
Mormons can be the absolute best at rallying round to help people who need us, even if it is expensive, difficult, inconvenient, exhausting, or neglecting our families whose needs are greater. We don’t even need to know them or be related to them – we will turn up, step into their lives, and carry them for a while. I am convinced that at least some of that powerful and ennobling instinct which truly ministers to the living and builds Christ’s kingdom in their lives comes from what the experience of family history research and temple work for the dead teaches us – that every person matters. Their parents matter. Their children matter. Their great grandneices twice removed matter. Their time in history matters even if it was a time when God seems to have turned his face from the world. Their nation matters. Their language and culture and unpronounceable names from a place completely different to our own matter. And we don’t need to have any prior personal connection with them whatsoever for them to still matter just as much as anyone else. The ultimate attribute of deity is unconditional self-sacrificial love for ‘even the least of these my brethren.’
So, for me, the endowment with all its random ingredients and irreconcilable contradictions is a metaphor for the Church as a whole. It is earnest, well intentioned, flawed, treated as communicating ancient unchanging truths yet reviewed and reformed with each new generation to better fit the social norms and cultural values of the current generation. It is capable of elevating your mind and soul to the heights of love and compassion and wonder at the grandness of existence in our extraordinary world, yet obsessed over small details of clothing and conformity to a long list of rigid lifestyle and ideological requirements before you are permitted or trusted to fully participate. It is expansive and small-minded at the same time. It is silly nonsense in fancy dress; it is the deepest truths. It really does have to be seen, perhaps over and over again through a lifetime, to be believed and understood.