Will Women Ever Get the Mormon Priesthood?

Until I was almost 18 years old, the Mormon Church would not ordain men of black African descent to the Mormon priesthood. That all changed in 1978–a change I wrote about in these posts:

Having changed its policy to allow men of African descent to be ordained, could the Mormon Church ever allow women to be ordained? On the one hand, the Mormon Church recently excommunicated Kate Kelly for founding and leading the group Ordain Women, which advocates allowing women to be ordained to the Mormon priesthood.  (See Emma Green’s June 24, 2014 Atlantic article “Kicked Out of Heaven for Wanting Women Priests.” And here is a podcast of an excellent interview with Kate Kelley that Sid Sharma alerted me to.) On the other hand, it seems as if Ordain Women’s efforts are having some effect. Among those efforts, one of the most powerful has been organizing women to line up to get into (and get turned away from) the “Priesthood Session” of the Mormon Church’s twice-a-year “General Conference.” The Mormon Church’s sensitivity to this bit of activism is indicated by the efforts it has made to ban news cameras from Temple Square to avoid more pictures of Ordain Women’s protest about women being excluded.    

Kate Kelly did not want to be thrown out of the Mormon Church. My view is that, given the realities of how the Mormon Church as an institution operates, Kate Kelly’s sacrifice of being willing to stand her ground and be excommunicated was an important contribution toward greater equality between men and women in the Mormon Church, for two reasons. First, organizing women for a highly visible protest of women’s exclusion–and Kate’s excommunication itself–get Mormons talking about the issue.

Second, the advocacy of Ordain Women creates space for quite a bit of movement toward greater equality under cover of saying “Those women trying to get into the Priesthood Session of General Conference are going too far, but …”. In other words, progress often requires someone to volunteer to be the hippie for “hippie-punching.” (See Josiah Neeley’s guest post “The Science of Hippie-Punching on Noah Smith’s blog Noahpinion for an explanation of the term "hippie-punching.”)

Even top leaders of the Mormon Church can now push for greater equality between men and women while reassuring more conservative colleagues that they won’t go too far in undoing the traditional exclusion of women from positions of power by agreeing that Kate Kelly had to be excommunicated. (The concern of more conservative Mormon leaders would be to (a) keep the Mormon Church from looking bad and (b) to set limits.) Given the likely discussions among top Mormon leaders about what to do about Ordain Women before Kate Kelly was actually excommunicated, it is appropriate to see Mormon Apostle Dallin Oaks’s General Conference talk “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood” as the outcome of such dynamics within the leadership of the Mormon Church. (As you can see from Suzette Smith's Ordain Women blog post “Reflections on Elder Oaks’ Remarks in the Priesthood Session of General Conference," I am not alone in seeing Dallin Oaks’s talk as a favorable development for women’s equality in the Mormon Church.)

In the Mormon Church, the longest-serving apostle still alive becomes the head–President and Prophet–of the Mormon Church. And seniority in this sense of time in rank is also very important in how Mormon leaders interact with one another. Dallin Oaks is currently the 5th most senior apostle, and several of the more senior apostles are in poor health due to advanced age. Also, before being appointed to high church office, Dallin Oaks was a high-powered lawyer. So  other Mormon Church leaders trust him to present their position well. Given his lawyer’s training, Dallin is careful to represent the collective views of the Mormon Church leadership, but he himself has a mild liberal streak, having served as founding member of the editorial board of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, which sometimes hosts articles in opposition to official positions of the Mormon Church (including keyarticles that helped prepare the way for the extending the Mormon priesthood to men of black African descent.

Here are some key passages from Dallin’s General Conference talk "The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood” with my commentary after each passage. 

1. With the exception of the sacred work that sisters do in the temple under the keys held by the temple president, which I will describe hereafter, only one who holds a priesthood office can officiate in a priesthood ordinance.

Mormon temples are at a much higher level of sacredness than the regular meetinghouses where Sunday services are held. They are the site of many powerful and very interesting rituals that non-Mormons never see. The passage just above from Dallin’s talk is remarkable for openly acknowledge that in Mormon temples, women officiate in certain rituals in what to all appearances is a priestly capacity fully parallel to the way in which men officiate in a priestly capacity in the corresponding rituals. If Mormon women took roles this closely parallel to those taken by men in rituals outside of temples as well, they would have a version of the Mormon priesthood in all but name.

2. We are accustomed to thinking that all keys of the priesthood were conferred on Joseph Smith in the Kirtland Temple, but the scripture states that all that was conferred there were “the keys of this dispensation” (D&C 110:16). At general conference many years ago, President Spencer W. Kimball reminded us that there are other priesthood keys that have not been given to man on the earth, including the keys of creation and resurrection.

Dallin’s reference to one of my (unfortunately deceased) grandfather Spencer W. Kimball’s statements is a reminder that, as the official distillation of Mormon belief into thirteen “Articles of Faith” says, “we believe that [God] will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” In context, this is a positive note that God could open the door to ordination, or at least more extensive priestly or priest-like roles for Mormon women. (A good example of an additional priest-like role for Mormon women that would not be too radical a change from current policy would be if Mormon women were once again encouraged, as they were in the 19th century, to give healing blessings–that is, when appropriate, to put their hands on someone’s head while saying a prayer for that person to recover from a sickness.)

3. The divine nature of the limitations put upon the exercise of priesthood keys explains an essential contrast between decisions on matters of Church administration and decisions affecting the priesthood. The First Presidency and the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, who preside over the Church, are empowered to make many decisions affecting Church policies and procedures—matters such as the location of Church buildings and the ages for missionary service. But even though these presiding authorities hold and exercise all of the keys delegated to men in this dispensation, they are not free to alter the divinely decreed pattern that only men will hold offices in the priesthood.

Just as Mormon Church leaders said about extending the Mormon priesthood to men of African descent, Dallin is saying it would take a special revelation from God to extend the Mormon priesthood to women. But of course, Mormons believe that God did give a special revelation in 1978 that the Mormon priesthood should be offered to all faithful men. So that is not at all ruling out more extensive priestly roles for women, only saying that Mormon Church leaders would have to feel they had a powerful subjective spiritual experience (which they interpreted with confidence as an actual communication from God) in favor of such a change before they would think they had the warrant to do so.

4. In an address to the Relief Society, President Joseph Fielding Smith, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said this: “While the sisters have not been given the Priesthood, it has not been conferred upon them, that does not mean that the Lord has not given unto them authority. … A person may have authority given to him, or a sister to her, to do certain things in the Church that are binding and absolutely necessary for our salvation, such as the work that our sisters do in the House of the Lord. They have authority given unto them to do some great and wonderful things, sacred unto the Lord, and binding just as thoroughly as are the blessings that are given by the men who hold the Priesthood.”

In that notable address, President Smith said again and again that women have been given authority. To the women he said, “You can speak with authority, because the Lord has placed authority upon you.” He also said that the Relief Society “[has] been given power and authority to do a great many things. The work which they do is done by divine authority.” And, of course, the Church work done by women or men, whether in the temple or in the wards or branches, is done under the direction of those who hold priesthood keys. Thus, speaking of the Relief Society, President Smith explained, “[The Lord] has given to them this great organization where they have authority to serve under the directions of the bishops of the wards … , looking after the interest of our people both spiritually and temporally.”

Thus, it is truly said that Relief Society is not just a class for women but something they belong to—a divinely established appendage to the priesthood.

We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be? When a woman—young or old—is set apart to preach the gospel as a full-time missionary, she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function. The same is true when a woman is set apart to function as an officer or teacher in a Church organization under the direction of one who holds the keys of the priesthood. Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.

In giving this quotation from Joseph Fielding Smith, an earlier church leader who later became President of the Mormon Church, Dallin not only alludes again to the clearly priest-like functions women perform in Mormon temples, but also says that while women do not have “the priesthood,” they routinely have “the authority of the priesthood” in the many “callings” (appointive church volunteer positions) in which they serve in the Mormon Church. The effect is to more nearly equate the prestige of the callings women serve in to the callings men serve in.

5. As stated in the family proclamation, the father presides in the family and he and the mother have separate responsibilities, but they are “obligated to help one another as equal partners.” Some years before the family proclamation, President Spencer W. Kimball gave this inspired explanation: “When we speak of marriage as a partnership, let us speak of marriage as a full partnership. We do not want our LDS women to be silent partners or limited partners in that eternal assignment! Please be a contributing and full partner.”

In the eyes of God, whether in the Church or in the family, women and men are equal, with different responsibilities.

Despite its origins as a document hoping to hold the line against legal gay marriage (a topic I address here), and its essentialist views on gender, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” does say that men and women are equal. This and other official statements that men and women are equal because they have the potential to counteract the very understandable inference by Mormons that since only men hold the priesthood, men are more than equal to women. It is this difficult-to-suppress inference that is the most damaging aspect of Mormon women being excluded from priesthood offices–much more damaging than the (significant) hurt from not being able to perform certain rituals. 

6. In his insightful talk at BYU Education Week last summer, Elder M. Russell Ballard gave these teachings:

“Our Church doctrine places women equal to and yet different from men. God does not regard either gender as better or more important than the other. …

“When men and women go to the temple, they are both endowed with the same power, which is priesthood power. … Access to the power and the blessings of the priesthood is available to all of God’s children.”

In most religions that have ordained women, women have gained the opportunity to take on exactly the same offices as men. That is the usual pattern. But in Mormonism, what the threads of past tradition point to as a more likely resolution of the current structural inequality between men and women is (a) the recognition of a parallel priesthood for women that is different, but of equal dignity and (b) inclusion of women in all the decision-making councils of the church on the basis of their separate but equal priesthood. Already it is well within the discretion of the bishop who leads a Mormon congregation to include female leaders in the key decision-making meetings. (And many do.) A simple step for the Mormon Church would be to insist that all bishops do this, rather than merely allowing it. A more radical step would be to recognize the top female leader in a Mormon congregation as the co-equal of the bishop, just as the church leaders Dallin quotes recognize the wife as a co-equal of the husband in a marriage.

One of the great strengths of Mormonism is its adaptability. Unlike in Catholicism, where the Pope is limited to interpreting the preexisting tradition, the Mormon Prophet can declare de novo revelations from God. And to the extent precedents are desired, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was creative enough (and other Mormon leaders also felt latitude to be creative given the doctrine that they could get inspiration from God) that a wide variety of precedents are available. The Mormon hierarchy is set up in such a way that it is led by old men, who have a great deal of wisdom from their life experience. So it is resistant to fads and sometimes resistant to changes that should happen. But with the lag one would expect from the age structure of the leadership, many changes that should happen eventually do happen. Someday, I expect women to have a much more equal station in the Mormon Church than they do now. As part of that equality, I see a future Mormon Church that is led by wise old women as well as wise old men.

Despite being a non-supernaturalist myself, I know that religions that expect belief in the supernatural matter a lot to their adherents, just as religions that fully welcome non-supernaturalists matter to people like me. And having grown up within Mormonism, and having many friends and family who are still believers, makes me care about Mormonism. I think that equality between men and women is important for both supernaturalist and non-supernaturalist religions. However, in religions that believe in the supernatural, beliefs about the distribution of supernatural gifts between men and women matter. One way or another, I hope that Mormonism finds its way to a greater level of equality between men and women, as I think it will.

– written in Rome