My friend recently told me about her friend, a woman with twin eight year olds (one boy and one girl). I’m speaking third hand of her experiences, but I think I understand the reason behind her distress clearly.
She’d been troubled after learning the history of our church’s temple and priesthood ban on black members. She thought about how she would have handled such a racist policy. What if she’d had two adopted sons, the same age? What if one has been black, the other white? They both would get baptized together at eight, and they wouldn’t necessarily feel the disparity of their situation at that point. But then she imagined them turning twelve, and ordaining one to the priesthood while the other sat on the sidelines. Every two years, one would be ordained to a new office, passing the Sacrament, preparing and blessing it, collecting fast offerings, home teaching, eventually baptizing and blessing others – based on his personal worthiness – but also based on something he was born with: his white skin.
She really struggled with this idea, and was grateful the ban had been lifted before her time. What a relief that she didn’t ever have to be involved in that practice! There are many painful residual beliefs perpetuating from that time in church history that we are working as a people to still eliminate to this day, but at least the practice has been abandoned and the theories behind it disavowed.
While this mom was actively working to reconcile these historical issues with her faith, it struck her – she did have on her hands a similar situation to that worst case scenario she’d imagined. She had twins, one of which who would be ordained and given responsibility in her ward starting at age twelve, and another who would sit silently on the sidelines while her brother did everything she couldn’t. And it was all because of something he had been born with: his male gender.
I don’t want to imply that my experience as a woman in the church is comparable to that of black members. As a white woman and girl, I was (and am) extended many opportunities and privilege that black members never had. But I have learned from my experience trying to understand the ban on blacks that we often perpetuate things in our church that are based on culture and tradition rather than doctrine or revelation. I think it must always do our duty as church members to question whether we are doing things for a real reason, or if it’s just because of tradition.
Right now, women and girls are not ordained to the priesthood while all men and boys are, almost without exception. Priesthood is required not only to give your sick child a blessing or confirm a new convert to the church, but also to hold all positions of ultimate leadership and authority. At every level of our church, final decisions are made by the male in highest authority, although hopefully they will seek out input from women in the church before doing so.
For me, I struggle to see how women’s issues will be addressed fully until actual women are invited to sit in priesthood leadership meetings and on priesthood only committees (such as those that prepare lesson manuals, direct missionary work, or build temples). However, far before we reach those male only discussions that I long for women to be a part of, there are many things that I believe can easily be recognized as cultural limitations by almost everyone. We can talk about changing those things right now.
For example, my nephew turned 14 not long ago, and his family traveled to Utah to ordain him a teacher among family and friends. Everyone gathered at his uncle and aunt’s house, and the ordination was even postponed almost an hour as a truck driving uncle (who had been traveling all day) came to attend and participate in the circle. It was a great experience. My nephew is a wonderful boy and he deserved the evening in his honor, celebrating his goodness, worthiness and preparation for that moment.
I looked over right after at my niece, his older sister. She was in the kitchen, scooping ice cream for refreshments. She is equally talented, kind and faithful. Where was the fanfare or ritual church experience for her when she moved from Beehives to Mia Maids, or Mia Maids to Laurels?
The fact is, what happens for girls in the church is not the same as what happens for boys. Bishops are encouraged to bring both girls and boys up in front of the congregation during Sacrament Meeting to shake their hand in front of the ward members when they advance in the YM or YW program. But the girls’ recognition always feels so hollow to me. “Congratulations on all your hard work, the bishop has interviewed you and found you worthy to… turn 16.” While the boys are given more public responsibility in the congregation and it makes sense to acknowledge that they are now ordained to say, bless the Sacrament for everyone, calling up the girls feels silly when they’ll still be sitting in the pews, doing nothing. Don’t get me wrong, at the very least we should be acknowledging the girls alongside the boys, but give them something (anything!) to do as well. Maybe they could begin by being sent out as visiting teaching companions the same way the 14 year old boys are home teachers. We could let them share the responsibility of collecting fast offerings or passing the sacrament out to the congregation (neither of which are services that require priesthood ordination, but have just been traditionally only been for boys).
I don’t want to see my daughters always scooping ice cream in the background while we celebrate my son. I love them and want them all to feel equal recognition, love and opportunities to serve in the church. I wish these conversations had been happening in the church when I was a child, but since they weren’t, I choose to stand up and have them now for my daughters. I know we can do better and I want to be part of making those changes.
Honoring our past,
Envisioning our future.
Abby Hansen, the author of this post, is on the Actions Committee of Ordain Women.