Heightened Intrigue for Mormon Conference in Utah

by Brady McCombs

Associated Press

Saturday October 5, 2019

The president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has rolled out a dizzying number of policy changes during his first two years at the helm of the faith, leading to heightened anticipation for what he may announce at this weekend's church conference in Salt Lake City.

The twice-yearly conference kicks off three days after President Russell M. Nelson announced that women can now be official "witnesses" at two key ceremonies — baptisms and temple sealings for married couples — in a move considered to be a small but important step toward breaking down rigid gender roles in the religion.

It added to a long to a long list of noteworthy moves made by the 95-year-old former heart surgeon since he assumed the post in January 2018.

He hasn't touched core doctrine, but he has launched a campaign calling on people to stop using the shorthand names "Mormon" and "LDS," severed the faith's century-old ties with the Boy Scouts of America and shortened Sunday worship by an hour.

He also rescinded rules banning baptisms for children of gay parents and branding same-sex couples apostates subject to excommunication. Those 2015 policies had generated widespread backlash.

Nelson has traveled to six continents as he focuses on cementing the faiths' place as a global religion, backing it with moves that bring uniformity for congregations not only in the American West but in places such as Africa and South America. More than half of the faith's 16 million members live outside the United States.

There's no guarantee Nelson or other top leaders will make any more big announcements or pronouncements during the two-day conference, but he has church members on the edge of their seats.

"He has injected this feeling that anything can happen," said Steve Evans, a lawyer in Salt Lake City who runs an online forum for progressive church members. "We've already seen some fairly significant changes ... It's hopeful."

Like his all church presidents before him, Nelson not only oversees church operations, he is considered by church members to be a prophet who speaks with God. Nelson has spoken openly about this role, often citing the faith's belief in "ongoing revelation" for the changes.

The conference brings nearly 100,000 to the faith's conference center in Salt Lake City over five sessions on Saturday and Sunday to hear speeches from top church leaders. Hundreds of thousands more members of the faith known widely as the Mormon church watch the speeches on live feeds on TV and the internet.

The church conference has always generated a fair amount of mystery and anticipation since only a select few people at church headquarters know ahead of time what will be discussed and Nelson has amplified that more than his predecessors.

Nelson's visibility, energy and willingness to green light changes, many of which had been studied for years, sets him apart from his predecessor, Thomas S. Monson, who kept a low profile and was in failing health for part of his presidency. Church presidents serve for life, and Monson died in January 2018 after leading the church for nearly a decade.

"There's a sense of what could be next? It heightens the anticipation," said W. Paul Reeve, the Simmons Professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Utah. "Nelson is just more willing to pull the trigger. Not study an issue, but actually make a decision."

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