When I was fifteen, the bishop of our ward was called into the stake presidency sparking instant speculation on who would be the next bishop. When asked to come up with my speculation, it occurred to me that the process was relatively simple. I made a mental list of the 50 or so active men in our ward. I subtracted everyone who had been in the bishopric, high council, or stake presidency already (9). I subtracted all the men who had been divorced (5). I subtracted the men who were probably going to be divorced (6). I subtracted the man who openly claimed he should be the prophet. I subtracted the men without children (4). I subtracted my father because he didn’t serve a mission. I subtracted all the men of color (2). I subtracted the unemployed men (3). I subtracted all the men who rented or whose houses were on the wrong side of the tracks (16). BINGO. I had my short list of 3 candidates for bishop. Two of the men I picked were called into the bishopric. (I hadn’t realized the other man had found a job.)
A decade later, I was newly married in a very different ward with very different demographics. There were very few active, successful, married men. The bishop was moving out of the ward. Everyone wondered, “But who is there to call?” During one of these discussions, I naively suggested that they call one of the older single men. There were many who were in their 30s or 40s and who were responsible, established in their careers and true disciples of Christ. My fellow church-goers looked at me as if I had just stripped naked, throwing purple confetti, started clog dancing while singing “The Good Ship Lollipop.” Of course not! A single, childless man could never be a good bishop! Some people might defend this selection process because only the best can be bishop. But the truth is that this extends to other callings.
In my single days, I heard a ward leader complain that they couldn’t staff the ward. I immediately brought up that none of the sisters I visit-taught had callings and felt excluded. I suggested that he try asking them. His response was, “But no, there really isn’t anyone.” The sisters I visit taught were active in the church, worthy recommend holders, successful professionally, talented, and well-versed in gospel topics. They all were desperate to serve. One was a woman of color, one was socially awkward, and one had a noticeable disability. Like me so many years ago, this leader could take a ward list of over a hundred people and pare it down to nearly nobody.
I joined Ordain Women because a Christ-centered church should not be paring their long, long membership lists down to “nobody to serve.” If only the leadership would see women and their potential, those short lists would double. But what if leadership also saw disabled persons, people of color, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all marital statuses, all gender identities, all sexual orientations, different families built different ways, and any others who we cross off our lists? Instead of fretting and worrying that there is no one to serve, we would discover God’s army.
One of the missions of the church is to “perfect the saints.” Perfecting the saints can be accomplished by reasonable behavioral improvements. But it can also be accomplished if we have that mighty change in our hearts which transforms how we view all of God’s children. If we looked through Christ’s eyes we might see capability, wholeness, talents, and faith. If we looked through Christ’s eyes we would see the perfection in others even before they made any improvements. If we looked through Christ’s eyes, we might not cross so many off our lists.
It is a universal truth that women who ask for power in their religious communities are distrusted and demonized. I have seen it in my studies of Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish women seeking greater access to sacred spaces. I have lived it in my work with Ordain Women and efforts to bring gender equality to the Mormonism I love. We must see each other for who we are: people of faith who desire to serve our community. I am grateful for the words of our Catholic friends who are also working for equality in their faith.
“There is a demonization, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, of women who want the same power afforded to men in the institutional church. That sort of shaming and blaming must stop. The only purpose it serves is to divide and conquer Catholics who want to see women treated with genuine justice and equality in the church.
We must insist that there is no shame in a woman’s desire for equal power in her church. According to the Oxford Dictionary, “power” means “the ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way,” or “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.” Where is the sin in a woman’s wanting to function in this way within her church?”
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!”