Epiphany

Doctrine and Covenants 88:118

Doctrine and Covenants 88:118

The funny thing about our new digital lives is that they leave markers and traces of our online activities everywhere. In 2010 and early 2011, I wasn’t writing in a journal, but I was using interlibrary loan frequently. I made my requests online and the system kept a record of all of the books that I checked out.

I discovered interlibrary loan when I wrote a book chapter that was a revision of my undergraduate thesis on illustrated books of the Book of Revelation in thirteenth and fourteenth century England. My children were toddlers and I wanted to feel more connected to my previous academic work. The project made me feel like I was reclaiming something I had lost in the years of pregnancy and nursing. I was surprised that writing wasn’t the painful experience I remembered from grad school. It felt liberating at a time when I needed some mental freedom from potty training and toddler arguments.

After the book chapter, I felt that I needed to learn more about other areas of art history. I taught a lot of subjects that were outside of my area of research and I wanted to feel more confident and knowledgeable in the classroom. I decided to start with Early Christian art.

I read a few journal articles online through JSTOR. They pointed to other books and articles and I requested them through interlibrary loan. I read those and hunted down books that were referenced in the footnotes. I read several major works on Early Christian art and then started to branch out.

I had other topics on my mind too. As a doctoral student in medieval art history, I encountered other doctoral students at conferences. Other students in my field were researching illuminated manuscripts and issues of women and manuscripts seemed to be a popular topic. But none of the prominent medievalists I knew at the University of Cambridge were writing about gender. And perhaps because none of them were writing about gender, none of the grad students at my university were writing about gender either. I assumed that gender wasn’t worth studying. Part of me disliked the idea that, as a woman, I should limit my research to women and I started to look down on those students at conferences who did.

But I wasn’t a grad student any more. I wasn’t in Cambridge. I didn’t see or hear about those prominent scholars any more. I was no longer trying to fit into that crowd or mold. In the high desert of Southern Utah, none of that seemed to matter.

I was a mom at home with two and three year old daughters. I taught a class on the side each semester to try and preserve my sanity, but it wasn’t enough. My children needed me all day every day and often in the night. My former life as a grad student felt distant and my future uncertain. I was so stuck in that stage of life and I couldn’t believe that my children would ever be old enough to attend school. I truly felt that we would never get there, but would be stuck in toddlerhood forever.

It didn’t help that the girls’ bedtime routine had become a nightmare. My three year old had a firm expectation that every night I had to make up three stories about Dora the Explorer and then sing her three songs. If these were not performed to her liking, and they rarely were, then I would have to start over again and it was likely to end in tears and her getting out of bed repeatedly. I dreaded this time of day and I felt like there was no room for me in my life. All of my former ambitions had been crowded out by sippy cups and joy was replaced with irrational toddler demands.

When I started reading books and articles on Early Christian art, it was like I was reading myself back to life. Pregnancy had caused my thought processes to slow and I feared that the change was permanent. Motherhood was exhausting and overwhelming, but as I started to read, I felt as though my brain was being upgraded and I had a new drive for intellectual activity. Academic work had started to feel confining at the end of my Ph D, but what I felt with this renewed effort was exhilarating.

I was in the mood for change and that included a change of approach. I was no longer bound by what senior scholars did in Cambridge and there was no longer any academic cost to trying new things. Maybe it would be OK to learn about women in the Middle Ages, and really, no one would know or care. I felt daring and transgressive as I started to venture into these previously frowned-upon topics.

Among the books I requested from interlibrary loan and was a book by scholar Gary Macy titled The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West. I wasn’t convinced it held anything worthwhile and thought that the title sounded too much like something from the History Channel, with the trailers promising to reveal the dark and exciting secrets of Christian history where Jesus had something to do with aliens or the Illuminati. At least it would be entertaining, I thought when I picked it up at the library.

It sat on my bedside table for a few weeks with a pile of other books that didn’t peak my interest. One night in January 2011, I remember staring at the manuscript illumination of the Annunciation on its cover before opening it. The faces looked like they were made by German artists and the way the angel’s clothing blew away in an imaginary breeze recalled the Romanesque period. Illustrations of the Annunciation generally show Mary reading, as if she was reading some prophecy of herself in Isaiah at the moment that the Angel Gabriel turned up to tell her that her son would be the messiah. In this image, though, Mary is praying, her hands raised and her palms forward in the orans pose.

So few women were ever visited by angels in the scriptures. Divine messengers were generally reserved for male prophets. In typical Romanesque fashion, both Mary and the angel had blank expressions. Gabriel delivered some of the most important news ever received and Mary accepted it with prayerful serenity. She wasn’t even aware of the Holy Ghost, in the form of a dove, nipping at her head and filling her womb. She was not dressed like a twelfth century woman, but like a twelfth century Catholic priest. I brushed this detail aside. Interesting, but not the first unusual representation of Mary that I’d seen.

I opened the book expecting bad scholarship, few references or citations, and many stretched conclusions. I was a medievalist with a Ph D from a top university. Surely, if women had been ordained during any part of the Middle Ages, I would have heard about it by now. Someone would have referenced it at a conference. It would have appeared in the major works of scholarship I’d already read. This book was going to be so bad it would be hilarious and I would enjoy poking fun at its missteps.

The book did not meet my expectations.

Macy outlined the evidence and debate around the ordination of women in early Christianity and in the early Middle Ages. I had no idea that that there was a debate. None of the art history, history, or late-medieval theology books and articles I read mentioned any of this. The theological and historical conversation about women and ordination had not progressed beyond Christian seminaries and into more mainstream medieval studies. I wasn’t reading bad scholarship, I was reading great work and I couldn’t believe that I had never encountered these ideas and this evidence before.

As I read the assessments of primary sources, I thought about the kinds of religious clothing that ordained women might have worn and the potential impact of this new information on my field of art history. I also began to think about what this meant in terms of my own faith.

Mormons have 13 Articles of Faith that are part of our scriptures and are found in the text known as The Pearl of Great Price. The sixth article reads “We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.” The LDS Church sees itself as a revival of Jesus’ original church, the “primitive church” referenced in the Article of Faith. It seemed as though the ordination of women may have been part of the legacy of that original church organization.

I didn’t anticipate finding compelling evidence for the ordination of women in the early church, but there it was. When I realized that the author had both compelling evidence and solid arguments, I was reading in bed late one night by lamplight. My husband was asleep beside me and my daughters were asleep in their room.

Alone, I said a prayer asking God if women really had been ordained. I had avoided this controversial topic and had not worried about it, largely because I had been ignorant that such a thing had happened in the past. But now I needed to know. Dear God, did this happen? Was this real?

After my prayer, I felt an immediate and overwhelming feeling that what I was reading was correct, women had been ordained. My answer felt powerful and peaceful and my skin tingled the way it had when I first read The Book of Mormon. It was a few minutes before other questions encroached on that peace. If women had been ordained in the early church and the LDS Church was based on the organization of that early church, then why did we not also ordain women?

The immediate answer to this question was simply Wait. But for what, exactly? And how long? But there were no more answers for me that night.

I felt energized by my discovery and spiritual experience, but also unnerved. I realized that I was now a bad Mormon feminist, one of those women who wanted the priesthood. I mean, I guess I now wanted the priesthood. Shouldn’t I want it? Isn’t that was this meant?

I knew that there would be great risks in sharing what I had read and my experiences with it and so I kept them to myself, followed God’s counsel, and waited.

Nancy Ross

Nancy Ross is an art history professor by day and a sociologist of religion by night. She lives in St. George, Utah with her husband and two daughters and co-hosts the Faith Transitions podcast.

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6 Responses

  1. Heather says:

    Nancy this is so beautiful in so many ways. The writing, the struggle w toddlers, the desire for knowledge, the honest prayer, all of it resonates with me. Thank you for sharing all of this. I am going to share it too!

  2. Anne says:

    Beautiful.

  3. I remember you sharing this experience with me verbally. I am so glad you have put this sacred event in your life in writing.

  4. Jenny says:

    This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing. I love hearing how other women have come to their conclusions about things like female ordination because it’s so different and individual. It shows how God speaks to us in a way that we will understand. It gives me hope that there is a plan for ordination to come about as God speaks individually to the women and men of the church, including those who lead the church.

  5. EFH says:

    This is a great example how there is attainable truth everywhere. And you found it via art. This tells a lot about how God might be like and that he expands beyond institutions and groups of people organized under his name. Very beautiful experience, indeed. Thank you for sharing it. I miss my days and nights when I would be constantly emerged in reading and music.

  6. Violadiva says:

    I’m looking forward to the day when I don’t have to cater to the demands of my 3-year-old dictator and can do some reading like this! Such a real perspective. I’m glad you shared your revelation with us.

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