Monday, July 15, 2013

On Women and the Priesthood: Finally

This post has been a long time coming, and it has been a labor to get to it. It hasn't been without its rewards, and I hope that I can help in lending my voice; at least in a small part. 

In April of this year, I put a request for discussion of women and the Priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as my status. I wanted to hear from my friends what they were thinking about it, and I wanted to find a means through which to formulate my own opinion on the matter. I was blessed with an outpouring of thoughtful and well reasoned conversation from men and women of a multitude of opinion.  I haven't actually heard any news about the discussion that was officially begun and carried on in an institutional manner since a few months ago, but some of the things that were brought up in discussing this topic with some friends have been weighing heavily on me. I want to share those and talk about my own experiences. 
I finally feel like I can talk about this. I finally feel like I should weigh in. This post is freaky-long and filled to bursting with more freaky-long links. Take your time, it'll be here forever. Sorry if you are already past it and you live in Idon'tcaresville already; skip this post and read my thoughts about nature or gardening or art or crushes or grass (those ones are good too). Or better yet, get a drink of water and go outside. Your bicycle probably misses you.


In March of this year, I went to church with my aunt in Ogden, Utah. During Relief Society, an elderly sister raised her hand and made a non-sequiter comment to the effect that the "good" sisters of the church are not advocating for change. They don't ask a million zany questions, they aren't disruptive in their appearance, they don't ascribe to gifts or callings, they are sweet, they are good cooks, they are submissive, they are pleasant, they are gentle and meek, they are educated as a backup plan, they are quiet, and they do not wear pants to church (this was shortly on the heels of what had become called "Pantsgate," about which you can read more here, here or here). It would have been easy to put this sister's comments to rest for curmudgeonly state, but her comment reached down deep and made me think. Her attitude was one that created a real "us/them" dichotomy that made me uncomfortable and actually excused the spirit from that meeting. I know many women who are seeking after righteousness and the Spirit in their lives who fit precisely in the crosshairs of this woman's frustrations. I know how deeply these sisters defy all that she has been taught was good and true, but they are still her sisters. I include myself on many points. While this experience happened before the Ordain Women movement really hit the ground (April 2013), there was a foment in the air. This sister's comment became linked, inextricably in my mind with the question of women and the Priesthood and it is the thing that has bothered me most deeply in the discussion at large: it is divisive. 

I sought first to dismiss the whole issue because of its potential to tear apart the tender and vital ties that create a sisterhood within the church- that is something that I believe in and value greatly. We are asked to serve one another, and we are very good at it. My mother is no longer active in the Church, but she often inquires, gratefully, about the service that the sisters in my Relief Society in Nebraska have offered me. They treat me, without hesitation or guile, as one of their own. They enjoin me to their hearts as any sister would, and the enquire after her. I rejoice in detailing the goodness of the women (and men) with whom I am blessed to associate. Service and charity always first.  Our work is service in the work of perfecting the saints. This is a part of the four-fold mission of the church, which is: to proclaim the gospel, redeem the dead, care for the poor and needy and the perfecting of the saints. I love that the emphasis is on the ACTION of perfecting rather than the admiration or adoration of the already perfected. That emphasis allows plenty of space for impetuous, imperfect, me. What greater principle can there be?

Our second responsibility as members of the church, is to ask questions and respond when prompted in the name of coming unto Christ and becoming Christlike in our attributes and in our attitudes. We seek further light and knowledge always. The entire church is founded on a question. We believe in continuing revelation even when it is hard to bear and the changes we are asked to make seem strange or incomprehensible. We have a very long history of making those changes anyways. It is a SUBSTANTIAL part of our faith narrative, and one which I embrace wholly. I admire the spirit of Mormonism for which the veil is thin and the Heavens are open, for which the tenacity to approach the God of the Old and New Testament is a daily practice. That is the geist to which I seek to join myself; this is faith enacted. It is faith that compels action and moves a people across a continent, across oceans in an attempt to make promises with their God in holy temples. It is the power of healing and of blessing and the encircling comfort of angelic sweetness. It is the vehicle of forgiveness. This is the power by which we are enabled, our faith finished. There are evidences of this faith that I cannot deny, and this is what keeps me in the church. 

If questioning is such a substantial part of our faith, then I applaud those who have fostered the Ordain Women movement. I wish only that they were carrying on a continued conversation about it. Perhaps there is a conversation going on, but it hasn't reached Nebraska yet (If you know/are an answer to this, please comment). I am grateful for the opportunity to ask what Joseph Smith meant on founding the Relief Society as a "Kingdom of Priests." I am grateful to ponder the thinness of the veil and the willingness of my God to hear my concerns and treat my questions.  I have been blessed in asking questions about the power and authority that come through receiving an endowment in the temple. It has been a noble course of study to seek to more deeply understand the priesthood at large as well as in the specific (I have LOVED Joanna Brooks for leading this). I believe deeply in questioning.

But somehow I'm not satisfied with the ordination of women as an answer to all of that questioningness (If you were looking for a simple take-away message, this is it: I am not satisfied with the ordination of women to offices in the priesthood as it has been presented). A persistent concern for me in this entire conversation and in the buzz surrounding mormon feminism's upsurge in the last few years, is a disquietude for other cultures and traditions. I believe that God is big.  Bigger than I can fathom. Yes, I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the location of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. I do not, however, believe that Mormonism has a corner on the market of righteousness or of correctness in principle or faith. I easily dismissed the "wear pants to church day" as a day for a very specific subset of Mormon women in the western United States to voice their concerns and demonstrate their opinion and feelings. This was not an important day where I live- there hasn't been a Sunday that a woman hasn't worn pants to church in the two years I have lived outside of the Western U.S. Nobody has ever batted an eyelash. I believe that there are more important things about us, as children of God, than what we look like or wear. I wore a dress on that day.  I am still a Mormon feminist. 

I recently had the opportunity to travel to northwestern Montana to learn from the Assiniboine tribe, from which I am descended. I learned so much in my time there, and a study of gender was a crucial component. of my thought process (so much more to come on this later). As it pertains to this topic, I was entranced by the exclusion of women in the performance of ceremonial functions. The Assiniboine are a traditionally matriarchal society, but even still, women are not participants in pipe ceremonies or in the Sun Dance except as dancers. The women make the food and watch the children. Watching this gender normativity play out in an indigenous tradition provided a means for me to both greater understand, and forgive the misgivings of Mormon gender relations. There may be a leap in logic there, but my point is that the supposed exclusion of women in priestly office is not singularly the fault of the LDS church, but rather a larger practice that I do not purport to fully understand. I didn't understand it in the context of my tribe, and I don't understand it in the context of the church (my other tribe). I will continue my study on this topic, but I will do it with a gentle heart. I will do it with humility and forgiveness in mind. 

Two final thoughts and I will wrap up this longest-ever-post. 

One: I am not certain that women aren't priesthood holders. I don't know how to quantify this here, but I think that women are not excluded from authority. We do not hold office, but is this separate from holding the priesthood generally? We wield authority in the temples of our God in both initiatory and endowment work for our selves as well as for the dead. We have power when we bring humanity into existence (and yes, I believe that fatherhood, NOT priesthood is the equivalent of motherhood; I also believe in a Heavenly Mother. She is a major part of my belief system although I do not know her well; these are the questions that I am still seeking answers for, still studying). We have authority in our callings and the magnification thereof. I believe this and I have done this. We are qualified for the work to which we are called. I have been blessed by women both inside and out of our temples, and I can't deny the power that I have felt from them. I have learned about the Levites in Exodus, who were washed and anointed, set apart as priests unto God. We inherit their tradition. All of us. Certainly it is frustrating that I entered into this when I was 25 when my brother was ordained to an office in the priesthood when he was only 12. Yes there is a tinge of disparity. And yes, I feel that too. 

But that brings me to my second and closing point. Many of the people I talked to about this topic were women who felt already-burdened by the cares they are asked to have in the daily functioning of the church and their lives. How many times did I hear sweet, over-burdened sister say that they felt filled up in the demands of running their houses, their education, their travels, their concerns for the future and their negotiations of the past? We feel like we are running at capacity perhaps, and that an office in the priesthood would be nothing but an added level of care. To them, I acquiesce and wish them the help and comfort they seek in the held-by-men-offices in which they invest meaning. Others wish that there were more of an opportunity to serve. I echo this and I find ways to do it. I make the bread each week for our sacrament service. I provide service in planning uplifting activities for my congregation. I pay my tithing. I ask questions. The church is remarkable in the way that it works with individuals. If you haven't found this to be true, move out of the Western United States for a year and try to do your visiting teaching 100%. Your testimony will quadruple and YOU WILL BE CHALLENGED.  I recommend that we re-examine the basics before we demand the complexities. Milk, then meat. My wise friend reminds me of this often. And then she texts me nightly to see that I read my scriptures. It's really fun to get wrapped up in the complicated, heady matters of the gospel, but I think we need a moment to breathe and take in the simple purity of the gospel. The small and simple things, after all, are the means by which greatness is brought to pass. 

This is my friend Dana, modeling a shirt made for her birthday by our friend Justin. I love the message on it- "Real feminists visit teach 100%." Amen sister. Amen.