Guest Post –Breaking Taboos: Desire, Priesthood, and Revelation


By ElleK

A few months ago in Relief Society, our lesson was on the sacrament. My nine months pregnant body was uncomfortably wedged in a green padded chair, and I felt hungry and cantankerous. The teacher had us look at a picture of a family receiving the sacrament bread from a Deacon. We were instructed to list what we saw, what we thought, and what we wondered about the people and the event depicted.

During the silence of the “I wonder” exercise, I thought, I wonder how different this picture would look if a young woman was serving this family instead of a young man.

I wonder if women or young women will ever again be granted opportunities to participate in preparing, administering, or performing this ordinance.

I wonder if women will ever hold the priesthood.

And then, as the teacher asked us to share, I thought, I wonder what would happen if I raised my hand and said what I was just thinking.

And you know, I almost did it. In a “non-threatening way,” of course, probably prefaced with a “now, don’t anybody freak out–this is rhetorical!” But apparently my nine months pregnant self still had some inhibitions left because I sat quietly for the rest of the lesson. Facilitating an open discussion about gender inequities in the church or even raising hypothetical questions just isn’t done. It’s taboo. I took up a large amount of space in my chair that day, but I felt small.

*

At the beginning of the lesson, we listened to an anecdote about Howard W. Hunter. His father was not a member of the church and would not allow him to be baptized. When Howard turned 12, the age when all the other boys received the priesthood, he was devastated that he couldn’t do the same. He was uncomfortable during the sacrament because he so wanted to serve. Eventually, his father granted permission, and Howard was happily baptized, ordained, and able to participate in administering the sacrament.

It was a nice anecdote (though tone deaf in light of the church’s new policy which prohibits until age 18 the baptisms/ordinations of the children of gay couples), but it made me reflect on the contrast between 12 year-old-boys and girls in the church. I remember turning 12. I remember my male peers getting ordained and passing the sacrament. I remember feeling confused and sad and a bit angry that I couldn’t have the same privilege. But a part of me knew, even then, that those were feelings I couldn’t talk about. They were feelings I wasn’t supposed to have. It was fine and right for young Howard to feel this grief: he was a boy. For me, a girl, it was not.

*

I recently read a beautifully written article commemorating the end of the priesthood/temple ban for black people in 1978. It talked about how the prophet at the time, Spencer Kimball, had spent months pondering, fasting, and praying because he wanted to know if this policy (considered doctrine at the time) should change.

From the article: “As congregations of believers grew in Ghana and Nigeria…President Spencer W. Kimball witnessed their faithfulness and became increasingly preoccupied with how to help them grow in the faith….By early 1978, President Kimball was regularly praying in the temple for revelation about extending priesthood ordination and temple blessings to black members of the Church. He spoke at length with his counselors in the First Presidency and with members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on the subject and invited them to make it a matter of study and prayer.

“On June 1, 1978, President Kimball met with the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the temple. He asked once again for their thoughts and counsel concerning the restriction and then prayed for revelation.” [1]

President Kimball and the apostles present received a strong and clear answer. A week later, a letter went out to all the congregations of the church announcing the lifting of the ban.

He later said of this experience, “I had a great deal to fight, of course, myself largely, because I had grown up with this thought that Negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life till my death and fight for it and defend it as it was. But this revelation and assurance came to me so clearly that there was no question about it.” (Deseret News, 1/7/1979)

When I read this, it filled me with a deep longing. The wish of my heart is for the current leadership of the church to focus as single-mindedly on expanding women’s roles and opportunities in the church as the former leadership did for black members in 1978. It is possible that this is happening even as I write. Indeed, over the past few years there have been a few changes–some very small, some more significant–that suggest that the church is slowly moving toward more equitable practices.

Despite these few changes, I remain very discouraged. We are still a long, long way off, and for every encouraging change, there has been an equally troubling one. Recent actions suggest the church is in a period of retrenchment, not one of making the tent bigger, more inclusive, or more egalitarian. There is an abundance of changes–large and small–in policy and practice (not necessarily doctrine) that the church could very easily implement that would expand opportunities for women’s service and participation, but they do not happen. Church headquarters is silent, and orthodox members in the pews are too uncomfortable or unwilling to recognize or discuss the need for reform.

I think I could handle these challenges with much less off-and-on angst if there were either reform from the top or support at the bottom. If we could have discussions in the pews or in our classes where we could all share our experiences openly without fear of being shamed, shunned, corrected, or released from callings. If we could truly listen and learn from each other and seek to understand, despite differing viewpoints.

I love President Kimball’s humility in the quote above: he was prepared to fight for the rest of his life defending the priesthood/temple ban because it was what he’d always believed to be the will of God, but he opened himself to the possibility that maybe he’d been wrong, that maybe there was a better way, that maybe God had more in store for the church than he could imagine with his current understanding.

I don’t think God generally smacks any of us–church leaders included–over the head with revelation we’re not ready to receive. Far be it from me to mandate what that revelation should or could or might be, but I will continue to speak up where I can, to sit out this period of retrenchment as patiently as I can, and to wait as hopefully as I can for God’s full will for His/Their daughters to be revealed.

[1] https://history.lds.org/article/od2-witnessing-the-faithfulness?lang=eng

ElleK is a writer, a reader, a teacher at heart, and a former and future professional who is, at present, mothering at home. She listens to NPR in the car, sings in the shower, and crusades from her couch. Women’s issues in the church are not a pebble in her shoe; they are a boulder on her chest.

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26 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful post, ElleK. Sometimes I am optimistic that there are tiny baby steps forward for women (being included in more councils, praying in GC, etc). But other times I feel hopeless — these little moves forward seem like bandaids meant to appease but which don’t fix the real problems. I have little confidence our leaders are earnestly praying about and grappling over the church’s current policies towards women’s opportunities and contributions in the church. How I wish they did.

    • ElleK says:

      I have regrettably become cynical about the church’s small steps toward more woman-friendly policy. I used to get so excited every time a new little thing changed, and now when I hear about something, I think, really? Why are we celebrating this when we should be embarrassed it’s taken us this long to only get this far? I wish I felt like I could trust that our leaders cared about issues that are important to me, but I don’t.

  2. Emily U says:

    I’m with you, ElleK. I wish the Q15 were seeking revelation about ordaining women but I doubt they are. As I think about the parallels with the 1978 revelation, I think they are limited. There were external pressures on the Church around that time, and you had a majority population within the Church that wanted the change. Unfortunately with women’s equality, the external pressures aren’t there, and the majority population within the Church seems to be more or less OK with gender inequality. I once viewed incremental changes as hopeful, because I thought they were leading to fundamental changes, but now I think they’re not leading to anything much.

    I agree with you that we’re in a period of retrenchment. I also think these issues are particularly complicated for Mormons because we’ve painted ourselves into a corner on gender by the Family Proc. Gender is linked to marriage, and priesthood, and the nature of God, all three are rooted in patriarchy. To change any of those three from patriarchal to equal between all genders would destabilize the other two. This would mean a lot of upset for a lot of people. Hence retrenchment in the face of marriage equality, ordain women, and questions about Heavenly Mother.

    • ElleK says:

      I agree with you. So often lately, it seems our leaders are acting out of fear, not out of love. It is disconcerting to me how threatened they are by the groups/issues you mentioned.

      For a church that claims to only change when God reveals it and not because of external pressure, we sure do have a lot of conveniently-timed revelations (black priesthood/temple ban, polygamy).

    • Andrew R. says:

      “Gender is linked to marriage, and priesthood, and the nature of God, all three are rooted in patriarchy”

      All three rooted in revelation. If you don’t believe the revelations simply because they were given to men (and therefore patriarchal) I am not sure what to say.

      The priesthood as always been given only to men. It is hard to say that this is a patriarchal thing, that men always do, because there are many instances in other religions of female gods, priests and the like.

      With so much of what Joseph introduced as part of the restoration it would have not been hard to ordain all. But that is not how it is.

  3. Ellen says:

    ElleK- this is so familiar and so very depressing. For a church founded by someone who had questions, we have become so against questioning. I try to be encouraged by the baby steps, but i mostly feel despair. I really don’t think the men at the top even see the problems. The system has worked great for them, so there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with it. Humility to see if there is another way is missing. I would love to hear a conference talk about seeking the Lord’s will concerning the role of women. Probably not gonna happen in my lifetime.

    • ElleK says:

      Ellen, I also think the church’s preoccupation with secrecy plays into that dynamic, as well. There is little to no transparency regarding the inner workings of the upper echelons of church leadership (though there are a few exceptions). I don’t think they’ve ever come out and said what they’re currently working on receiving revelation for, and I’m not sure why. I think it may have to do with preserving the illusion that the Q15 agrees on everything.

  4. Ziff says:

    This is great, ElleK. I’m with you and Caroline and Emily U in that I can’t see that the Church’s tiny steps in the area of accepting women as full members as anything other than minor attempts to placate women. They’re clearly not part of any larger move toward ending the female priesthood ban. It’s really depressing.

  5. EFH says:

    I do not know if I am hopeful or not about positive changes in the church with regard to gender equality. However, I know that I am a feminist and I speak up my mind in RS and everywhere not with the intent to change other people’s minds but to make sure that they see that inequality and the injustice and sometimes abuse that comes from it is an issue that is not going away. The leadership of the church can act out of fear and in secrecy but I expect this. At least for another decade. Changes that are fundamental to the structure and organization of a group and institution take a long time to happen. Many are feeling burned out and that means that they need to change how they emotionally approach the advocacy they are doing. The burned out phase comes for everyone in every aspect of life (marriage, profession, care-taking, etc) but it is not a phase to loose hope but to find a new way to reinvigorate your struggle and/or experience.

    • ElleK says:

      I’ve largely given up on trying to make subtly progressive comments in church because it causes me stress and there’s a high likelihood of being shut down which I can’t currently handle. Burn out is a real hurdle.

  6. Ellen says:

    Maybe the insistence on unanimity is one of the reasons that we seem to get very little revelation from the Q15 these days? There’s the occasional policy change, but not much revelation. Also, maybe our aversion to questions and discussion is a trickle down effect of the unanimity obsession amongst the Q15. Can we have unity without unanimity? Is our token “all in favor may signify by the uplifted hand” another symptom of the unanimity fixation? Hmmm.

  7. Great post! The taboo is so frustrating.

  8. Michelle says:

    What if married and pregnant women were allowed to pass the sacrament, for the simple reason they were “married and pregnant” while the never-married women in the church, such as myself, were not?
    How would you feel about that?

    • Andrew R. says:

      Oh yes, that is just the same thing – Not!. And, actually, if being married were a restriction to holding the priesthood, then why not? God’s rules. In some churches you can not be married and hold the priesthood.

      What if God never wanted, doesn’t want, and never will want, women to hold the priesthood? Would you still believe in Him?

      What if this is the case and the Church changed the rules and allowed Women to hold the priesthood? Would it still be God’s Church?

      I don’t know the answer to these questions. But it is where we are now. Being upset about not being able to pass the sacrament is daft. I am not the bishop. Do I believe I could be a good bishop? Could I be better than the current one, probably. Should I therefore be the bishop? Of course not, it’s not my calling to have, it is his. I can’t worry about why it’s not me, and how much better the ward might be if I was the bishop. I have to carry on and do my callings, and sustain my bishop. That’s how it is.

      Maybe I should start a movement to allow for priesthood holders to apply for the position of Bishop, and ensure that only the best person is called. What do you think? It works in many other churches.

      • ElleK says:

        “Being upset about not being able to pass the sacrament is daft.”

        Andrew R., you raise some valid questions. I am not a moderator here, but I know that calling names or insulting people’s experiences/feelings is against the comment policy.

        Howard W. Hunter was upset about not being able to pass the sacrament. I was too, when I was 12. You’re saying both of us were “daft”?

        This is somewhat off-topic, but I was reading yesterday in D&C 20, and only Priests (and higher) are given the authority to administer the sacrament. Nowhere does it say that Teachers and Deacons are permitted to assist or pass to the congregation, suggesting that priesthood is only required to administer (meaning bless and prepare). As far as I can tell, requiring priesthood to PASS the sacrament is just a matter of current policy.

      • Caroline says:

        You are exactly right, ElleK. Having 12 year olds pass the sacrament was a policy decision church leaders made a 100 years or so ago to give the boys something to do. Passing the sacrament has nothing to do with priesthood. There’s no reason girls can’t similarly pass — the church leaders just would need to make a policy change.

        AndrewR, you know the comment policy. Do not tell people they are daft for their feeling the way they feel — that is a personal insult and a clear violation. You will be blocked if you continue to violate it.

      • ElleK says:

        Thanks, Caroline. I know I’ve read an article in the past about the decision to allow only young men to pass the sacrament; do you know where I could find something like that?

        As I read through the responsibilities of Deacons, Teachers, and Priests in D&C 20, it was abundantly clear that 12 and 14 year old boys were never meant to be [the only] Deacons and Teachers. It isn’t really possible for such young men to carry out these responsibilities except by a major stretch of imagination.

      • Caroline says:

        ElleK, sorry, not sure about an article, but the book My Fellow Servants: Essays on the History of the Priesthood talks all about the ways priesthood duties have changed over the years — as well as the promotion of young men to be deacons and teachers, which certainly was not how it was envisioned originally in early Mormonism.

      • ElleK, I don’t know if this is the post you were thinking of, but in this post I talk about how the duties assigned to priesthood holders today are sometimes also assigned to women, sometimes NOT assigned to the young boys who hold the priesthood today even though the scriptures indicate that deacons and teachers should do those activities, and some activities, including passing the sacrament, have nothing to do with scriptural mandates: http://www.the-exponent.com/shouldnt-it-be-obvious-how-mormon-women-hold-and-exercise-the-priesthood-today/

    • ElleK says:

      Gross. That’s how I’d feel. Even as things stand now, I wish the church focused more on individuals and less on the family “ideal.”

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