The spiritual adventures of a gay man recently returned to Mormonism
Following the Ordain Women event on October 5, 2013, John Dehlin interviewed—in his Mormon Stories podcast—Ordain Women leaders and participants (Episode 442) and then feminists with alternative approaches (Episodes 443-444). A lively discussion followed in the comments on the webpage.
I am an ardent supporter of Ordain Women (“OW”). I attended the event and I look forward with faith to the day when no priesthood office will be denied a person because of her gender. I understand the visceral responses we OW supporters have to people who think we are going about things the wrong way. But I want to take a moment to focus on just how much agreement there is between OW and the group I will call the moderate feminists (“MFs”). (I should note here that I will attempt to represent people’s nuanced statements and positions as best I can. I apologize in advance for any mistakes and I invite corrections. Although I align myself with OW, I speak only for myself.)
First, each of the MFs has done wonderful work in the cause of big-tent Mormonism. Fiona Givens’ book, The God Who Weeps, singlehandedly revived my testimony of the gospel. She and her husband Terryl are creating a much greater space in the church for Mormons who do not fit the traditional mold. Margaret Blair Young has dedicated her professional and personal life to understanding the lives and experiences of black Saints. Neylan McBaine has articulated the dissatisfaction many Mormon women feel in the church and has suggested wonderful, concrete ways of addressing that within the current doctrinal framework. Maxine Hanks, I need hardly say, brought together the classic book Women and Authority that identifies trends playing out in Mormon feminism even until now. These thoughtful fellow Saints deserve our close attention.
I find several major areas of agreement between OW and the MFs:
1. There is a serious problem with women’s place or treatment in the church that requires a change in church culture and policies.
For Neylan, the church’s message of gender equality is not reflected in the medium of the church. Margaret notes the visual problem—with mostly men and mostly white people sitting on the stand at General Conference—as well as labels and stereotypes of women in church manuals. All of the MFs expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo and a desire for change to make the church a friendlier place for women.
This already puts a good deal of daylight between the MFs and the General Presidents of the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary, who seemed to indicate last April that Mormon women are generally content with receiving the blessings of the priesthood.
2. Women currently have priesthood power, though they do not have priesthood authority in the church structure.
Toward the beginning of the podcast, Fiona mentioned President Packer’s distinction between priesthood authority—which is institutional—and priesthood power—which is a spiritual gift. This distinction became a theme throughout the conversation. I think most OW participants would agree, as did the MFs, that (1) Mormon women currently have priesthood power—though not priesthood authority, (2) most or many Mormon women are unaware that they have priesthood power, and (3) our rhetoric needs to improve greatly in this regard.
We’re not in Sunday-school land any more. These are huge areas of feminist agreement. I learned a great deal from Neylan when she said that Mormon women (and, I would add, men), have an underdeveloped sense of our own spiritual authority, the kind of inner purpose that comes from feeling the Spirit, receiving personal revelation, and developing a close relationship with the Savior.
In a similar vein, Margaret spoke of opening up imaginatively and creatively that allows us to receive God’s power in abundance: opening our minds to the possibility that we are greater than what we had imagined, that our own gifts are beyond what we had conceived of: “and you may partake.” This really resonated with me.
Of course, OW and the MFs disagree on the significance of the power/authority divide. For me, we can both open ourselves up to greater personal priesthood power AND seek equal priesthood authority in the church. In fact, for me, one can legitimately lead to the other.
3. We should look to Joseph Smith and the first Relief Society to understand women’s priesthood roles.
The MFs agreed that we should seek a return to the gifts exercised by early Relief Society sisters, including performing healing ordinances and maintaining an autonomous organization.
Maxine acknowledged that both OW and the MFs look to the key Joseph Smith turned to women in the Relief Society, to be a “kingdom of priests.” The MFs would like to see the Relief Society return to an equal—rather than auxiliary—status with the male priesthood quorums. Some of the MFs even regard the Relief Society as a quorum, into which women are ordained (i.e. ordered, made part of a religious order).
Although I dislike “separate but equal” as much as anyone, I think it would be amazing progress were the church to acknowledge that the Relief Society is a co-equal quorum at every level, that women are ordained to it, and that they possess priesthood power that allows them to perform healing blessings and autonomously administer their organization.
4. Mormons have ceded too much of our spiritual autonomy to General Authorities.
Neylan feels, as I do, that the General Authorities’ words are not prescriptive of our lives, but are rather meant to indicate priorities, with our own inner authority pointing the way for us individually. Fiona referred to God’s statement in the Doctrine & Covenants that Joseph was called to show what God could do with the weak things of the world, that General Authorities are fallible human beings. For Margaret, church leaders should not only admit that they have made mistakes in the past but should acknowledge specific mistakes.
While urging patience with and empathy for leaders, Margaret and Fiona both called for a shift in focus, away from watered-down lesson manuals and General Authority talks to the scriptures themselves, as repositories of great spiritual power.
I agree! Where OW and the MFs disagree, I think, is on the significance of General Authorities’ fallibility. Fiona sees a need for patience as the Lord works through imperfect servants. I personally see little indication that change will occur without a strong articulation of a need for that change, which OW is doing. This leads me to:
5. Ordain Women has had a positive effect in focusing and advancing the conversation of women’s place in the church.
The MFs praised Ordain Women for bringing the issue of women’s place in the church to the forefront of people’s minds and for advancing the conversation significantly. They were even delighted that OW brought the word “ordain” into common parlance when talking about women in the church.
There are naturally some areas of difference between OW and the MFs, as well:
1. How to go about expressing confidence in church leadership.
Despite seeing General Authorities as fallible, the MFs tend to have a great deal of confidence in them. For Fiona, OW can now stand back and wait for what the Lord has prepared, which is better than what OW has in mind. Both Margaret and Maxine believe that conversations to advance women’s position in the church are happening at the highest levels of church leadership, with historians and specialists and leaders working on this issue.
I see OW as having just as much confidence in the leaders, but in a different way. OW is not at all rejecting church leaders, but is in fact asking them to pray about women’s ordination and expressing confidence that the Lord will work through them. It is entirely possible that women’s ordination is precisely what the Lord has in mind for the church.
The MFs and OW simply have a good faith disagreement about the kind and degree of action required on individual Saints’ part to work for women’s equality in the church.
2. Unequal treatment of women in the church power structure as an Abrahamic sacrifice that we must endure.
The MFs believe that we must suffer through the structural inequality to find a deeper truth and to develop humility. Rather than trying to change the unequal power dynamic, women should cultivate inner authority and individual self-determination to show stewardship over the blessings they have already been given and readiness for greater things.
Again, I believe that cultivating inner authority and humility can lead a person to work for equality within the structure. Since sexism and misogyny are cultural constructs, one can legitimately see them not as God-given (or God-permitted) crosses to be borne but as human-created systemic problems to be changed.
3. Ordain Women’s actions are divisive, while unity is of utmost importance.
The MFs emphasized the importance of unity: if ye are not one, ye are not mine.
Of course unity is necessary. But this begs the question of what unity means. Does it mean not taking a position in variance with our leaders? Not rocking the boat? I can imagine more traditional Mormons telling the MFs that their positions are divisive and they should fall in line with the status quo. Jesus himself was frequently at odds with the religious establishment of his time. (OW’s methods seems positively prim in comparison to taking a whip to moneychangers in the temple—and all they were doing was overcharging!)
For me, unity is a big-picture affair: I believe one can disagree in good faith with the leaders and the status quo while maintaining unity in God and in the greater vision of Zion. I think OW does this. OW is clearly not out to destroy the church but to help it become a place of equality and, yes, greater unity.
4. Ordain Women is essentially a first-world movement that ignores the international scope of the church.
I’m just going to say that this area produced some real howlers. Some of the MFs see the church’s male hegemony as being an attraction to the church for sexist men in the Middle East and Africa, with the result that their wives and daughters are brought into the church and can then experience priesthood power. Margaret points to the way in which the Relief Society already empowers women in Latin America to take on leadership roles and serve each other. She feels that church leaders are dealing with very important international issues, and that OW’s concerns are just one of the many balls they are juggling.
The inverse of this argument, however, is that OW’s efforts at home (which for most, but not all, OW members is North America) may produce great blessings for women throughout the church. In this way, OW is uniquely placed to affect the international status of women—who are, after all, 50% of the church—for the better. I see OW not at all as parochial but as addressing a global—even a cosmic—issue.
I hope to have shown in this over-long post that there are major areas of agreement between OW and the MFs, and that the areas of disagreement are good-faith differences. Although our methods vary somewhat, we are all working to make the church a healthier, friendlier place where women and men can achieve their potential as children of Heavenly Parents.
I am grateful to Fiona, Margaret, Neylan, and Maxine for speaking their hearts. I learned a great deal from them, and I second Maxine’s call to greater compassion for each other.
My love to one and all!