Ordain Women, Women’s Ordination

At the outset, I should say that at this point nothing is going to stop Ordain Women, whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s clear that no amount of criticism or shaming will fracture the movement. In fact, these have really only served (unsurprisingly) to strengthen it and add to its numbers. OW may have begun as an organized movement but has become something of an event, in the philosophical sense of that word–the eruption of something new that breaks with the prevailing order, something which marks a before and after. Those who are riveted by an event (like Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ, after which he was never the same again) can only understand certain truths in its wake. As Daniel Bensaid put it in his interpretation of Alain Badiou’s philosophy of the event:

Truth, following in the wake of ‘that which happens’, is a matter of ‘pure conviction’, it is ‘wholly subjective’, and is a ‘pure fidelity to the opening brought about by the event’. Apart from the event, there are only current affairs and the common run of opinion. The event is Christ’s resurrection, it is the storming of the Bastille, it is the October revolution, just as it is illegal immigrant workers taking to the streets in order to become agents in their own right, in order to break out of their status as clandestine victims; it is or the unemployed stepping out from the ranks of statistics to become subjects of resistance, or the sick refusing to resign themselves to being mere patients and attempting to think and act their own illnesses.

All of which is to say, that whether female ordination in Mormonism happens or not, Ordain Women has become an event that is producing subjects and brokering female subjectivity in a way that has only rarely happened in Mormon women’s history. And people are talking, at all levels. Groups are forming not only in opposition but in parallel opposition. This is what I mean when I say that nothing at this point will “stop” Ordain Women–not that they are on an inevitable track to absolutely secure Mormon priesthood for women, but that they have become something that is more than their stated intentions, something already historicized and important whatever the ultimate outcome, and something that will go on, in tributaries and rivulets, spreading and branching in unforeseen ways.

None of this is intended as marketing propaganda for Ordain Women. And it doesn’t mean that Ordain Women is going about its agenda in the right way (or the wrong away). It doesn’t even mean that Ordain Women fully understands what it’s become (though no one else could fully understand either). It’s simply descriptive, I think, of what is occurring. And it’s bigger than (merely) women’s ordination. (More on this “merely” in a moment). A lot is happening here, but drilling down from the more philosophical and abstract to to a more practical observation, one of the things I think is more or less getting lost in the chaos of words is how radically different this call for ordination is from struggles for ordination in traditional Christian contexts, and why this might not ultimately matter (though it makes for a different kind of uphill battle).

What is it about this movement-event? Like many (probably a majority) of my generation–mid 30s–(and especially in younger generations), I am in favor of equal rights for gays, women, minorities, etc, in pretty much every aspect of human society. I see the insidiousness of male white privilege and how it has shaped history and defined how history has been narrativized. As a grad student at a Methodist seminary I studied with men and women of many faiths on track for ordination, where male-only ordination had been a thing of the past for decades. I became friends with women who are now pastors and priests.

As a matter of course it was easy to see the radical inequalities between men and women in my own faith and that things needed to drastically change. And by this I mean institutional inequalities (I’ve already written about this elsewhere so I won’t repeat myself here) not natural differences between men and women. So why did the ordination of women in my own church feel so foreign and ill-fitted? At first I thought that it’s easy to see the need for change at a distance, when it costs you nothing–institutional inequalities in other institutions. When it’s on your own faith’s front doorstep, that’s another matter. And perhaps there was a little of that there. Nevertheless, however initially ill-fitting it looked, I thought that if women were to receive the priesthood, that could only be a good thing and we would just have to embrace it. Still, I thought a lot about the source of this seeming dissonance, which I think can be illustrated by comparing priesthood in Mormonism and other Christian denominations.

In the Catholic Church, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is an institution of the church whose objective is to “spread sound Catholic doctrine and defend those points of Christian tradition which seem in danger because of new and unacceptable doctrines.” Regarding the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood, in 1976, the Congregation issued a declaration (since reaffirmed a couple times in the intervening years) declaring that the Church “does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.” The primary reasons given for this statement essentially add up to the prevailing notion that the Church’s authority is derived through scripture and tradition–Christ was free to establish his church in any way he saw fit, and in fact in many ways he went against prevailing societal and religious norms of his day in doing so–implying that it wouldn’t have been a stretch to make women priests, but because he didn’t do so when he could have, this makes the case for not ordaining women even stronger.

I’m not equipped to discuss the nuances of Catholic authority, doctrine, and interpretations of Christian history, but I point this out because, while the concept of being bound to tradition is at work in defending the status quo of male-only priests in the LDS church (though the LDS version is at least as ostensibly tethered to absence of new corporate revelation on the matter–a subject for another time), the comparison starts to break down when we see how priesthood functions in the LDS world and how it functions in Catholicism (and more or less in Protestantism). And this, in my opinion, is where the heart of any discomfort on the part of most LDS people in ordaining LDS women to priesthood lies. Of course, there are still plenty of people uncomfortable with female priests in the Christian churches, but I don’t believe the reasons for discomfort are precisely the same. Yes, for some, their views are mainly derivative of a sexist worldview generally, while for some others not having LDS leadership on board with the idea is the primary deal breaker.

But I don’t think these reasons address the central plane of tension with regard to priesthood in Mormonism. Priesthood in most Christian denominations is a class apart. Only a few hold the office of priest (or pastor or bishop, etc) and only a few aspire to it. Most (men and women) would absolutely say that they felt called by God to enter the priesthood or become clergy in their respective denominations. In Mormonism (at least in LDS Mormonism) to be a man is to be a “priest.” The rite of passage from boyhood to manhood is priesthood, so “priest” is more accurately an anthropological category than an ecclesiastical office, a marker of gendered identity that can’t even be approximated in traditional Christianity. It’s why “priesthood” for a Mormon man can paradoxically feel simultaneously both meaningless (it’s simply part of the circle of Mormon male life for virtually every maturing male–body hair appears, get the priesthood, start dating, get a job, graduate from school, serve a mission) and the most meaningful thing in the world (it’s the primary framework for your identity as a male in the religious community). You do almost nothing to receive it, but it becomes the interpretive lens of your masculinity and the governing principle of your participation in the community. Feeling “called” couldn’t be further from the experience of receiving it. And performing ordinances and blessings, in the end, is not what really constitutes it.

All of this serves to explain, at least to my mind, the somewhat frequent hesitancy of even a theologically liberal mind with regard to Ordain Women. On the one hand, that there’s a crucial problem in retaining and appropriately valuing women in the Church and that “understanding divine worth as daughters of God” is simply insufficient to convince many to remain, is indisputable. That women can all too easily be conceived as unnecessary for the Church to function is also difficult to argue against. (I’ve posted my thoughts on this here and here). But on the other hand, ordaining Mormon women to the priesthood might feel strange and otherworldly, not primarily because of antiquated sexist notions of priests as male-only, but because men can only be men as priests in Mormon culture. A man who is not a priest (who does not have the priesthood) is not merely someone who has not felt called to the ministry and is simply an attending member of his congregation, as in traditional Christianity; a man who is not a priest in Mormon culture is quite literally not fully a man.

This is why the word “ordination” is so fraught in Mormondom. From the viewpoint of many Mormons, women seeking the priesthood is not simply a battle for sameness through equality (though typically this is ignorantly framed by detractors as the heart of the struggle); it is the attempt on the part of some women to become, in a sense, men–because “priest” and “man” are virtually synonymous in the Mormon world. Uncoupling “male” from “priest” is much more complex than in other traditions. So it may feel to some not just like a power struggle, but a wildly impossible grasp for an incoherent ideal.

None of which is to say that Ordain Women is fundamentally misguided. The movement that has become an event has zeroed in on the the precise thing that brokers inequality between men and women in the Church and a primary source of female alienation, and it’s not that women get to have babies. What I am trying to articulate is why female ordination to Mormon priesthood is of a different genus than the struggle for women’s ordination to priesthood in other denominations. And also why its chances for success on the level of ordination is in my view probably less likely than in other Christianities (where congregations are often widely condemned for not allowing women to be ordained, to respond to the call of ordination) and possibly not ultimately even desirable in the long term, particularly if priesthood itself and our understanding of it is in need of reform. And this is where Ordain Women has become more than “merely” a call for women’s ordination. It’s become an event that is creating new subjects of new truths, trying to be faithful to the event that created them, and mired even more deeply, committed even more strongly to remaining with the Saints and the Church, not bent on destroying it or being fundamentally unfaithful to it. What subjects are capable of in the aftermath of an event can expose cracks in the system, highlight and bring to the forefront dire needs and insufficiencies that were hidden or ignored, whether their intended actions come to fruition or not.

But that’s the thing about authentic events. They happen to you or they don’t. You have no control over their siren’s call. Those that are born anew because of events spend the rest of their lives figuring out this new fidelity, trying on these new truths that look so dazzling to them but not necessarily to others, trying to persuade others of their rightness; they’re different than they were before the event. This was St. Paul, who spent the rest of this life trying to parse out a Christianity that he never came to through rational discussion or logical argument, but that shattered him from the outside in. And it also means that not everyone will feel called to the cause. But the ripples of the event and the words of those called to be faithful to it have far-reaching, even unintended consequences. Many feel to support OW, for example, even though they aren’t interested in or are even opposed (for many different reasons) to women receiving the priesthood. Because the need not just for change but radical change is so apparent to so many.

Try as I might, (and I have truly tried) for the reasons I’ve outlined above, I cannot be an uncompromising undoubting defender of Mormon women receiving priesthood. But then, this is partly because I’m not even completely sold on the ways priesthood is identified, granted, and enacted in the first place. I am a firm advocate for Mormon institutional female equality, and if priesthood becomes the the only way to do this, then those of us who haven’t been called by the Ordain Women event will simply have to accept the initial dissonance and feel to thank the Lord that progress has been made. In any case, that’s another thing about events–no amount of “this just doesn’t add up” repels them. They endure to the extent that the subjects created by them endure. These subjects may try to use logic and reason and history to persuade the unbelieving, but logic and reason were not the impetus for the event in the first place. This is often how change breaks into the world and creates something new. Despite my reservations about what it would mean to ordain women in the Mormon context, the possibility of a new creation is why Ordain Women has my support.

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4 thoughts on “Ordain Women, Women’s Ordination

  1. Ordination is associated with becoming a man in our church. It distinguishes between the males that are grown-ups and those who are not: men without the priesthood are seen (whether or not this is right) to lack the maturity and self-discipline to be full adults. The situation for women in the church is that they are, in some sense, not able to participate as adults.

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