Last week I composed a few words (read here) asking the Mormon faithful to look at LDS feminism and, specifically, the Ordain Women movement through a more measured and Christ-like lens. The response was, not surprisingly, a mixed bag. Happily, many took to heart the “make love, not war” message. Regardless, I spent much more of last week immersed in the discussion of female ordination than I could have predicted. When a friend pointed me to the recent Feminist Mormon Housewife podcast with Kate Kelly, founder of Ordain Women, I listened to about 30 minutes of the two hour discussion before my Internet glitched and that was that. So, admittedly, I haven’t ingested the entire interview, but I listened long enough to hear Kelly explain that OW’s public action at the Priesthood Session of April’s General Conference is intended to “communicate to the leaders of the church and to the Lord” that his daughters are, essentially, ready and waiting to be given the blessing of the priesthood. And I thought, “Sister Kelly, that ain’t gonna work.”
Right Course/Wrong Course: I find myself in an odd position. I’m not particularly interested in female ordination, though if it were offered to me, I’d not turn down the blessing. And yet, here I am, offering my two cents to OW.
First let me say that I can imagine a day when some form of priesthood will be granted in mortality to LDS women. In the late 1990’s, I became one of those dreaded history hobbyists, though I’ve not kept up my private study with any rigor. Regardless, back then I was stunned to learn that Joseph Smith spoke openly of female ordination. For instance, Emma Smith and her counselors were “ordained” to the Relief Society presidency (See Joseph Smith Papers, beginning bottom of pg 5). Of course, the term “ordain” in regards to women and LDS history has been parsed ad nauseum. A good, old-fashioned Mormon revelation–a real Thus-Saith-the-Lord–would be settling. However, even if female ordination became available, I doubt the practice would exchange a single male face in the organizational flow chart with that of a female. After all, Joseph Smith did not place any women in leadership positions outside the women’s Relief Society. Some may assume, in this day and age, female ordination would inherently mean broader female leadership, but history doesn’t bear that out. At least, that’s how I see it.
However, I respect the growing number of women who see it differently. I admire their patience and perseverance. I’ve seen them turn the other cheek, watched them smile through rejection and the bitter accusation that they should leave the Church they love. Because I respect them, I feel compelled to offer OW a little advice, even though I don’t share their passion. Here it is:
Communicating only “to the leaders of the church and to the Lord” is a mistake. In fact, at this point, it is redundant. You’ve made yourselves clear and visible to the Church hierarchy, and you’ve prayed. I submit the focus of your communication needs to be on the people sitting beside you in the pews on Sunday. They don’t stand with you and, if they don’t stand with you, how can you assert that they, particularly the daughters of God, are ready? By taking the public action that is planned for the the Priesthood Session of General Conference on April 5th, 2014, you will increase the membership’s distrust of you and leave them even less ready for female ordination than they are now. In other words, OW, you are about to shoot itself in the foot.
Stay with me as I review a little 20th century history to support my point.
Member Readiness May Matter more than Personal Worthiness: I remember reading that Apostle Spencer W. Kimball sensed that the priesthood would/should be extended to all worthy males long before the 1978 revelation. As an apostle, he felt moved to bring up the subject in meetings with the Twelve, but there was either no interest or agreement. Once Kimball became the president of the church, he moved among the Saints, quietly telling male members of “African descent” to prepare themselves, though no promises were made. Approximately three years after he became president, he and the apostles received a revelation that literally changed the face of the priesthood. Ordain Women hopes for a similarly sensitive church leader and a similar revelation.
Some cynically point out the revelation granting all worthy males the priesthood came only after years of political and social pressure on the Church … and they are correct in that, even if they are not correct that that pressure caused the revelation. If the church didn’t give in to earlier pressures, I have no reason to think any specific pressure in June of 1978 would have been sufficient to effect a change without the kind of spiritual experience that earns the title of revelation.
Interestingly, today’s discussions about blacks and the priesthood tend to revolve around the church hierarchy–the Brethren–and not the membership. But we forget that, in 1950, if a group of black Mormon men had stood outside a priesthood session of General Conference, asking for admittance, they would have been turned away. In fact, it’s very likely they would have been condemned by mid-century American Mormons as uppity, as not understanding either their place (their divine nature) or God’s will. Both are things OW members are accused of. I think it’s a fairly safe assertion to make that, in 1950, the Mormon population in the U.S. was not ready to accept the extension of the priesthood to black males. And so it didn’t come. Something had to change.
Enter the Civil Rights movements, brought straight into American homes with the advent of television. Images of bigotry softened hearts all across the U.S., including the hearts of the Saints, and taught all of America that Christ-like love must overpower socially-entrenched racism. Without this change, the 1978 revelation, late as so many argue it was, may never have happened. The membership of the church had to be more than okay with the change: I believe it had to crave it before the revelation came.
LDS feminists, however, do not have an outside movement that will help prepare the membership for female ordination, if it is to occur. The broader feminist movement is most definitely not respected by LDS people because it has not respected them. NOW tears down women-of-position who are not of their political persuasion, rather than support and celebrate them; the organization has not only abandoned homemakers and stay-at-home mothers, they have targeted them for disdain. NOW’s hypocrisy on these matters is well-known in religious communities where the emphasis remains on the traditional role of woman as familial nurturer. And I’m sure it doesn’t help that the acronym “OW” looks a heck of a lot like “NOW.”
To put it simply, the negative feelings Latter-day Saints hold for the secular feminist’s organization is bleeding over into their feelings about today’s LDS feminism. We see this manifest in rampant assumptions that LDS feminism is angry, demanding, power-hungry, anti-family, anti-God, anti-church and, of course, anti-men. Ordain Women has a difficult uphill battle, one which external (secular) feminist pressure is more likely to hurt than help. This is a very different model than the one preceding the revelation granting ordination to all worthy males. The broader membership is just beginning to consider the way we address female modesty. Female ordination is a long way from that. If OW continues to focus primarily on communicating their readiness and humility to the leadership and the Lord, but does not focus on preparing the membership, the revelation they seek will not come.
Far be it from me to compare the struggles of African Americans, whether outside or inside the LDS Church, to the current situation of LDS women. To do so would an injustice. But the parallels between the restoration of the priesthood blessings to worthy males regardless of race has built-in parallels to the current quest of Ordain Women. And so I must visit the comparison as respectfully as I can.
Genesis Group founder Darius Gray has spoken often about his early efforts to make the church more inclusive. (Read the last question/answer of this interview with Mormon Artist.) One thing that is absent from the way the Genesis Group went about its efforts is a visible protest presence, even one as mild as standing outside the doors of the Priesthood session. I estimate Gray and other Genesis leaders understood such action would inflame existing prejudice, rather than help their cause or lead to an ecclesiastical answer to their prayers. They intuited that their quest was as much a public relations outreach extended toward the general membership as a matter of prayer and inspiration from the Lord to the First Presidency.
Let’s not forget that leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (affectionately called the Brethren) are also part of the membership and of the Mormon culture. No one hires them from outside. They grew up with the same cultural code as Mormons without high position. If they are particularly aged, they were taught a gender-differentiated worldview. If, eventually, there is to be female ordination, the path to it will likely mirror the path to ordination for black male members. In other words, the general membership must have their hearts softened toward it. Not because the leaders of the Church will bow to the desires of the membership, but because the membership is the soil our Heavenly Father uses to grow truth. The soil must be prepared while the Lord is whispering inspiration to his sustained leaders.
Trending: Consider the current climate regarding female ordination. In October 2013, the Pew Research Center published a poll showing that 90% of LDS women and 84% of LDS men don’t think women should be ordained. I’ve seen more recent polling that suggests the numbers of LDS women opposed to female ordination remains the same, but that more men are warming to the idea, possibly by up to 50%. Either way, a substantial majority of the membership rejects female ordination. The rhetoric I hear coming from the general membership of the church is often hostile toward feminism in general, and Ordain Women specifically. Just as the church membership once accused black LDS men (and there weren’t many) who dared aspire to the priesthood of not understanding or submitting to God’s will, so they accuse Ordain Women of not understanding the divine nature of women. Or of men, I suppose. The similarities are real. If a revelation instating female ordination is to come, OW needs someone like Spencer W. Kimball, a man who is sensitive to the issue, a man open to inspiration, and a man who the Lord will, in time, elevate up the patriarchal ladder. As Kimball was being prepared by Heavenly Father, a work among the members was also happening. And a similar work will be needed among present-day Mormons before any revelation could occur, assuming it will occur.
If you still don’t think it matters to the institutional Church that the majority of the membership is opposed to female ordination, consider the elevated import the Church’s official response to the planned action places on the need for wide consensus among, at least, LDS women. Paragraph two of the March 17th statement to OW from the Public Affairs Office reads: “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.” With this line, the Church has officially acknowledged that nothing will happen until the membership desires it. In essence, the statement outlines the preparatory work OW must accomplish: Ready the soil (ready the culture) or the seed will not take root. Individual supporters of Ordain Women may feel ready for female ordination, but most active, faithful LDS women aren’t giving it serious consideration.
The David and Goliath Paradigm: After the Church’s PR department issued its statement, I came across one LDS feminist’s comparison of the Ordain Women/LDS Church paradigm to that of David and Goliath. Though not a proponent of female ordination, she felt that the church’s statement was combative and that issuing it was a public relation faux pas for the Church. She reasoned, the little guy always wins the hearts of the people.
Perhaps in the non-LDS world, Ordain Women gains sympathy because the statement establishes a David and Goliath paradigm between OW (David) and the Church (Goliath), but the opposite will be true in the LDS world. Mainstream Mormons are going to root for their Church which, unlike Goliath, they view as good and true.
As I reflect on the David and Goliath paradigm, it strikes me as something OW should be careful to avoid. Consider the Biblical story: A young upstart picks up a stone and, using his slingshot, kills Goliath, the giant. After this success, David chops off the giant’s head and eventually becomes the leader of the people. The David and Goliath analogy suggests that Ordain Women wants to destroy the Church and assume leadership. This paradigm feeds the fears of the mainstream LDS. Maybe the PR department was calculating enough to intentionally establish this paradigm, but I’ll give the good people who serve there the benefit of the doubt. Regardless, OW now has to live with the fact that the paradigm is publicly established. The Church, as host of the event we call the Priesthood Session, has asked OW to refrain from their planned public action. If OW does not stay away, it will appear to the membership that, like David, they have picked up a stone. It may not be their intent to be combative, but combativeness will be the perception of mainstream Latter-day Saints, regardless of the smiles worn by OW supporters. Martin Luther King urged his supporters to remain non-violent. The trouble is, in Mormondom, disharmony and dissension are esteemed darn near as detrimental to spiritual growth as violence is to peaceful reform. The televised image of OW not walking toward the doors of the Priesthood session, but assembling elsewhere, will communicate a peaceful and positive message about them to the membership.
The only stones Ordain Women should be picking up are those which clear the field for planting. I urge them to stay away from the doors of the Priesthood Session this weekend. As I see it, this is the best action OW can take at this moment in history. It will begin to soften the hearts of the general membership toward them and, by extension, their cause. OW has a choice: They either move toward the doors of the Conference Center or toward the embrace of mainstream Mormons. At the end of the day, they will not find themselves inside either, but at least one of these directions will bring them closer to a Church readied for what they desire.
I caution them to choose prayerfully and wisely what they will be communicating this weekend. And to whom.
“He that is without sin among you, let him cast a first stone…” John 8:32.