As an attorney, my job involves negotiation. I have learned that people will often focus on issues that have a great deal of emotional weight at the moment, but make little real difference. I am always happy to concede such issues in order to reach a settlement. When I hear people talk about creating a female priesthood within the LDS Church, I worry that this might be a concession by the brethren that would make some feel good in the moment, but which would do nothing to truly advance gender equality in the church.
Priesthood is the governing authority within the church. While there are a handful of leadership positions for women beyond their local wards, all women are subject to male priesthood authority at all times, while all significant decision-making authority within the church is kept in the hands of male priesthood leaders. Ultimate authority rests with the First Presidency and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, all fifteen of whom are men under the current policy of an all male priesthood.
Because the church’s governing authority is priesthood authority, the creation of a separate female priesthood, would not have any impact on church governance. Women would still be excluded from the authority to make significant decisions in the church. While a title like “Priestess” might be psychologically pleasing, if it does not place women in the highest governing bodies of the church, it is hollow and ultimately meaningless with regard establishing gender equality.
Many will argue that decision-making authority does not matter. They will say that God makes all of the decisions, and regardless of who occupies a position in the church, a decision will only be made when and how God wants it to be made. Therefore they argue that our long history of an all white, all male top leadership should not be criticized. This view is not historically supportable, nor is it doctrinally sound. For well over a century, men of African descent were excluded from priesthood, and thus they were excluded from any leadership roles in the church. The lack of black voices in top leadership lead the church down a very dark path. Overtly racist policies and statements abound in our LDS history as a result. In recent years, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles approved this language in an official essay on Race and the Priesthood.
“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”
Even today, we see a total lack on diversity in the top leadership of the church. By failing to include LGBTQ+ members in top leadership positions, the church has found itself making major policy missteps, most notably, the November 5, 2015 policy, which punishes the innocent children of queer members. This and other policy mistakes have resulted in a great deal of needless suffering, and a high suicide rate among LGBTQ+ youth in the church.
We cannot say that every decision in the church is made directly by God, and still acknowledge the racist, sexist, and homophobic mistakes of the past. We have to acknowledge that equality and inclusion in the church matter. The church today sends the message to women that they are second-class. It tells women that they are not as capable as men, when it comes to leadership and making important decisions. These messages are toxic to half of God’s children. We must rectify this situation. The solution is not a separate female priesthood. The way to create a church that is free of sexism and able to fully support female spirituality is to include women fully in the priesthood, at all levels of church governance, and in numbers equal to men.
Ready for Revelation
Mark Barnes, the author of this post, is on Ordain Women’s Executive Board.
One of the strengths of Ordain Women is that each one of us has taken a different path to reach the point where we have come together.
- Some of us reached this point as we watched the differences in the way our sons and daughters were taught, trained, and treated in the LDS Church and saw the adverse effects those differences were having on our sons and daughters.
- Some of us reached this point as we saw work being left undone because there were not enough priesthood holders to do the work while at the same time the talents, gifts, skills, and abilities of so many stalwart women were being left untapped.
- Others reached this point because their service in Relief Society served to awaken them to the realization that not only is Relief Society no longer the organization of yesteryear when it had its own budget and managed its own affairs, but the promises of priesthood authority for women made by Joseph Smith have not been allowed to come to fruition.
However, no matter what path we took to come together as Ordain Women, we are unified in our hopes, desires, and beliefs that all members of the LDS Church who have a divinely inspired call or desire to serve in positions and minister in ways that require priesthood authority or power must be ordained.
We draw strength from the fact that we are not alone and that many of our siblings in other faiths are advocating for the same goal in their particular faiths. We celebrate with them in their victories and triumphs and we mourn with them in their setbacks and defeats. We respect their decisions to leave their faith traditions and to forge new paths. We join with them in proclaiming that a change will come.
The work we do is not a matter of seeking personal recognition or power. Instead, it is a recognition that no organization or group, whether it is religious, political, charitable, etc., can reach its full potential when more than half of its members are denied the opportunity to be full and equal partners. It is a recognition that decisions made and actions taken without the full participation of over half of the members will, in many instances, not be the wisest and best decisions and actions.
There are many pressing questions and problems in the LDS Church. WE BELIEVE THAT EQUALITY IN FAITH IS THE ANSWER.
We often treat power as if it were in short supply–as something to be hoarded rather than shared. We see the result heartbreakingly played out over and over in the form of political, judicial, economic, racial and gender inequality.
Christ was crucified for suggesting it could be otherwise.
Central to the LDS doctrine of deity and priesthood is a simple truth I learned from a Christian scholar: Power used to control or dominate others will always burn itself out. Only power used to empower others is everlasting.
This is consonant with one of Mormonism’s most transformative teachings, namely, that God doesn’t hoard power or reserve it for an elite few but shares it liberally with us. Our lay priesthood exemplifies this compelling democratization of God’s power. Unfortunately, our present exclusive, male priesthood policy only extends its institutional function to half of us and obscures whatever power is given to women through temple ordinances.
I wrote in OW’s Conversations that the events in the Bible and early Mormonism took place in societies hostile to women’s equality. Yet, there are many examples of women’s empowerment, including their apparent ability to exercise what we recognize now as priestly authority. In the Bible, there are examples of women prophetesses—Miriam (Exodus 15:19- 22), Deborah (Judges 4:4-5), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-17), Anna (Luke 2:27, 36-38)—and women, during the first century after Christ’s ministry, who were referred to as deaconesses—Priscilla and Phoebe—and apostles—Junia (See Romans 16 NRSV).
According to the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, Joseph Smith gave keys of administration and the promise of priestly authority to members of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society and endowed women with priestly power through temple rituals, which they used to bless each other and administer their organization. After Joseph’s death, Mormon women gradually lost institutional authority, the ability to perform blessings and the vision of themselves as endowed with priestly power, particularly after the priesthood correlation program was implemented in the 20th century.
If Joseph believed God intended full priesthood power, authority, and offices for the women of the Church, his vision was never fully realized. But can it be? Indeed, must it be?
At an LDS neighborhood Fourth of July party this week, we ate the traditional potluck mystery salads, burgers, hotdogs and a lot of junk food. All the adults gathered in lawn chairs around the cul-de-sac, while an endless number of kids ran the neighborhood. Each family contributed a big box of fireworks for a communal fireworks display to be held as soon as the sun set.
A little after 9:00 p.m., the show began. I have witnessed more than fifty Fourth of July celebrations, and for the first time, I realized the gender segregation involved in a fireworks display. The first round of fireworks was conducted entirely by neighborhood fathers and teenage boys. However, midway through the display, I noticed a young woman in the middle of the swirling smoke lighting fireworks. Of the more than fifty females in attendance, only one young woman participated in the fireworks display. This caught my attention. Why did it seem so odd to see her out there? Why only her? Why weren’t other women also lighting firework? Why, without a single word spoken, did the women clean up the food and gather the children, while the men and teenage boys organized and executed the fireworks displayed?
Unspoken rules permeate every part of my Mormon culture. This is not unique to Mormonism. Unspoken rules enforce sexist practices everywhere, but in my culture, they carry extra weight. In my culture, we are told that gender is an immutable characteristic, and all of the rules that segregate us one from the other are divinely decreed from on high.
This fireworks example may sound trivial, but it is one small example of unspoken rules that can have a terrible aggregate impact on a life. They become the unseen background of our lives. Because they are never spoken, they often go unnoticed. But, they effectively deliver the message to boys that men are the actors in our society, while girls learn that their lives are to be passive and secondary to the lives of the boys. There is nothing uniquely male about lighting a fuse, except that it demonstrates that boys “act” while girls are to sit quietly on the sidelines.
I applauded the rule breakers! I applaud the young woman, who broke the unspoken rule and placed herself in the middle of the firework’s display! We need more rule breakers. We need people who can identify these unspoken rules and intentionally break them.
Here are just a few of hundreds of unspoken sexist rules.
- Men drive, while women ride in the passenger seat.
- Women care for children.
- Women care for the elderly.
- Women cook, except when the cooking is highly rewarded.
- Men hunt and fish, while women clean up camp.
- Men are expected to work full-time jobs outside the home, while women are expected to work in the home.
- Men earn “primary income,” while women earn “secondary income.”
In the comments, please list other unspoken sexist rules. Let’s get out there are break the rules!
Dhammananda is both a mom and a monk in Thailand, which makes her a rarity. Women are not allowed to be monks in Thailand, so Dhammananda was ordained through a loophole in Sri Lanka. There are now 100 monks who identify as women in Thailand.
In her interview, she discusses the doctrinal foundation for the ordination of women and the resulting fall out she has experienced from the other monks who identify as men.
I appreciated the similarities I saw with my own experience as well as the insights I gained. It is fascinating that, despite the obvious theological differences between Buddhism and Mormonism, the patriarchal influence is strikingly similar in its method of oppression.
This is well worth the read.
There is an old saying about “walking the walk, and not just talking the talk.” Too often in our progressive Mormon circles, we simply pay lip service to the importance of intersectionality being a “main ingredient” in the work we are doing instead of just a garnish or a decoration on the side.
A lot has been written and said on this topic, but as we press forward in our efforts to achieve equality in faith we must make sure that at every step of the way we are doing what we need to do to make sure that our vision of the ordination of women has space for ALL women.
On May 16th, I attended a live Mormon Stories event entitled: “Rape in Mormon Culture.” Donna Kelly, a sex crime prosecutor with more than two decades of experience, explained the concept of consent. She explained that if someone says no, obviously that is not consent. Unfortunately, almost all U.S. jurisdictions operate on a flawed “No means No” standard. However, if someone fails to say “no,” that should not be considered consent for several reasons: They may be afraid. They may be unconscious or otherwise incapable of saying “no.” Likewise, if someone is intimidated into saying yes, that is not consent. For example, the perpetrator may work to overcome a victim’s “No” by repeatedly asking over and over again. If someone’s free will is overcome by repeated asking, that is not consent. The solution? We must adopt a “Yes means Yes” standard of consent. According to Donna Kelly, the “Yes means Yes” standard requires an enthusiastic “Yes!,” with no reservations on the part of the consenting party. Only this “Yes means Yes” standard of consent can guarantee that a person has truly given consent.
Since that night, the “Yes means Yes” concept has captured my attention and caused me to think about consent as it relates both to sexual acts, and also to consent in a broader context. Consent should be a part of all decisions that we make in our lives. Specifically, I have been thinking about the indoctrination of women in my own Mormon culture, and how gender roles undermine the concept of consent.
When I was married in the Salt Lake Temple in 1981, my new “wife” was required to promise to “obey” me as her husband. This language was subsequently changed from “obey” to “harken,” but it carries the same meaning. Women who do not “obey” men cannot be exalted. Rather they face Eternal punishment. For an active, temple attending Mormon woman, this is not a promise made once and forgotten. Active, women make this promise in Mormonism’s holiest space every time they attend an endowment ceremony. But, the story does not start with her first visit to the temple.
For most Mormon women, this vow is the culmination of a lifetime of indoctrination. As a young girl in a Mormon home, she will typically see the patriarchal order exemplified in her family structure. She will be told that her father possesses divine priesthood power, which her mother cannot possess. Thus, her father is the ultimate authority in the home. He may be a benevolent authority, but still the authority in the home.
When she turns eight, she will be taken to the local ward bishop for a baptism. Like her father in her family, she is taught that the bishop is God’s authority over her in her local ward. She quickly learns that the concepts of God, authority and maleness are all integrated. As a female, she learns that her role is always subject to male authority.
At twelve, she will watch her male peers be ordained to the priesthood. As a female, no matter how righteous, how smart, how talented, she will never have the authority given to a twelve-year-old boy in her culture.
As a teenager, even the smallest sexual infraction will subject her to the authority of her male bishop. She will likely be compelled to discuss the most intimate parts of her life behind a closed door, with this middle-aged male authority figure. The message is clear; her sexuality is something to be discussed with and controlled by men.
So, the temple covenant to “obey” (or harken) to the law of her husband is no surprise. It is the culmination of a lifetime of learning, and a lifetime of indoctrination, a lifetime of subjugation.
What does consent look like in this context? Having been robbed of her own voice and threatened with Eternal punishment for failing to obey, acquiescence to male control cannot really be seen as consent. Her religious institutions have conspired during the entirety of her life to deny her real control over her own person.
The work of Ordain Women is sacred. By advocating for ordination and equality in the Church, Ordain Women works to restore the voices of women. Ordain Women is working to strip away the institutions of inequality, which deny women the ability to make choices freely as fully empowered human beings. Only after this system of male domination is dismantled and replaced with institutions of equality can women realize their full potential, and freely consent with an enthusiastic “Yes” that truly means “Yes!”
Last year I was asked to comment on one of the LDS Church Gospel Topic Essays—“Are Mormons Christian?”—at the Sunstone West Symposium. Beginning in 2013, the Church “began to publish straightforward, in-depth essays on a number of topics,” prompted, many believe, by the accessibility of historical information on the Internet. Former Church historian Steven E. Snow explained the Church’s new openness: “I think in the past there was a tendency to keep a lot of the records closed or at least not give access to information. But the world has changed in the last generation—with the access to information on the Internet we can’t continue that pattern; I think we need to continue to be more open.”
According to the Church’s website, “The purpose of these essays, which have been approved by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has been to gather accurate information from many different sources and publications and place it in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org, where the material can more easily be accessed and studied by Church members and other interested parties. … Ongoing historical research, revisions of the Church’s curriculum, and the use of new technologies allowing a more systematic and thorough study of scriptures have all been pursued by the Church to that end.”
Not surprisingly, the essay “Are Mormon’s Christian?” affirms the Church’s Christian status as a restoration of early Christianity. “Christians have vigorously disagreed about virtually every issue of theology and practice through the centuries,” the essay declares, “leading to the creation of a multitude of Christian denominations. Although the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints differs from that of the many creedal Christian churches, it is consistent with early Christianity.” But is it fully, particularly with regard to women’s ecclesiastical authority?
Scholars, historians and, yes, even leaders of other patriarchal religious traditions are increasingly uncovering evidence of women’s expanded authority in early Christianity. Karen Torjesen, Margo L. Goldsmith Chair of Women’s Studies in Religion at Claremont Graduate University and author of When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity, talks about her work in an interview with the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs:
When I came back to the United States from Germany, it was 1982, and the women’s ordination movement was in full cry. Those who were arguing against ordination of women were arguing on the basis of tradition and the precedents and teachings of the early church fathers. Those fathers were the very people I had studied …
So I started writing a paper that included an analysis of gender, based on my work. I found myself thrust into the fray of the women’s ordination debates. I gave a first paper at the Academy of Religion meeting in San Francisco. It was a critique of the analysis of the church fathers. But my approach was to read the history as a historian, rather than prescriptively, as others were doing. In looking at the heated debates as a historian, it was eminently clear that because there were fierce debates around the roles of women in the early church, women were obviously doing the things that the church fathers were denying; otherwise there would not have been debate. Reading it all as a historian it was very clear that women in fact were doing many things in the church: baptizing and so forth.
So I changed focus and began to work on a book on the topic. … I found myself doing research and working with women’s groups. I began to see the power of this kind of research …
So the book emerged, When Women Were Priests. It was about the women who did hold church office in the early church, and the gradual eclipse of their roles, and of women’s space, as public space took on a far greater role and women were relegated to the private space, around the late third century.
As Torjesen suggests, the earliest Christian communities met in homes, where women often led congregations. It was only when Christianity left the domestic sphere and entered the public sphere—which at that time was by definition and tradition male—that Christian women lost ecclesiastical power. Further, since many scholars, including Torjesen and a growing number of Mormon academics, point out that even Biblical texts refer to women with ecclesiastical authority, such as deacons and apostles (see Romans 16 NRSV), shouldn’t we as a Church, in a spirit of openness, reconsider whether Mormonism is “consistent with early Christianity” without women’s ordination? Given the evidence, how can we not?
I know money. My job involves me in decisions about large sums.
I have seen wealth. I have met in conference rooms, which soar high into the New York skyline.
I understand power. I’ve sat at giant wooden tables in large granite buildings, where big decisions are made.
The spirit does not live there.
I’m young. I carry a pack on my back, and walked among the trees of Utah’s high Uinta Mountains.
I listen to birds sing in the trees. I see squirrels scamper by. Deer approach, and then run back into the trees.
Granite peaks soar high into the sky, holding an endless number of crystal clear lakes.
In the afternoon, after the rain, the sun dances and sparkles on the ripples that quietly traverse the lake.
I sit, I watch, I meditate. The spirit whispers, God is with you here.
An earthquake shatters Haiti. My twenty-one old daughter boards a plane and heads into the devastation. I am afraid. But, among the poor and broken, she finds the spirit there.
It’s Christmas, and we are at a cabin near a stream. It is a place for addicts, who have no money, no power, no wealth. We drop off a few presents. The handful of men are grateful. We find the spirit there.
I’m at the front of a long line of mostly women. We are walking into the heart of Mormon power, asking equality. The wind blows, the hail stings, and God is with us there.
I’m with my best friend walking to a parade. People are rushing by. She stops and kneels down next to a homeless woman, who is broken and has nothing. She touches the woman, and offers hope. The spirit cried, “I am here!”
The Spirit is not with the rich, nor the powerful. We cannot buy buildings big enough or opulent enough to contain the Spirit. I have found God in quiet moments of contemplation, and most of all with those who dare to try to make this world a better place.
“. . . I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.” Matthew 25:40.
As a church, we frequently try to dismiss and overlook the damage inflicted upon marginalized groups within our community by ignoring the long-term affects of the harm caused by discriminatory policies. These past policies expand beyond individuals and into the communities that continue to confront the deep and longstanding embedded issues. When we support the marginalization of a group, we take away their power and voice, and racism becomes the veil that conceals all manner of violence and harm suffered by the powerless.
The Navajo Nation Court is providing a venue where the atrocities suffered by some of its members can finally be voiced. Two lawsuits were filed against The Church in the Navajo Nation Court by people who participated in the now defunct Indian Student Placement Program. The lawsuits allege repeated sexual abuse and mistreatment. The Navajo Nation Court is calling for issued apologies and Church-wide changes that would protect children from people previously accused of sexual abuse and mandate reporting to state officials.
The Mormon Church is challenging the jurisdiction of the Navajo Nation Court as well as questioning the Court’s ability to call for change throughout the entire Mormon Church.
Regardless of the legal ability of the Navajo Nation Court to impose church-wide policy changes, I would hope that the Church would embrace this call to action as a chance to vigorously defend and protect the “least of these” by championing the protection of the previously unprotected.