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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30 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. Tim Rollins says:

    As a convert, one of the refreshing things I find in the Church, is that women offer prayers, speak, and hold not only major callings, but probably about half (or more) of the total callings within any given ward.

    Contrast that with Catholicism — where I had been born and raised — where all we did was sit on a pew, and sit and stand and kneel, etc., and I found that even coming into the Gospel as a teenager, opportunities to serve were there for both boys and girls.

    Fast forward to the present, and I believe even more now than I did then that the reason men don’t serve as Relief Society, Young Women’s, or Primary President’s, is as a one-time roommate post-college put it when he said, and this is as near a quote as I remember:

    “The reason men hold the priesthood and women don’t, is that women have a greater affinity for spiritual matters that men do not have, and that men need the priesthood in order to level the playing field in their relationship with God and the Divine.”

    …to which I would add, that while I can sympathize with their struggles to a degree — especially if they are living in a Ward from Hell — as I’ve been in a couple of them myself.

    I also have been around long enough myself to know that men and women are equal in importance in the eyes of God, with complementary — not competitive — needs and goals, as they work together on continuously building their relationship.

    I’m sorry you’re having struggles in this area. I hope you find the peace you’re looking for, and wush you all the best to that end.

    • Angie P says:

      Tim, I disagree with your argument that women in Catholicism have no role in their faith. While they cannot be ordained into the priesthood, “women can serve their parishes in a variety of other ways: Women have equal rights to be sponsors at Baptism and Confirmation. In Matrimony, they’re treated and regarded as full, equal partners with their husbands. Women can serve on the parish council and finance committees. They can be readers at Mass, extraordinary ministers (laypersons who assist the priest at Mass to give out Holy Communion, sometimes call Eucharistic ministers) if needed, and ushers. They can work in the parish office, teach religious ed, and so on, just like their male counterparts. And many parishes have women pastoral associates — usually nuns or religious sisters who help the pastor with many spiritual and pastoral duties. The Church has women who are canon lawyers, judges, and chancellors across the country. The Catholic Church has allowed local bishops and pastors the option to permit female altar servers at Mass. Now many parishes have both altar girls and altar boys.” http://www.dummies.com/religion/christianity/catholicism/the-role-of-women-in-the-catholic-church/
      Some of those roles, such as being allowed on the finance committee, seem more progressive than the LDS restriction of only priesthood holders allowed as finance clerks. I enjoy going to Christmas Mass every year and seeing women participate in the service, including assisting with communion.

      I also find your roommate’s justification for women not having the priesthood to be disrespectful (to both genders) and mistaken. And unfortunately I have heard them from a few LDS members myself.

      I strongly identify as a feminist, as I believe that term simply means that one views men and women as equals. However, my husband does not, as he feels that the “feminists” he sees and reads about are more concerned with putting men down than equality. So while he doesn’t subscribe to the term “feminist” he generally believes in equality between the sexes. Anyway, I bring this up because my husband dislikes when he sees “feminists” putting men down (for no reason, in his view, other than the man being not a woman). I feel that your roommate’s view of why women don’t have the priesthood puts men down too.
      Your roommate’s comments indicate that men need to hold the priesthood (and not just the ordinances performed with the power of the priesthood) in order to “level the playing field”, while women do not.
      I disagree with this. First, it means that men and women are inherently unequal. Either women are inherently more righteous and good, and men not, thus the need for priesthood (to counter-act their natural manness, I suppose). Or men are inherently more valued, trusted, and responsible in God’s eyes, and thus the only gender entrusted with *His authority. The argument that men would do less in the church if women had the priesthood, thus they aren’t ordained, belittles the pain that is currently felt by many women such as the author of the article, and the many women (and men) that have left the church over this matter. I believe that God is no respecter of persons and that ALL are alike unto Him (and Her).
      Second, I believe the purpose of the priesthood is to perform ordinance with the proper authority (God’s authority). If this is true, then it shouldn’t matter which gender the priesthood holder is, but that the holder has the proper priesthood, and that the ordinances are performed appropriately.

      I believe when we start to see and value every person as worthy, loved, and whole as individuals, not dependent on their relationship to a man, that the idea of denying the priesthood to women would seem silly.

      • Tim Rollins says:

        You have brought up some excellent points — especially about Catholicism — for which I thank you, as you have taught, and updated this retired teacher and opened his mind to a few more things.

        Regarding equality of genders: I’ve always believed that men and women are of equal worth in the eyes of God, as He is the Creator of us all., and that it is inherently wrong to treat another as being ‘lesser’.

        Unit leaders — be they bishops or stake presidents — are responsible for setting the tone for their units and their areas of responsibility. It’s been my experience that the best units (wards and/or stakes) are the ones where the bishop and/or stake president calls those necessary to serve, sustains them, sets them apart and ensures they have the proper training to SUCCEED in their calling, and then trusts them to do their calling with ‘return and report’ to file leaders, without micromanagement, or a bishop from Hell hanging over them like the Angel of Death.

        Sadly, both men and women are on the receiving end of this abuse; such is unacceptable, especially when such members may have fragile faith or a testimony that has been on the receiving end of an ongoing beat down by a master of unrighteousness dominion.

        If we are to become perfected in Christ — all one body we — it has to be done one person at a time, one ward at a time, with ZERO TOLERANCE for abuse in any form, especially if it comes from those who ‘abuse’ their office in any form to coerce a member to ‘submit’ to the personal agenda of a church officer who has an agenda.

        Dress it up any way you want — that my friends, is called spiritual RAPE, and that is not limited to just women who suffer on the receiving end of it, neither do they have a 100% monopoly on it, as I’m a survivor of it as well, from my nightmare in the Milwaukee Wisconsin South Stake (17 July 2003-03 January 2009).

      • Angie P says:

        Tim, I’m very sorry to hear that you had such a bad experience in the Milwaukee Wisconsin South Stake. I hope your current stake is much better. Thank you for your kind reply.

      • Tim Rollins says:

        My next stake was 1,000,000% better, in a host of ways, right out of the City of Enoch playbook.

        Corrupt, PREDATORY, ABUSIVE religionists in a stake with 73% INACTIVITY were replaced by genuine priesthood LEADERS in a stake with 73% attending EVERY WEEK!! Leaders and members at their finest, because that is who they ARE, when nobody’s watching. Character really does count!

        It was a spiritual feast indeed, and an experience one and all enjoyed, truly to be taken into the eternities. God bless the Oklahoma City Oklahoma Stake and its leadership.

        I’m now retired from teaching following a stroke, and am back in Canada 🇨🇦, enjoying my retirement, only wishing my health could allow me to contribute even more.

      • ElleK says:

        Angie P, thanks for your insights. I also appreciate that in Catholicism, the Pope/leadership recently heard out some nuns who questioned the church’s stance on not allowing women to be ordained as deacons when there were female deacons in the New Testament. Rather than telling these women to get back in line or doubling down on the current policy, Pope Francis listened, admitted he wasn’t sure, and agreed to form a committee to look into the matter. The contrast between his response and our leaders refusing to even open a dialogue about women’s issues was striking to me, and I mourned that my leaders act so threatened when the status quo is questioned. If there was even room for a discussion, it would be something, but there is not.

    • ElleK says:

      Tim Rollins, your roommate’s theory about why women don’t “need” the priesthood is an excellent example of pedestalizing women. On the surface, it seems like a kind and noble thing to say, but it’s actually deeply harmful because such statements overgeneralize differences between the sexes and trivialize the accomplishments of women. I have known both men and women with natural gift for spirituality, and I’ve known men and women who struggle identifying the spirit (I fall into this category). So to say that all women are more spiritual than all men is reductive and false, and it also marginalizes those, like me, who do not fit the stated assumption. Pedestalization cheapens women’s accomplishments when, say, a woman has worked very hard to develop her ability to receive spiritual guidance, but this work is then dismissed when someone says, “women are just naturally more spiritual.”

      The gendering of virtues is rampant in our rhetoric (i.e. women are better nurturers, men are better leaders), but this is silly. First and foremost, we aren’t defined by our gender, but by our status as children of God. We each have individual strengths and weaknesses that don’t fall neatly along gender lines (for example, I’m a great leader and my husband is a great nurturer).

      Regardless of whether women “need” the priesthood or not, there are many different avenues the church could take to expand the roles and opportunity of women. That this does not happen is a source of great frustration and pain for many of us.

      Thank you for your kind words.

      • Tim Rollins 🇨🇦 says:

        That roommate remark was made over 30 years ago when he first said it to me. Since then, I have — in the wealth of callings I have held — with bishop NOT being one of them as I’m ineligible (due to a divorce), which in a way, is a HUGE favor, as I prefer to be in a supporting role anyway, I’ve learned a wealth of knowledge that has seasoned me spiritually in ways I’d have never experienced otherwise.

        What I’ve learned — and had myself reminded — repeatedly from life experience, is that as we treat one another with kindness, respect, compassion and love, the delightful return on these investments of our time in each other are continuous throughout our lives.

        I’ve also learned that placing people on pedestals are USELESS, as I have my own belief that you have to be your own hero, as the people you think you can’t live without, can very easily live without you.

        That one-time roommate I had right after college was someone who I suspected had some MAJOR LEAGUE personality issues, which some years later after we lost touch, bore themselves out in some very ugly, MAJOR-LEAGUE ways.

        As a cop in the Marine Corps, I was also a profiler, and I (sadly) suspected that this man would have serious problems with women throughout his life UNLESS he straightened out what I felt was a serious character defect, he was in for a life of misery for himself and worse, OTHERS….and sadly, he didn’t.

        Even in what has to be his mid-50’s, he seems to have learned absolutely NOTHING, and while I seek to give others the benefit of every doubt, I find that as a priesthood leader, an ex-LEO, AND as a profiler, that if I were to be living in the same area as this man — that even though he’s a member — regardless of his activity level, I have a special responsibility to WARN other single women about this guy, but to do so carefully, unless priesthood leaders formally disciplined him AND placed a PREDATOR tag on his file, something I’ve seen maybe THREE TIMES In 35 years.

        Sure enough, it tuned out he went on a mission IN THE 80’s SOLELY to increase his chances of getting married. It’s 2017, and he’s still never married…for very good reason. He was a nightmare to the other elders, getting transferred EVERY SINGLE CYCLE (13 times to the usual 4-6 on an 18 month mission, which they did from 1982-84), and he went on to later rack up a FELONY CONVICTION for assaulting a woman.

        When I spoke briefly with him last year, he continued to reject responsibility for his actions, something that was drilled into me both in boot camp and also at the academy, getting back to the point that we — brothers and sisters alike — must treat each other’s with love, kindness, respect and compassion as I outlined earlier, if we as a church and as individuals are going to be a Zion people.

        …which in the end, reminds us that we need to focus on improving ourselves and pray for a softening of hearts, in the hopes that a meeting of the minds will be a blessing for one and all.

        Being here today and both listening and LEARNING from some of my sisters has been a blessing indeed for me, for which I thank you all indeed. ***

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Great post! The taboo is so frustrating.

  9. 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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