90 percent

A Mormon feminist group called Ordain Women orchestrated the mildest of protests at the Priesthood session of the last General Conference of the LDS church.  They asked for tickets to attend.  They asked politely, and were politely turned away.  The Priesthood session is only open to Priesthood holders, which to say, only men.  I don’t have any idea why this is.  The sessions are immediately available on-line, and are broadcast on BYU-TV. No occult secrets are revealed, no special instructions shared.  I hardly ever go, because it’s held at the Marriott Center on the BYU campus, and I can’t manage the stairs. I can, however, watch it on my computer, and so can anyone else.  I can’t for the life of me see what harm would be done if, say, a widow wanted to go with her twelve-year old Deacon son.

So, when Priesthood session is happening, I usually read it or watch it on-line. I have never felt like I missed a thing when I don’t attend.  I have good friends from OW who were there, in Salt Lake, asking for tickets. It took a lot of courage and commitment to do that.  Good for them.

Anyway, as April Conference approaches, a spokeswoman for the Church’s Public Relations department, Jessica Moody, wrote a letter to Ordain Women, asking that the organization confine their protest to ‘free speech zones’ just off Temple Square.  If you’ve been to Conference in Salt Lake, you’ve seen the free speech zones; mostly they’re populated by evangelicals or other groups proselytizing against the Church.  Kate Kelly, an Ordain Women spokeswoman said this in response:

“We feel as faithful, active Mormon women we have nothing in common with people who oppose the church and want to protest against it. The church  is its members. We aren’t against the church, we are the church.”

During Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign, when Mormonism was very much in the national and international spotlight, it was fascinating to see who the world media turned to for information and perspective and explanation. Mostly, it was Joanna Brooks, and Kate Kelly, and other leading Mormon feminists.  I thought about Joanna Brooks, in fact, when I read Kate Kelly’s comment ‘we aren’t against the Church; we are the Church.’ The fact is, media types weren’t much interested in pro forma comments from official Church sources, anymore than they’re interested in comments from official spokespeople for big business, or politicians, or movie stars, or any institutions big enough to have a PR department. They want the real skinny; they want to hear from someone who Knows.  For a long time, they loved Jan Shipps.  She was perfect; not LDS, but a scholar of Mormonism with impeccable scholarly credentials. Jan’s retired now, and nowadays, it’s an insider/outsider they want, someone like Joanna Brooks; a scholar, an active Mormon, but an insightful and thoughtful observer of her own faith and culture.  We liberal Mormons, we became unofficial representatives of Mormonism.  (Because of publicity generated by the national candidacy of a guy probably none of us voted for!)  We are the Church, indeed.

Monday, when Jessica Moody’s letter was made public, was pretty discouraging to a lot of my LDS feminist friends.  Many took particular issue with this:

“Women in the church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for priesthood ordination for women and consider that position to be extreme.  Declaring such an objective to be non-negotiable, as you have done, actually detracts from the helpful discussions that church leaders have held as they seek to listen to the thoughts, concerns and hopes of women inside and outside of church leadership. Ordination of women to the priesthood is a matter of doctrine that is contrary to the Lord’s revealed organization for his church.”

I have a couple of reactions to this letter, and to the heartbreak I’ve seen expressed by many many friends.  First, it is at least encouraging to think that the Church’s leaders are engaged in ‘helpful discussions’ with LDS women, inside and outside of Church leadership.  I’m encouraged to think that members of the Twelve are really listening to the ‘thoughts, concerns and hopes’ of women in the Church.

I have no special insight into what the future might bring. I do know that the narrative of the nineteenth century Church was filled with stories of women, called as midwives, laying on their hands and blessing women about to give birth, and of Relief Society presidents holding blessing meetings with their sisters. I can imagine almost any future.

But only one present.  And it seems to be defined as this: “Women in the Church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for Priesthood ordination for women, and consider that position to be extreme.”  So what we have is a fight over definitions.  OW wants it to be clearly understood that ‘we are the Church.’  But Sister Moody’s letter wants to define OW as ‘extreme,’ as a tiny minority, easily ignored and rightfully marginalized.

Back in October, a PEW poll of Mormon men and women offered statistical evidence supporting Sister Moody’s position.  In that poll, 84% of LDS men, and 90% of LDS women, oppose priesthood ordination for women.  And when the Deseret News published a story about Moody’s letter, the comments section on-line was flooded with responses, almost all of them ferociously opposed to OW’s goals.  Many (not all) of the comments were vitriolic, profoundly un-Christian.  It saddened me to think that people in my Church could harbor such anger towards their sisters and brothers.  I kept seeing that number.  90%. And not just the number, but also the vitriol must be immensely discouraging for Ordain Women’s adherents.

But then, that number is hardly surprising. A lot of progressive notions follow a similar pattern. Initially feared as radical, they come, over time, to seem less and less so.  Such early feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, when they began advocating for women’s suffrage, faced similarly overwhelming majorities. In 1911, an organization called the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage (NAOW), started by a woman, had chapters in 25 US states.  In their literature, they claimed that “90% of women don’t want” the vote.  And they invoked the scary thought of “petticoat rule”.  Shiver.

I have no doubt If you had asked our forefathers what they thought of ‘miscegenation’ (that is, interracial marriage), I’m sure at least 90% of men and women would have thought that a radical notion, and opposed it.  Gay marriage: I can’t even imagine nineteenth century Americans knowing how to frame the question.  That one wouldn’t have been opposed by any 90% of Americans; if we can even imagine a poll asking about it. Everyone would have thought the idea a crazy one. Today, close to 60% favor it.

I do think the 90% figure is probably pretty accurate.  My wife, for example, doesn’t want the Priesthood, because she says it sounds like way too much work.  But she’s also an ardent feminist.  That’s also a responsible and intelligible position. Me, I’m still trying to figure out why the Sunday school President in a ward needs to be a guy.  Or why the Relief Society President can’t sit up on the stand with the Bishopric.  Or why it needs to be the entire Bishopric up there.  I’m an incrementalist, maybe.

And yet, and yet.  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” said Dr. King.  He was quoting a nineteeth century Unitarian minister (and committed abolitionist) named Theodore Parker.  Here’s Parker’s quotation in context:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.

And Jefferson was a great thinker, a great President, a brilliant man, and a man who owned slaves, and knew that doing so was an abomination.  And yet, he preached equality, though rhetorically he limited it to ‘all men.’  And still the arc bends, past the Amistad, through Antietam, on past Selma, and it bent again to touch the heart of Spencer W. Kimball, in 1978. I can’t see the shape of the arc either, from my limited, skewed perspective. But the world is better today than it was a hundred years ago, and better then than a hundred years further back. Can I see ahead another hundred years?  No: I’m too short-sighted.  Does it bend towards female ordination?  I don’t know.  But change there will be, and I believe it will be just, and righteous; bending towards a millennium.  And still the arc bends.




17 thoughts on “90 percent

  1. Matthew Ivan Bennett

    Personally, I think it’s strange that the priesthood is semi-required for male members of the LDS church (and that there’s any shame attached to a man choosing not to hold or pursue it). This isn’t true, say, in Catholicism, though I know “priesthood” has a very different meaning for them.

    Since the LDS church doesn’t, that I know of, have any specific teaching about the metaphysical differences between men and women, I don’t see why women can’t seek and use (or humble themselves to–however you want to put it) that power.

    In the articles I’ve read about the women of OW, many of them have apparently had experiences with the priesthood power. Do LDS church officials deny that this is possible? Think that they’re delusional? What? I’m curious.

    I think it’s perfectly normal that your wife would not want to have the priesthood, and I think it’s perfectly normal that another woman might want it. And I think it’s normal for men to not want the responsibility.

    1. admin Post author

      Interesting thoughts. I’m so acculturated that the idea of me, a dude, not holding the priesthood literally never occurred to me.

  2. sarahloo

    One small correction: the Priesthood Session is open to all men, not all Priesthood holders. Men and boys do not have to hold the Priesthood or even be LDS to attend. In contrast, the new general meeting for women is open to men, and of course presided over by men, and men are they key note speakers.

    I too have mixed feelings on female ordination, but of course things have to change. Why is there always male speakers at the women’s session, but there’s only ever been one female speaker at Priesthood session, in 1947?

  3. Jennie

    I keep remembering Craig Harline’s talk on how things change. In our lifetime we tend to think things have always been the way they are. We forget how dramatically things have changed in the recent past. For example, left handedness was not only a sign of ill fortune and backwardness, it was actually a sin to be left handed. Hard to believe, but the definition of what is right and good has shifted a lot.
    I am truly grateful to Kate and Joanna for taking the heat. I don’t agree with everything they do, but they are truly brave.

  4. Ted Bushman

    Thank you, Eric. You really balance following your gut and admitting your biases.

    Your comments about vitriol and a lack of Christianity are sadly too true, as the internet has become the porch where we can all sit like crotchety hillbillies, spitting our tobacco and our gossip into the street and onto our fellow man. Of course, everyone has their approach to this, and every angle is guilty.

    Still, in terms of Christianity, I wonder about the concept of protest. I suppose I have simply never associated Church government with human government (though they have the common denominator of human foibles) and I think the idea of pushing the hand of God is also rather Unchristian. I doubt any advocates of personal or national factions perceive themselves as doing so, but it rings a little that way to me. Christ was generous towards Gentiles and women during his life, but respected his Father’s way of doing things in some rather stern ways. I’m still grateful for the revelation Peter had.

    I’ve always liked the idea of women giving blessings. It seemed they did so without being ordained to Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthoods, and I’ve got my own ideas on the subject. I suppose for myself I’m happy to watch the tide come in in whatever way it will. I see that this is easy for me because I am not in a position to lose or gain anything. I trust, however, that more than any patriarchy, any cultural influence, any backwash of antiquated ideas (a tough call, as the popular morality of today is the naivety of tomorrow) there is Someone looking out for everyone involved.


  5. Melissa Rasmussen

    Thank your for your thoughts on, and willingness to broach this topic. I think one of the main reasons that some women in the church are asking for the priesthood, has less to do with the actual functions of the priesthood, and is more a way to be seen as complete equals with their male counterparts. They may see this as the best way to knock down the hidden boundaries to equal respect, power and voice within the church. I wasn’t willing to wait for a few more generations before the church found a way to do this that worked for everyone. (-Or at least made it their goal to try.) The way I solved this problem for myself was to have my name removed from the records. I say this with no bitterness, I simply set myself free. This of course was not the only reason, but it was a load bearing one. For those women who believe all, or enough of the teachings of the church that they want to stay, yet still long for true equality within, the rights to priesthood ordination may be one of the vehicles that will get them there.

  6. WhiteEyebrows

    If you don’t mind, I’m adopting the “incrementalist” label as well. It seems like the most important thing happening is the fight over words, as you point out, so I’m picking my label and sticking with it. 🙂

    I don’t see these sisters as “extreme” and their premise of “we are just asking our church leaders to pray about this issue” could easily be tested if Pres Monson took a meeting with them and said, “Sisters, I have prayed about this, and just don’t feel like the Lord thinks the time is right.” Or if he said, “heck yah, let’s move on this.” Either way, by all accounts they’ve been ignored by the very church hierarchy, except for the PR dept, which is everyone’s favorite department in the world.

  7. daryoung

    I feel differently about this than you do. Your point about how easy it is to hear the priesthood session makes it clear that the women aren’t asking to be allowed to attend in order to hear it, because they could hear it as easily as you can, and no one minds if they do. They’re trying to make a point, and the church spokeswoman is asking them nicely to find another forum for their point-making. I don’t see why that is insulting, especially when the women claim to be “in the church,” and therefore know what we believe about the way changes are made in the church (never as a result of demonstration). I’m also frustrated at the media’s habit of going to the dissatisfied (Joanna Brooks, for example, whose book’s thesis, I felt, was “look at how hard I have it, being a Mormon”) for comments on things (who are, as you say, “in the church,” but who are in the minority among those who are fully practicing). It’s as if the outsiders who want “expert” opinions believe that a person is not qualified to make an intelligent statement unless that person is dissatisfied in some way. (“No thinking Mormon WOULDN’T be unhappy with how things are.”)

  8. N Wilson

    I’ve long noticed that the history of women, the priesthood, and the church is wierdly skewed – by both sides of this issue. From the incident of Mary Fielding Smith blessing the oxen – considered radical at the time, not because she blessed them herself (after the elders refused, though they lent her their oil – a fact neatly excised in the version in the friend) but because they were animals [ https://www.lds.org/friend/1993/07/mary-fielding-smith-mother-in-israel?lang=eng%5D to the revelation that women were not to exercise the priesthood outside of the temples – this latter being a strong indication of what women in the temples do. Since I’m giving my two cents: I think the Lord revealed the current way we do things. Not sure why, unless it matches your wife’s “I have enough to do right now, thank-you” : I perceive most of the adversary’s gender-specific attacks to be along the lines of “boys/men don’t be useless; girls/women give up on all males and do it all yourselves.” So I see the current system as a counterbalance to that. I also see it easily changing, at any time- and it doesn’t worry me. Of course, I also see many of the explanations being bandied about as the equivalent of the “fence-sitter” theory – flawed, prejudiced humans coming up with flawed, prejudiced reasons for what the Lord does for his own reasons. And those, the hurtful explanations for something done in perfect love, to help us in a deeply flawed world, are why people get so polarized about this issue – and many others. I don’t agree with Orson Scott Card on… well, on many things, but he has a lovely essay called “We All Face Translation Problems,” http://www.nauvoo.com/mormontimes/columns/2010-01-21.html in which he beautifully describes some of the ways this happens – and not just between us and God, but also between us and each other.
    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents. Thanks!

  9. Margaret Blair Young

    I’m one who believes I already hold the priesthood, and that it is ministerial. So this line from the church statement is strange to me: “Ordination of women to the priesthood is a matter of doctrine that is contrary to the Lord’s revealed organization for his church.”

  10. N Wilson

    Eric – You’ve posted my correction, but not my original comment. Lost in cyberspace? Should I try again?
    Of course, Margaret has said what I meant to say, much more concisely than I did. Thank-you.

  11. otterwithkids

    The Priesthood is the authority to act in the name of God. Ergo, any woman with the authority to act in the name of God holds the Priesthood. For some reason, men need to be ordained to some pittance of an office that limits our power in a hierarchal structure; and for some reason, women have no such limitations—a testament to their inherent superiority and divinity. Frankly, I think Sheri Dew said it best: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-QYlDLChzig

    Bottom line: women seem to have the same level of authority as the Deity who rules and reigns over all, simply by virtue of being female; yet the women in the OWM want to be demoted to the same level of authority as some random guy in the next pew. I really don’t think they’ve thought this through very well. :-/

    1. admin Post author

      I don’t know. That whole ‘women are inherently better’ argument seems pretty condescending to me. Sorry.


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