[This is part 2 of a two-part series. Please follow this link to read part 1.]
Before Elder Oaks’ April 2014 priesthood session talk, some Church leaders seemed to be ditching the “men have priesthood; women have motherhood” parallel, which is good news. The bad news is that some are substituting equally absurd parallels, such as “men have priesthood; women have influence”—whatever that means. Elder Oaks didn’t mention motherhood with a capital “M,” but he spoke about women’s ability to create new life as a counterpoint to men having priesthood. This, of course, is problematic. It ignores men’s contribution to the creation of life and the fact that there’s very little creativity in incubating. Most mammals are capable of it. Creativity comes in parenting, which both men and women optimally share. Even Sherri Dew suggests there are problems with the priesthood/motherhood equation. Though there are a few holdouts, I’m hoping using motherhood to justify an all-male priesthood is on the wane.
Unfortunately, separate but equal, complementarian rhetoric still holds sway. As President Burton noted in a video that was released on April 5, 2013, soon after Ordain Women launched its website, men and women “have different complementary roles and are happy with that. Equality is an interesting term. It doesn’t always mean sameness, but we are of equal value …” While it’s true that equality isn’t about sameness, it is about equal access and opportunity.
Finally, priesthood blessings, power, authority, office, and keys are being parsed and distinctions drawn in ways still shy of ordination but that attempt to be more inclusive of women. Late 20th century Church discourse responded to the women’s movement primarily by asserting that both men and women enjoyed the blessings of the priesthood. Such attempts spawned rhetoric that occasionally bordered on the absurd. For example, Elder Bruce C. Hafen, speaking at the BYU Women’s Conference in 1985, attempted to diffuse cries of gender inequity with the following: “The one [and, we are to assume, only] category of blessing in which the role of women is not the same as that of men holding the priesthood is that of administering the gospel and governing all things.” A mere trifle.
More recently, leaders have asserted that women can access both the blessings and the power of the priesthood. In the April 2013 video interview with the general women auxiliary presidents released a few weeks after the launch of the Ordain Women website, President Burton said: “I don’t think women are after the authority; I think they’re after the blessings and are happy that they can access the blessings and power of the priesthood. There are a few that would like both. But most of the women, I think, in the Church are happy to have all the blessings.”
In her review of Dew’s book, Valerie Hudson wrote: “Dew’s greatest contribution in this book … is her assertion that endowed women possess Godly power, or priesthood power. (103) She [Dew] begins with a statement by … Ballard that in the temple, both men and women are ‘endowed with the same power, which by definition is priesthood power.’ (105) [This was reiterated in Elder Dallin Oak’s April 2014 priesthood session talk.] Dew goes on to state that once endowed, a woman has ‘direct access to priesthood power for her own life and responsibilities.’ (114) … Priesthood power . . . is the power of God Himself available to men and women alike . . . who have been endowed in the house of the Lord (122) . . . men and women who are endowed in the house of the Lord have been given a gift of power, and they have been given a gift of knowledge to know how to access and use that power.’”(125)
“This,” says Hudson, “is really a very remarkable assertion. The formula has always been that women are the beneficiaries of priesthood power, and so only ‘share’ it vicariously by being married to a man. … But Dew is plainly saying that endowed women have been given priesthood power in the temple, which power they can use to benefit others. In other words, for the first time it is being articulated that women are not simply passive recipients of divine power that has been coded male, but are able to hold and use divine power as agents without a male intermediary. As Dew puts it, ‘Both men and women would have full access to this [heavenly] power, though in different ways.’” (74)
“Dew continues: ‘[W]omen, unlike men, are not required to be ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood in order to enter the house of the Lord, though the ordinances performed there are all priesthood ordinances. Neither are women required to be ordained to the priesthood to serve as leaders in the Lord’s Church. Why is that the case?’ (109)
“Now, that’s an interesting question to pose, isn’t it?” asks Hudson. “It’s a question that … is apparently a bridge too far for Dew and she does not answer it in her book.”
Increasingly, a distinction is being made between the authority and the power of the priesthood. Authority and power traditionally have been associated with office and, thus, available only to men. Power now seems to be available to all and is conditioned on righteousness. This is being said over and over again, although it’s not well developed.
In his April 2014 priesthood session talk, Elder Oaks went further and asserted that women not only enjoy the blessings and the power of the priesthood, they also exercise its authority in their callings. In the institutional Church, “priesthood authority is governed by priesthood holders who hold priesthood keys, and … all that is done under the direction of those priesthood keys is done with priesthood authority.”
While women do not currently hold priesthood keys and office, Elder Oaks asserted that both women and men are recognized as having “the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings.” He continued: “We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be?” asked Elder Oaks. “When a woman—young or old—is set apart to preach the gospel as a full-time missionary, she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function. The same is true when a woman is set apart to function as an officer or teacher in a Church organization under the direction of one who holds the keys of the priesthood. Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.”
Again, as with the power of the priesthood, we are still left scratching our heads and wondering what it means for women to exercise the authority of the priesthood in their callings. Can a Relief Society president, for example, bless the women over whom she presides by the authority of the holy priesthood, which she exercises by virtue of her calling?
Obviously, we still have work to do, but it’s clear that the question of women’s ordination isn’t going away.
Note: This post is taken from my 2014 Sunstone Symposium presentation. It can be accessed with complete references in the Afterword of my essay “The Birth of Ordain Women: The Personal Becomes Political,” in Voices for Equality: Ordain Women and Resurgent Mormon Feminism, (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books), 3-26.