For a concrete idea of what Mormon temple services are like, comparing them with a Catholic Mass actually goes pretty far. While a conceptual understanding in terms of instruction, covenants, and the symbolic meaning of the temple itself is most important for temple-going Mormons, non-Mormons may just want to get an idea of what the ceremonies are like, in a way they can picture. Otherwise conceptual explanations do little to diminish the sense of strangeness. The temple ceremonies did not seem strange to me at all when I went, because I had been reading the scriptures. The symbol of the temple as the house of God, the veil separating off the Holy of Holies, and symbolic clothing for example are well developed in the Bible, and further developed in distinctively Mormon scripture including the Book of Mormon. Yet considering how little most people read the Bible, these references aren’t too helpful for them. In this post I offer something less conceptual, more formal and concrete.
I was surprised when I first went to a Catholic Mass at how many similarities there were with the temple ceremony. Both are primarily grounded in biblical symbols and ideas, including some Jewish worship practices, though they are grounded in different ones, and their history is very different. The content–the words and ideas involved–is quite different. Yet the general format of the experience is not far off. A key difference is in the demarcation of sacred space, which is present, but differently placed and less conspicuous in the Catholic case.
I am talking mainly about the endowment ceremony here–this is the longest and most complex temple service, and the one Mormons most routinely participate in when they go to the temple. I am comparing it with the Catholic Mass for the sake of simplicity, but many Protestant services, particularly Anglican and Lutheran services, share some of these formal elements.
In a Catholic Mass, a congregation sits facing a priest, in a symbolic space, with an altar at the front, and participates in a standardized ceremony in which their spiritual relationships with one another and with God are symbolically represented and (re)affirmed. The priest leads the ceremony, with others assisting at various points. There are things the priest says, and responses by the congregation. The congregation stands and sits at various points, as part of this response, corresponding to whether they are praying or listening or reciting a creed or what have you. The Gospel is taught, and actively received. At the climax of the ceremony, each member of the congregation goes forward for a symbolic reunion with God, in this case represented by the priest and the Eucharist, in which God is said to be present.
The same basic format applies to the Mormon endowment. A congregation sits facing an officiator, in a symbolic space, with an altar at the front, and participates in a standardized ceremony in which their spiritual relationships with one another and with God are symbolically represented and (re)affirmed. The officiator leads the ceremony, with others assisting at various points. There are things the officiator says, and responses by the congregation. The congregation stands and sits at various points, as part of these responses. God’s plan of salvation is taught, and the teaching is actively received. At the climax of the ceremony, each member of the congregation goes forward for a symbolic reunion with God, in this case represented by entry into the Celestial Room, representing the presence of God.
I will highlight a few striking formal differences, to do with the demarcation of sacred space. First, Catholics allow anyone to come into the nave, where the congregation sits during the Mass. The sanctuary, however, around the altar, where the crucial offering of the Eucharist takes place, is mainly reserved for ordained clergy. In some Catholic churches (and some non-Catholic), the sanctuary is demarcated by obvious rails; in others it is simply marked by a step up to the area around the altar. Congregants coming to receive the Eucharist approach the edge of the sanctuary but do not enter, and then return to their seats in the nave. In Eastern Orthodox churches the separation of the sanctuary as a special, sacred space is much more obvious, because it is often separated from the nave by a large wall, decorated with icons–an iconostasis, and sometimes by a curtain.
Now recall that Mormons have a lay clergy. Then imagine that the sanctuary is large enough for all the congregation to worship inside it. Mormon temples are rather like the sanctuary around the Catholic altar in that only people of a certain ceremonial and spiritual status are allowed inside–normally men are eligible for temple attendance soon after they are ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood, and women become eligible at a similar point in life, though without the ordination. The separation of this sanctuary is more obvious because it is surrounded by walls, rather than merely rails or steps. The participants in a Mormon endowment wear symbolic clothing, as does a Catholic priest. More is expected of the participants in the case of Mormons–as part of the ceremony they make vows somewhat comparable to the vows of a Catholic priest.
Second, whereas in the Catholic Mass, God is brought to the people as much as vice versa, in the Mormon endowment, the people move into the presence of God. The Mormon endowment thus represents a more advanced stage in humanity’s spiritual journey, although faithful Catholics look forward to entering the presence of God no less than Mormons do.
The climax of the Catholic Mass is based on the symbolism of Christ presenting himself as the Word made flesh, and sacrificing his blood for us. For Mormons, the reception of Christ’s flesh and blood is represented in our Sunday meetings (which anyone may join, but which in other formal respects are very different from the Catholic Mass). By contrast, the climax of the Mormon endowment is based on the symbolism of Christ as leading the way into heaven.
Perhaps this comparison of the form of the two ceremonies will be helpful for those who want to understand Mormon temple worship better. Of course, the particular understanding of human nature, of God, and of the way humans are reunited with God, are significantly different in the two cases. The theology is different, and so the content of the ceremonies is different, and these differences matter a lot. Having an idea of what it might look like, and understanding what it actually means, are very different things. If you want to understand the differences in content, I suggest reading Mormon scripture and studying Mormon theology! Either that, or become a temple-going Mormon. We’d love to have you.