On Being Needed vs. Being Necessary: Some Thoughts on Women, Priesthood, and Responsibility

Women cannot be regarded as fully human until the full measure of responsibility and accountability is theirs. This is where the charged rhetorics of modesty, pedestalization, and singularity and specialness of gender are all mutually embedded–in the wonderful-terrible blessing and burden of cultural, institutional, and religious responsibility and accountability. This is also why the rhetoric of “equality” should be replaced with one of responsibility and accountability. Responsibility is what is really at stake with this kind of empowerment, and it is really what we mean by “equality.” Responsibility is the decisive and irrevocable difference between becoming angels or becoming gods.

Until somewhat recently, I counted myself among those who didn’t feel particularly energized about women being ordained to the LDS priesthood. It was hard to put my finger on why I was unable to feel strongly about it one way or another. As one who has done graduate training in religion I was well aware of many Christian denominations granting women ecclesiastical authority. That mainstream Mormonism hadn’t followed suit didn’t seem reason alone to justify such a radical change.  We believe in continuing revelation, so in principle it seemed possible that we could come to ordain women to the priesthood at some point, but that same principle made it even more unlikely: instead of debating and discussing, and even voting, appealing to rights and equality and historical precedents (and their counterarguments), our processes seemingly relied on word from God though the Prophet alone, which didn’t appear to be forthcoming any time soon. Any soft enthusiasm I did have for women’s ordination derived mostly from the fact that I had many friends who desired it, and I couldn’t see that it would be detrimental to me personally.

I finally realized my indifference was a little more personal:  the discourse on priesthood in the church didn’t quite correlate with my personal experience of priesthood, and so “desiring” priesthood didn’t have much purchase with me. I was surprised to learn that I thought this, but the more I reflected on it, the more it seemed to me to be true. We often talk in the Church about the priesthood being this “thing” men and boys are given, a “substance” that endows us with divine power and privileged insight. The problem was that I didn’t feel a discernible difference between having priesthood and not having it. I didn’t feel those priesthood “cells” vibrating inside me when I performed an ordinance or gave a blessing; I couldn’t identify the “substance” of the power of God given to men being activated in any specific way. When I did feel something while performing an ordinance or giving a blessing, I interpreted it (I think correctly) as feeling the Spirit. And, of course, we speak of priesthood as the right, privilege, and power, given by God, to serve others. We commonly say that the priesthood is God’s own power given to men in order to serve humanity in various ways. But women can and do feel the Spirit too. Women can and do provide valuable service. Consequently, my own experiences with my priesthood didn’t seem to derive directly from that priesthood. In other words, though ordinances were the priesthood’s alone to enact, the spiritual and emotional fruits of those ordinances simply didn’t feel all that unique. Besides, I was a child when I first received the priesthood, and I certainly didn’t think of myself as genuinely special and distinct from my peers who didn’t have the priesthood, or from the girls my age who by nature were barred from it (the constant general conference talks and young men’s lessons about the sacred and supernal gift and nature of the priesthood notwithstanding). I felt I was a stupid kid who obsessed over his own faults and flaws quite enough to prevent any talk about how special the priesthood made me from seeping in too deeply. No amount of priesthood-awesomeness spit shine was going to cover over that reality. So, when I thought of women being given the priesthood, my reaction was one of an apathetic–“meh.”  Of course women could physically do anything I could do if given priesthood. Because it seemed so easily transferrable, there was no particular maleness inherent in it, other than that being male was a requirement to have it. And therefore, there would be little about women’s lives that would significantly change, little that they could experience or do better just because they had the priesthood.

The one argument that resonated somewhat on the side of the status quo was the cultural one–that males as priests constituted a specific identity that was important for men and boys in the Church. Completely apart from theological arguments and lines of authority, there was the familiar cultural identity of being a male who had the priesthood in the Church. Having the priesthood was part of what it meant to be a participating boy or man in Church activity and culture: the various rituals and activities of young men priesthood quorums; setting up and taking down chairs before and after meetings; home teaching; attending the general conference priesthood session with your dad/brothers/grandfather etc.; going out to dinner or dessert after the meeting; being expected to give and participate in blessings of various kinds, while the recipients of the blessings and those listening would often weep, overcome with emotion and gratitude; hearing mothers, wives, grandmothers, and women in the ward talk about how grateful they were for their priesthood men and sons–that was me, it was all of us men and boys in the ward and family, and it made us feel good, supremely needed and capable. We became men because of the priesthood; we didn’t have the priesthood simply because we were men. The priesthood made us good. Take away the priesthood or change its significance, and we would become no different from “men of the world.” All of these things were a part of “holding the priesthood,” not just the occasional ordinance to perform or blessing to give, or even, in leadership, ecclesiastical units to govern. All of these constituted the world and experience of maleness in the Church. Thus, I could see some logic in the concern that giving all of “That” to women in the church was in fact to give away a large part (perhaps the largest part) of my identity as far as the Church was concerned. Giving women the power to perform ordinances and blessings would surely not harm me in any way, and arguments to the contrary were laughably weak. However, I did see the possibility that ushering women into the larger priesthood cultural world could have the effect of blurring the structural supports that shaped the context of what it meant for me and other men to be priesthood holders, and therefore what it meant to actually be men and not merely what it might mean to hold the priesthood in the abstract. In my view, any talk of distributing not just priesthood power but priesthood identity must include acknowledgement of this wider cultural point.

Hence my hesitant attitude toward Ordain Women. I have many friends (male and female) who support the movement. For that reason alone part of me has been cheering for its success. But I was also hesitant to support it more explicitly, both for the reasons mentioned above, and because I wasn’t sure that this was necessarily the way to go about things, or if the right questions were being asked, etc, etc. I realized, of course, that only one who is so privileged can experience and maintain any kind of genuine indifference, one who is comfortable in eternally asking academic questions so as to distance himself from the real need/suffering that might prompt genuine action. But I also realized that giving my opinion in any fashion was to walk a fine line. I’ve considered myself an (imperfect) ally of Mormon feminist ideas and causes, and while men are needed in various ways in order to ultimately accomplish many of these goals (in some ways, only men can drive progress), even male allies can hurt more than help if they are not careful, usually because they do not understand or are unaware of their own particular neuroses (and often, even then).

Listening to Ordain Women founder Kate Kelly describe how she genuinely thought she was going to be allowed into the priesthood session of conference, I was truly surprised. Surely she knew beforehand what the outcome overwhelmingly was likely to be? Surely other activists in the movement knew the same and were fully expecting the result? Surely they were nevertheless going to request entrance because of the symbolic importance of such an action, that future inroads would begin with this one dramatic gesture? But Kelly’s response brought home the force of what was at stake for these women as well as so many other women in the church, and therefore for me as well, as a father, husband, brother, son, and human being. She was genuinely hurt and surprised that she was barred from entering the session. By all accounts, many if not all the participating women felt the same. And of course, this hurt was but a mirror of the isolating alienation that prompted them to begin this journey in the first place. Why take up feminist ideals–why adhere to any unorthodox ideology–if not because of painful alienation? Perhaps that is one of Ordain Women’s many victories, at least in my view, because the movement has helped me to see that larger issue, one that seems to be more significant than a threat to my personal identity, if, in fact, my personal identity was at all threatened. It’s something that I already knew, but that Ordain Women has emphasized on a larger scale: that issue is that in the Church, possession of priesthood is not solely about the proper legitimate performance of spiritual rites and ordinances, but also about the right to speak and be heard, the power to make decisions, to be endowed with full accountability and responsibility, not just at an individual level, but also at an institutional one. Lacking these things can and often does lead to the alienation and brokenness these women have experienced solely on account of their gender. (This is why pointing to women as priestesses in the temple context is in an important way neither here nor there, since this authority is phenomenally absent outside the temple context).

In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis on the importance of leadership councils in wards and stakes (of which women are very much a part). This is a positive step forward to include women in decision-making processes at local levels, and in fact there seems to be much that could be improved, and new practices and policies that could be instituted in order to improve women’s and girls’ experience in the Church.  But no matter how much women are included in general processes and individually listened to by priesthood leaders, the fact that they must be included and listened to in the first place demonstrates that, de jure and de facto, women stand outside all formal decision-making, at both the general and local levels. Even if priesthood leaders “listen to” and take seriously women’s suggestions and concerns, as they should, the fact that it is considered incumbent on one party to listen to another reveals an unequal binary, the “listener” versus the “listened-to.” The listener in this schema is the one who structurally has the power in the equation; should he choose not to listen, he will nevertheless make a decision, and that decision will be more or less binding. (The reverse of this–women listening to men–is structurally the essence of the status quo, which highlights this unequal binary even more). Of course, his decision may be poor without the input of this or that sister, maybe even disastrous, but there is nothing in the priesthood system that requires that he listen, or that he heed specific suggestions from non priesthood holders. Amen to the priesthood of that man (in a spiritual sense) perhaps, but there is no amen to his administrative authority unless he is removed or vetoed by a higher authority. Of course, any priesthood-holding man has another priesthood-holding man above him at various levels and no bishop, for example, must listen to any priesthood holder simply because he holds the priesthood. Let’s not forget that probably a majority of men likely feel marginalized or muted  in some way themselves in the church context, because there is an important distinction between being an elder or priest and holding the priesthood generally, or being a bishop or stake president (or in a bishopric or presidency) and holding keys and wielding presiding and administrative authority. But the difference between men and women here is that any priesthood-holder has the potential to become one who has the burden of higher responsibilities and stewardships, of one who could become a structural influencer in decision-making processes. Women, of course, do not even have this potential and are relegated to the position of possible influencers only. And true it is that many men will never hold positions of serious Church leadership, and even then only temporarily. But the culture surrounding decision-making at various levels in the Church (that decisions are ultimately a priesthood responsibility, priesthood will always preside over auxiliary organizations, etc) likely bars many women from even realizing they can and should speak, even if only in limited roles.

At the local level (beginning with individual families and moving to individual wards and stakes) this is probably less of a serious problem on the whole: Bishops and stake presidents are more or less constrained by general church policy; it’s possible for them to have real relationships and friendships with female leaders (and therefore more possible to enact more intimate and effective integration of women into decision-making, and for women to truly be able to influence the process in real time); and most problems and concerns are likely regionally limited. At the general level, these factors seem to me less applicable, and it is at the general level, of course, that church policy and doctrine are  put into effect and can be changed. But at either level, at best women are invited and intently listened to but not structurally included, and at worst they are ignored completely.

And that is, as I see it, the larger issue. While women may be needed in the church, they are not systemically necessary, or even secondarily vital with regard to the distribution and redistribution of power in the church context. And this is what must change in some manner. This is the lack of responsibility that we cannot be comfortable with. Our sisters, wives, daughters, and friends deserve to be represented at every level where they have a stake in ecclesiastical decisions and events that affect them. If women were directly involved in the decision-making and counsel process, how might we respond as a church to issues regarding gay marriage and the place of homosexuals in the Church? Financial transparency and stewardship? Environmental stewardship? War and issues of violence in the home and abroad? Religious-political involvement? The plight of the poor? The conditions and problems of women and girls globally? Or internally: curriculum for church manuals; how we teach the scriptures and church history; how the Church is packaged through various forms of media; the roles of men, women, and children; where and how church buildings are constructed; counsel on issues ranging from dating to disability to marriage to raising families, etc, etc. Merely asking for the opinions of some women would not inform our response like having women with the power to shape and mold it alongside the men they work and serve with.

We do ourselves a disservice if, as some do, we insist that the politics of power play no role in our institution. Though we believe the Church was instituted by God and its leaders can and do receive divine guidance on its behalf, it is nevertheless a human institution run by and peopled by human beings. I think this is the underlying theological defense of the status quo, that if God wants something to change, God will simply see to it; therefore, the gender of the decision-makers is insignificant because, as stewards of God’s power, they will simply receive divine instruction and all will be well, all wounds will be eventually be healed, all problems resolved, in the Lord’s own time. However, it seems strongly evident (based both on personal experience and plenty of public evidence), not only that Church (priesthood) leaders make decisions not based on clear revelation on a regular basis, but that having the priesthood makes it mandatory and right that they often do so. In other words, priesthood does not make of its holders passive receptacles of constant streams of divine revelation, but makes them responsible to make decisions of their own will and wisdom, in hope of divine ratification. How can we not include women in this process? How can we not empower women as vessels of such responsibility? Women cannot be regarded as fully human until the full measure of responsibility and accountability is theirs. This is where the charged rhetorics of modesty, pedestalization, and singularity and specialness of gender are mutually embedded–in the wonderful-terrible blessing and burden of cultural, institutional, and religious responsibility and accountability, or lack thereof. This is also why the rhetoric of “equality” should be replaced with one of responsibility and accountability. Responsibility is what is really at stake with this kind of empowerment, and it is really what we mean by “equality.” Responsibility is the decisive and irrevocable difference between becoming angels or becoming gods.

The same could apply other marginalized members of society in general. Deny them certain institutions with the heavy weight of years and sacrifice behind them (gays and marriage, for example) and you deny them the responsibility and accountability that comes with contributing to and profiting from such institutions. Responsibility is far from a single-minded pleasure or mere capacity to make decisions. It is a heavy weight, but it is a weight that contributes to a fuller, richer human experience, because it gives one the opportunity to feel connected to and responsible for people, traditions, and practices in ways that could never be possible without it.

In the end, I do not know that simply ordaining women is the ultimate and final answer to this problem. Certainly, Mormonism is more than the institutional Church alone; the Church could never completely encompass the raging fire spread all over the world the last 183 years that is the Mormon event. The stories of the women of the Church do not simply begin and end with their relationship to the Church (and neither do the stories of its men). And as I said above, the cultural identity that Priesthood has produced is what really is at stake for both the men who balk at extending priesthood authority to women and the women who insist that they would never want priesthood–not really because they can’t imagine passing the sacrament or doing Tithing Settlement but because they don’t want to be men, full stop.

But he institutional Church is nevertheless of vital importance to its members. It could never cause so much pain, joy, sense of community, and alienation if it were not. If there is another way to irrevocably and formally fold women into the decision-making process at the local and general levels, I’m all ears. Looking at the history of women’s ordinations in various religions, one can see, especially in modern times, that this issue arose in various religions time and time again because women were not fairly represented by their male counterparts, no matter how benign and earnest the intention on the part of male priests and religious leaders (which intentions were often not so benign). Men do not stop being men, speaking their own language, communicating their own thoughts in their own way, merely because they are the recipients of the divine will.

Regardless of being able to show that women were once ordained at various levels (as can be more or less demonstrated in both Mormon and Christian history), that there is here and now a need that has gone unmet demands that we start doing things differently. If that means giving women the priesthood, I am in favor. If alternatively it means restructuring the priesthood so as to decouple it from administrative authority and limit its functions to more spiritual matters, thereby freeing women to participate administratively and have a voice of institutional power, I am in favor. If it means giving women a female priestesshood that is distinct from male priesthood but with equal and responsibilized authoritative stewardship, I am in favor. If it means not necessarily giving women priesthood but placing them on councils where they have a more equal say and vote, where they become systemically necessary and not merely appealed to if arbitrarily fortunate enough to have priesthood leaders who truly care about what they say, that is at least a leap forward. Even gradual changes in a direction that looks something like this are better than nothing. What matters is that women be empowered to speak and serve and bless in the religious community no less than their brothers. What matters is that when a woman speaks women and men should sit up and listen, not just because she might have priesthood or legitimate authority of some kind, but because there are no institutional barriers providing a convenient excuse not to listen to her. What matters is that building the kingdom of God is an effort that requires all of us in our full capacity, liberating us to use whatever talents we have at our disposal. There are so many women who are outstanding leaders in the workplace, but whose leadership isn’t nearly as vital in our ecclesiastical context. There are so many other women who could learn to be these outstanding leaders in a pastoral context if given the opportunity. What about women counseling with others about suffering, faithfulness, the temple, sexuality, etc? What about women feeling more capacitated to participate and contribute in a multitude of different ways? What about men and women together trying to figure out how to strengthen families while discussing what it could mean for men to be men and women to be women? How much closer to Zion could we leap then?

Most important here, though, is the increasing alienation so many women in the Church are feeling within the structure as it currently stands. A Mormon “priesthood of all believers” may not ultimately be the answer, but it is acutely appealing in fully responding to this growing alienation, because it makes precisely that structural change that would plug women fully into the heart of the life of the Church. Could Church leaders prayerfully enact something like this, something of which there would be divine approval? I think the answer is yes. Priesthood is a sacred God-given trust, not alone to passively listen for God’s will and carry it out but to freely use that power, the privilege God has given holders of the priesthood to righteously engage in service according to the stewardship they have been given. For too long we have lived with a concept of continuing revelation that is grand in theory but impoverished in practice. Perhaps this could be the idea and event of our time that will transform and revitalize that vital theological inheritance.

In the end this is an argument for formally and radically weaving women into the heart of the ebb and flow of Church life, giving them voices that are systemically necessary, a part of the conventional function of the Church, the equals of men in speech, institutional power, and responsibility. The current priesthood-driven structure seems to insist that ordaining women might be the only present way of really doing that,  though what seems paramount is ultimately seeing the realization of these fundamentally necessary goals, regardless if priesthood is the vehicle to make that happen.


4 thoughts on “On Being Needed vs. Being Necessary: Some Thoughts on Women, Priesthood, and Responsibility

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