There are ten stakes of the Church in Pennsylvania and one district. They are all part of the Washington, D.C. temple district, but continuing the pattern of the last decade, the saints in those stakes will all attend the newly announced Philadelphia temple once it is constructed. Those in the Cherry Hill, New Jersey and Wilmington, Delaware stakes will also leave the Washington temple district. There are currently 40 stakes and one district left in the Washington district, so after the Philadelphia temple is operating, that will leave us with 28 stakes remaining.
When I moved to Baltimore fifteen years ago, the Washington temple was an exciting place. Endowment sessions began every twenty minutes, from the pre-dawn hours until late at night. Unexpected encounters with friends from Boston and North Carolina, or planned meetings with relatives from Maine or Long Island were part of the experience. The temple president noticed that some patrons from distant stakes would arrive in the parking lot in the middle of night and wait until the doors opened on Saturday morning; thus it was that the temple began operating continuously from Friday morning until Saturday night with the help of singles’ wards that staffed the graveyard shift.
It has been quite a different environment since I moved back to Maryland four years ago. Endowment sessions begin every half hour, not starting until 8 AM, and the last is scheduled for 8:30 PM. The only stakes more than three hours’ travel away are a handful in western Pennsylvania, which in a couple years will attend the equally distant Philadelphia temple. Two years ago, the cafeteria was closed, dismantled, and hauled out of the Washington temple. (A walk-in cooler was left for our sack lunches.) When the Washington Temple district loses 30% of its already diminished extent, maybe we’ll cut back to one session per hour. At some point, I will probably be advised that it’s up to me to keep the temple going by increasing my attendance (again?), and doubling the membership of the Church through member-missionary work. However deserving I may be of my coming chastisement, 1995 levels of activity in the Washington Temple will not be experienced again in my remaining lifetime.
Whenever I bring things like this up, there are others who respond that I don’t “get it.” All that matters is priesthood authority, and the rudimentary core of the ordinances, and the rest is window dressing for immature souls like mine who feel there is some spiritual purpose in creating structures like the Cardston or Los Angeles temples. Here’s what I get: temples cannot simultaneously be special and ubiquitous, singular and ordinary, transcendent and routine. For a century and half of the restoration, temples were built to be a special part of the lives and worship of the saints. Any prophet from Joseph Smith to Howard Hunter would have dedicated small local temples like those we build now if he had been directed to do so. Indeed, Spencer Kimball did do that to a limited extent. Under the direction of Gordon Hinckley the role of the temple changed. It is now much more important that the temple be very readily available than that it be special. I’m still getting used to this, but please don’t tell me the pattern that produced temples from 1836 to 1997 had no meaning.
The Philadelphia temple will not be built to relieve congestion of existing temples. It will not be built to make the temple more available in a sense that any saint would have recognized even a dozen years ago. The Washington, D.C. temple is 140 miles from Philadelphia to the southwest (Good ol’ Joe Biden makes this commute every morning and night on his Amtrak.), and the Manhattan temple is 100 miles to the northeast. I thought I understood the purpose for which temples were placed in Boston and Manhattan and Raleigh. This Philadelphia temple doesn’t make sense by that old reasoning, but the tripling of temples has modified their place and purpose, and the rationale for creating additional temples. The main difference it’s construction will make will be to be able to say “There’s a temple in Pennsylvania, just like everywhere else.” As of the 21st Century, that’s what matters.