Thoughts on LDS Women’s Ordination to the Priesthood
A talk given to the Stanford LDSSA, January, 2017
I had the pleasure (really, it truly was a great experience) of doing a Mormon Stories interview last year, and one question for which I wasn’t prepared was my opinion on the Ordain Women movement. I had already thought through almost everything else John Dehlin might throw at me, and I knew what I believed and why, but Ordain Women had been hard for me and I hadn’t figured out where I wanted to land. So since then I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I want to explore it today.
Under the broad doctrinal umbrella of priesthood being “the power of God” it seems to me that there are three ways that priesthood is invoked as a power in real life, and they are:
- The right to administer ordinances like the sacrament and baptism. I’m not going to talk about that one today.
- The right for a husband to “preside over” his family, including his wife. This has been the one that has caused the most pain to women I know, but I’m not going to talk about that one either.
- The structure of Church governance. I chose to address this one today because it’s been on my mind the most. And when I was asked to speak on the topic, “Women in the Church: Where we are and where are we going,” this is what came to mind.
In 1401 architects in Seville, Spain decided to build “a cathedral so big and so beautiful people will say we are mad.” And they did — it’s the biggest in the world. My kids and I walked past it every day when we lived in Seville, and one day we noticed that one of the foundation stones had Roman carvings on it. We looked it up, and sure enough, some of the stones date to ancient Rome. It seems that as the cathedral’s architects looked at the big empty lot and contemplated their massive task, there were stones lying around from a thousand years ago that would work perfectly well, so they re-purposed them as the cathedral’s foundation.
I imagine Joseph Smith having a similar challenge as he looked at a big empty lot where he was going to build an entire new religion from the ground up — from walls to flying buttresses to the tiniest pieces of stained glass… it makes sense that he would bring in some big pre-fabricated chunks that were lying around the religious landscape. We see this in the temple ceremonies, and we see this in two foundational pieces that he combined in a new way to create the structure of the church:
First, the existing Catholic model of central power/hierarchical governance, and second, the existing Protestant model of individual power.
- Main features of the Catholic model:
- Priesthood succession back to Peter (back to Christ)
- Vertical hierarchy with the pope at the top (***which, in turn, came from the Roman Emperor Constantine, who was a man trained in the highly-regulated Roman army. He wanted to organize and package the church for dissemination, so he fashioned it like the Roman army — you don’t see this in the New Testament — it’s a Roman construct!)
PROS AND CONS of the vertical model:
- You keep the doctrine pure (if someone starts teaching “false doctrine,” you excommunicate them), you keep your organization together, you keep things simpler.
- You alienate people who don’t fit the mold, it’s hard to change and grow, power corrupts people
2. Main features of the Protestant model:
- Individual’s relationship with God has primacy
- Unmediated by priestly authority — we don’t need Hail Marys, we don’t do indulgences, it’s Christ’s grace that saves us, not ordinances of the church
- Horizontal structure where each person answers directly to God
PROS AND CONS:
- Not as corrupting. It’s democratic, emphasizes spiritual equality before God, personally empowering (and indeed it was empowering — Protestant emphasis on scriptures in the vernacular + printing press led to widespread literacy!!)
- If you don’t like what’s happening, you just do what Martin Luther did and start your own church. Less fear of excommunication/ostracism/damnation for leaving, but the church is constantly losing members who say “this isn’t for me; I’ll find another denomination or start my own thing.”
Joseph Smith’s genius was that he took the Protestant model of his 19th Century American upbringing (his conversion experience was very similar to Martin Luther’s) and he overlaid it with the Catholic model of authority.
It’s actually quite similar to an American model of government:
- Democracy: Individual freedom is valued and protected — horizontal model
- Once leaders are elected, we agree to follow them. Presidents, governors, mayors — vertical model
***We can support our government because it’s not a monarchy based on bloodlines or nobility or violent takeover by some bully — the authority is derived from the consent of the governed — we keep the laws because we know that we are represented, and if we don’t like what’s happening, we can run for office ourselves.
In this uniquely American way, Joseph Smith even improved on the Catholic model by creating a hierarchical authority structure composed of lay-people! These leaders were not a professional clergy — just regular people who could take turns being a bishop for a few years, and then a librarian or children’s choir director.
Ideally, this should be a healthy balance — enough individual autonomy for people to keep the emphasis on their personal relationship with God, yet enough central power to be cohesive and keep the church from splintering.
So Joseph Smith was a genius, and this balance of power should work really well.
So what’s the problem?
I’d like to illustrate it this way.
Think back to when you were a child. Do you remember being smaller than everybody? You have a rich personal life going on in your own head — you have your own thoughts and feelings and interests and you relate to God in your own mind.
The adults in your world are hopefully kind, but they have the power — they make the rules, they can give you responsibilities and make you feel needed, or they can take them away. And they can give you privileges and cookies! And they can take them away.
So in our church as it is right now, we start out in Primary all learning the same things — we are equal in God’s eyes — we relate to him directly. Prior to 1978, at the age of 12, the little white boys, in addition to being able to relate to God personally, could begin to inhabit the other sphere as well, where they learned how to be leaders and started getting to take on the roles of adults — making rules, holding official offices, running the organization. This created a good, healthy balance, where they got the chance to lead sometimes and follow sometimes. To bless, and be blessed. But the little boys of color did not. They inhabited only one of the spaces (the horizontal model, where everyone has equal personal access to God) for their entire lives, while the white boys got to inhabit both spaces (personal access to God + participation in leadership). Significantly, the arena in which the black boys could not participate was the arena in which the rules were made — rules that excluded them from leadership.
Thank goodness that changed in 1978.
But things can still feel that way for girls. We start out all together in Sunday School, learning the same stuff and doing the same stuff… but starting as early as Cub Scouts and Activity Days and progressing more conspicuously through boys’ ordinations to positions of leadership, girls realize that we are stuck in the roles of a children in our faith communities. The bishop or stake president can listen to a Relief Society president if he feels like it… or not, if he doesn’t. Men retain the personal relationship with God/horizontal model they had when they were children, but as they mature, they add to it the opportunity to take turns leading and presiding in the Church’s vertical power structure. Adult women may not participate in that capacity, which is of course the capacity that makes the rules, and thus, women have no power to make any changes to the system.
The consolation I have heard my entire life, and which I continue to hear preached in my meetinghouses is that “men have priesthood; women have motherhood.” It pains me to think how long I was halfway convinced by that maxim, wondering why I still felt so sad when it seemed to make sense. At last I discovered the simple answer that the counterpart of motherhood is not priesthood, but fatherhood. To illustrate the point visually, simply imagine a scale containing male roles on one side and female on the other. In childhood both the male and female sides contain something like, be nice, do chores, work hard in school, play. By the time Mormons reach adulthood the men’s side contains the following: get as much as education as possible, succeed in your career, assume financial responsibility for the household, preside over home and children, preside over wife (if the temple is to be taken seriously, which presumably it is), perform priesthood ordinances, participate in church governance and leadership when asked, be a good husband, be a good father; the women’s side contains: be a good wife, be a good mother. How is this fair to either party? How is this laughably, tragically lopsided scale promoted as even remotely equitable?
So do I support the Ordain Women movement? I still hesitate to answer. I agree with Ordain Women that there is a big problem, I admire their courage and tenacity, and I think the criticism that they are “unfeminist” because they are begging the male establishment for power ignores Mormon women’s real predicament. We are excluded from the rooms where policy is made, so what can women do but keep knocking on the door?
So I would never discourage anyone from joining Ordain Women. I personally think the church will continue to dig in its heels at the demanding tone and democracy-inspired protest methods of the group. And from my perspective, the very fact that we are in the humiliating position of begging for men’s permission to attend their meetings makes me want not to ask for priesthood, but to opt out of the whole organization. Instead I’ve spent the last few years learning about the history of patriarchy, and I have found peace as I’ve realized the extent to which Joseph Smith simply inherited many of his views and frameworks from the models preceding him. He was living in one tiny little blip on the arc of history, and so are we. It is excruciatingly long and slow, but as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, it “bends toward justice.” This process will continue long after we are gone, and as we raise children whose native sensibilities demand egalitarianism and justice, things will have no choice but to change.