Twice a year, Mormons get to spend Sundays in our pajamas. We go to church in front of our TV sets, watching General Conference. My parents, in Indiana, don’t get to watch it at home; they go to church as always, watch the satellite broadcast in their chapels. They can watch it on the internet, and even on TV if their local cable includes BYU-TV. For my brothers, in Indiana and Arizona, they have those two choices: internet, or satellite broadcast. But I live in Provo, and KSL (our channel 5, the NBC affiliate usually) is owned by the Church. We get to watch at home. And do.
There are five ‘sessions’ of conference, each one two hours long. That’s ten hours of sermonizing, and it can feel long. Saturdays and Sundays, there are sessions at 10 and at 2, and Saturday nights, we have Priesthood session, which isn’t televised. My wife teases me about that; what dark secrets are being revealed, what confidential information is being dispensed. Since the Priesthood session talks are subsequently printed in the Ensign, the official Church magazine, and since they’re pretty much immediately available on LDS.org, I’m not sure what the point is of the secrecy. In any event, I haven’t attended the Priesthood session in years. It’s shown in Provo at the Marriott Center, the BYU basketball arena, and I can’t handle the stairs, and I get cranky, on those uncomfortable benches. So I read it later. I don’t think I’m missing much. A lot of the talks are aimed at the youth, the male youth, on keeping the standards of the Church and preparing to go on missions. And that got easier this General Conference.
That was the big announcement this year. Well, there were new temples announced, in Tucson and Peru, and the Tucson one, that’s where my brother lives with his family, so that’s awesome for them. But the big announcement was that they changed the rules about when young folks can go on missions. Guys can go at 18 now, and girls, at 19. Previously, guys went at 19, and girls at 21.
I think the concern was, previously, that guys weren’t mature enough at 18 to serve a full-time mission. And President Monson pointed out that, for a lot of guys, it might be better to wait a year or so. But what this announcement does is eliminate what, for a lot of guys, is a lost year. You graduate from high school at 18, and it’s pretty normal for kids to go straight to college. So you go to college for a year, knowing you’re heading off on your mission in a year, and it can make for a tough year–you’re maybe not completely committed to college, you’re trying to earn money for your mission. A lot of colleges don’t like that interruption, especially if you get into some kind of professional training program.
And the fact is, that year, that 18-19 year, can be a year where a lot of kids lose their way spiritually, lose track of themselves as far as Church activity is concerned. But after spending two years on a mission, you tend to make the Church central in your life.
Girls aren’t under the same pressure to serve a mission, and a lot of LDS girls, age 18-21, get married. That’s way younger than the national norm, and it’s got to be a matter of concern, kids getting married too young. Plus, going on missions at 21 kind of sucked for a lot of young women. You’re pretty close to graduating from college at 21, if you haven’t graduated already, and if you went on a mission, you were two years behind other graduates from your class in job searches.
At the same time, the Church is probably worried about the potential combustible mix of missions consisting of 18 year old guys AND girls. I mean, as a missionary, you’re supposed to be with your companion 24-7, and dating is completely verboten, but you also do interact. I was a district leader in Norway, and my mission consisted of four companionships, three male and one female. 6 guys, 2 girls. The women outworked the men somethin’ fierce, and were anyway two years older than we were, but a two year age difference isn’t all that huge, and my district did produce one eventual marriage. They didn’t do anything untoward while in Norway, far as I knew, but when they got home, they were married in a matter of three months or so. Now, with 18 and 19 year olds, I expect we’ll see some more of that. Not necessarily a bad thing.
So is it sexist? Saying guys have to serve, saying girls are welcome to if they want. Saying guys can go at 18, girls at 19. Having a Priesthood session at all, preceded by a women’s session? How about church itself? We have a sacrament meeting everyone attends, then Sunday School, then we segregate, men to Priesthood, women to Relief Society. Sexism? Men hold the Priesthood, and preside, run things. The women’s organization functions under priesthood leadership. Talks in Church are given by both genders, lessons in Sunday school, prayers. The Sacrament is passed (administered) by guys, very young guys. So, sexism, right?
Sure, some. Absolutely. I personally know some Mormon women who are really bothered by it. I know a lot more who aren’t, My wife says she doesn’t want the Priesthood. Neither do her sisters, or my brother’s wives. They say they don’t feel oppressed. The Mormon women I know are tough, smart, capable women. But their approach to living the gospel tends to be pragmatic, realistic. There’s a disconnnect, I think, between the family ideal being preached and the difficulties of actual life, and in the middle there you could find the hard-headed practicality of LDS women dealing with life. In General Conference, the talks really are about ideals, about the very best way for us to live and conduct our families. But life doesn’t work that way very often. And women often are the ones who get to pick up the slack.
Sexism in the Church tends to manifest itself in small ways, paternalist rhetorical pats on the head. “Don’t you worry your pretty little heads. . . ” In General Conference, the women who speak tend towards a certain stylistic sameness. A niceness. Seldom doctrinal, generally about children and families. The joke is that the Women’s session is where the women are all told how much they’re valued, and the Priesthood session is where the men get chewed out. There’s some truth to that.
I mean, I like General Conference, I really do. I love the music. The Tabernacle Choir is one of the great musical ensembles on the planet, and Mack Wilberg, their conductor, is a brilliant musical arranger. And I like the talks, mostly. Sometimes there are talks that drive me nuts, talks that seem to suggest an ideal far enough removed from reality that you wonder what the point is. And sometimes, the talks seem to owe more to contemporary cultural conservatism than anything doctrinal. But mostly, the talks are good for me, challenge me, help me grow.
Back in the 19th century, Conference talks used to be, uh, theologically imaginative. And if you want to find seriously nutty doctrinal innovations in our past, they’re not hard to find. In the 20th century, the occasional tensions between the scientist GAs, the Widtsoes and Talmages, those guys, Henry Eyring’s Dad and President McKay and Hugh B. Brown, and the really hard-core, who-cares-about-science, the earth-is-6000-years-old Smiths and McConkies, the guys who would use one ambiguous verse of scripture to, absurdly, dismiss Darwin, their disputes would leak into conference, and tended to enliven the proceedings. And that’s to say nothing about the vestigial racism of a Church built by pre-Civil Rights era white people. Of the vestigial sexism of a Church run by men. You get hints of that old nonsense from time to time.
Still, I believe in a Church built on revelation, and I believe that God is leading us all towards the best selves we’re able to become. And I hear the choir sing, and a lot of the songs are these really pedestrian hymns that Mac Wilberg has turned into symphonies. Silk purses, build on such sow’s ears as ‘Ere You Left Your Room This Morning,’ or ‘Lord Dismiss Us With Thy Blessing,’ songs that make me giggle when we sing ’em in Church, but which sound like Brahms under Mac’s baton. Taking our inadequacies and cultural blind spots as they are, pushing us to consider something better. Transforming us, sitting there in our pajamas, foolish and weak as we are, into Christians.