Monday, April 7, 2014

Women in Church

Random notes.  Do not mistake them for settled views (or dogmatic ones).

I have been thinking about the role of women in Mormonism in light of recent interest in ordaining them to the priesthood.  I definitely think that there needs to be an evolution in Mormon culture that makes women peers to men.  I don't think they are at present, and I don't think they can be made such without some serious adjustments to the status quo (adjustments that people will notice and react to, not always with appreciation or unmixed happiness).

That said, I am not sure the best solution to the lack of parity between the sexes in LDS Mormonism (specifically) is female ordination to what has historically been a very male priesthood.  I know many people (male and female) are stubbornly against such a move, and it would require a kind of re-orientation in priesthood culture that could be extremely disruptive (not necessarily in a good way, unless your goal is to undo or unmake the LDS church, as mine is not).

I have been thinking it might be possible to make women the peers of men in Mormonism without sending them to priesthood meetings together.  What we need is a conscious, sustained, and sincere effort to make the role of women and female leaders as important to the church as male ("priesthood") counterparts.  For every dollar the bishopric gets, the Relief Society presidency should get one.  For every non-priesthood meeting the bishopric conducts, the Relief Society should conduct another such (trading Sundays?).  For every priesthood ritual that involves women, there should be a female ritual that involves men (as the objects of female blessing, female leadership or presidency, etc.).

Historically, the functioning order of the (male) priesthood is fluid.  It was not obvious from early Mormon history that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (Q12) would control the church as it does today--unchecked and pretty much uncheckable by any other priesthood quorum.  It would be possible to disrupt the Q12's empire, I think, without thereby demeaning or destroying its priesthood (let alone the church as a whole: I think the church would do better if the Q12 consciously let go of the universal mandate it has held over the church since Brigham Young).  What would it require to make the General Relief Society Board (or Presidency, though I am conceiving that as a peer to the First Presidency right now) functionally the peer of the Q12?  We would need to give the women independent access to church resources (their own equal say in the church's business, for-profit and non-profit as well as liturgical).  The "women's conference" would need to take place as the equivalent of "priesthood meeting" (in General Conference), and we would need to see more women speaking in General Conference.  This could all be accomplished with relatively little pain, it seems to me, even when it comes to traditionalists who dislike anything that seems like change.

The hardest thing to deal with would be the maleness of prophets, seers, and revelators in Mormon institutional history.  We cannot easily make women prophets.  Many of us don't want to.  So what to do?  From my perspective, we are currently confronting a kind of crisis in traditional Mormon leadership, a crisis in which prophets, seers, and revelators are questioning their role in the church and society at large, and increasingly shying away from the kind of prophecy, seership, and revelation that defined the careers of men like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.  While insisting that the prophet must speak with authority to the world, the Q12 are careful to keep him from making the kind of bold, personal assertions that historically define his role.  The old Mormon prophets said whatever they wanted, as the Spirit inspired them, accepting and admitting that the results were occasionally disastrous (a trial from the Lord, a chance to learn humility, etc.).  They were not above offering personal apologies from the pulpit (where they also pursued personal vendettas against one another, on occasion).  They were colorful and accessible as the modern CEO prophets, with a PR department managing their press releases, cannot be.  I wonder whether it might be useful here to create some kind of female executive (a "prophetess" to balance the prophet, though that need not be her title, and her role need not be constructed overtly as priesthood).  Could there emerge some kind of Mormon Delphic Oracle, with a Mormon Pythia receiving revelation applicable in some fashion to the entire LDS church?  I think so.

Mormon and Christian history together offer all the pieces we would need to create a theological justification for female authority.  In the Old and New Testaments, female leadership is rare but there: other Christians have found it when they needed it, and we can too.  Mormon history, meanwhile, shows us women performing ordinances (blessing, healing, laying on of hands, speaking in tongues, prophecy) since associated--as a matter of policy more than doctrine, it strikes me--with male priesthood (which increasingly ignores much of its mandate in the Articles of Faith: when was the last time you went to a temple meeting like the dedication of the Kirtland Temple?).  Perhaps in expanding the active roles available to women (without simply offering them male priesthood, a gesture I don't see the church making, personally), the church might escape some of the artificial stiltedness that has infected its priesthood (and made modern Mormon rituals so unlike their nineteenth-century counterparts: again, I cannot help thinking of the Kirtland temple, or of Nauvoo, for that matter, where going to the temple to dance all night was not unheard of--what happened to that sacred ordinance? when did we replace it with snacking on jello in carpeted gyms, sitting quietly in front of a movie screen at the temple?).  The old endowment was something extemporaneous--a drama that actors performed to be contemporary.  If we were old-timey Mormons, it would involve Satan in the guise of a bankster (or perhaps a "liberal" university professor in some Utah towns, a Utah businessman-bishop in the Northeast, etc.), and the dialogue would be updated to reflect current trends and issues.  It would incorporate talks from local temple presidencies or presiding authorities (why not include female speakers?) and would evolve from performance to performance (the way a play does).  One temple would not be exactly like another.  People would not go to the temple to fall asleep listening to yet another iteration of an old script that is increasingly read to justify the very kind of unrighteous dominion (see Doctrine and Covenants 121) that early Mormon leaders decried (even if they also succumbed to its allure on occasion and became unjust tyrants: at least they saw this as something wrong, something to resist with passion rather than the will of God that all must embrace).  I cannot help feeling that women might make a really good contribution here, as newcomers and outsiders to the increasingly dull traditions of the male priesthood.

I think the male LDS priesthood has some goods that should be preserved (as unique to manhood).  I don't think that leadership is one of those goods: women need leadership; they need to rule as well as be ruled.  I wonder whether it might be good to imagine ways of letting women lead that don't involve committing them to the kind of leadership that has come to define LDS priesthood, a kind of leadership that I personally find quite disturbing (not necessarily because of its gender).  As a man looking back upon my time as an active Mormon, there are pieces of "priesthood" that I don't want for myself, for my gender, or for anyone really (friend or foe, black or white, male or female).  I wonder what opportunities the future will offer us for restructuring our idea(s) of what it means to lead, to have authority, and to submit (to one having authority).  I do not think that Deity (whatever one understands that to be) demands male leadership to the exclusion or subordination of female.  This thought is not one that I can give over easily, since I have come to it by long pondering and observation (of my own experience and that of others).  

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