SALT LAKE CITY — LDS Church officials Tuesday would neither confirm nor deny a published report that for the first time a woman will offer at least one of the opening or closing prayers during the church's upcoming annual general conference.
“Decisions on speakers and prayers at general conference were made late last year,” said Scott Trotter, spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Customarily, details of the conference programs are not announced until general conference.”
The reason for not releasing the list of conference participants at the time the assignments are made is simple, according to Elder L. Tom Perry, a senior member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
“While we make assignments and plan ahead for our meetings, there is always the option in the church for the presiding authority to make changes as led by the Spirit,” Elder Perry said. “We rely on heaven’s guidance in our meetings. General conference is no different. That’s why we do not typically publish a program in advance.”
Still, The Salt Lake Tribune reported late Monday that church officials will break from tradition and ask a woman to offer at least one of the public prayers during the church’s 183rd Annual General Conference, scheduled for April 6 and 7 in Salt Lake City. No sources were cited for the disclosure.
Although women have regularly delivered sermons during the church's general conferences since 1984, there is no known record of a woman offering one of the prayers that bookend general conference sessions. That has stimulated some social media discussion since mid-January of this year — after assignments for the April conference had been made by the church.
For many years there were specific conference sessions for Relief Society, Primary and Young Women, the LDS instructional auxiliaries led by women. In those conferences, women were always called upon to speak and pray. More recently there have been annual meetings for the Relief Society (in October) and the Young Women (in April) at which women routinely speak and pray.
A review of 15 different conference reports from past general conferences revealed several trends as far as general session invocations and benedictions are concerned. In the earliest days of LDS general conference, prayers were usually offered by the general authorities of the church, and occasionally by local priesthood leaders. Later the tradition turned to returned presidents of LDS missions and visiting stake presidents — all male priesthood leaders. More recently general conference prayers have been offered by members of the church’s expanding Quorums of the Seventy.
“To be honest, I never really noticed that women weren’t praying in the general sessions,” said Mary Jane Woodger, a professor of church history and doctrine at church-owned Brigham Young University. “To me, women have always prayed at general conference, but that’s probably because I’ve always considered the women’s meeting and the Young Women’s meeting as part of general conference.”
To Woodger, whose research specialties include 20th century LDS Church history and LDS women's history, having women speak in general conference has always been the larger issue, since the sermons are published and utilized in future church lessons and talks.
“There is one conference prayer that I can remember — and that was a prayer given by a woman at a women’s conference that really moved me,” she said. “But I remember lots of sermons given by women at general conference.”
One of the research projects Woodger is currently working on has to do with the papers and history of Elaine A. Cannon, a former general president of the church’s Young Women organization.
“In her journals she talks about being the first general Young Women president to speak in general conference, and what a blessing that was,” Woodger said. “She remembers how one of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles quoted from her talk in the next general conference. She said it helped her to realize how the Lord was very aware of what people are going to say in general conference, and she felt like she was working hand-in-hand with the priesthood in that way.”
Neylan McBaine, a blogger, columnist and founder and editor-in-chief of The Mormon Women Project, has seen many indications “that our church leadership is not only aware of but proactively addressing the concerns of women church-wide.”
She pointed not just to the recent speculation that women might pray in conference but also to “the missionary age change, the new Young Women manuals and the ample anecdotal evidence of women being made more visible in local church meetings as leaders in their wards and stakes.”
“I’m optimistic that members at every level of leadership are asking themselves how to involve women more completely in visible, meaningful ways,” McBaine said.