How would ordaining women change the structure of the Church?
Around the last General Conference weekend I had some meaningful conversations with family members about the idea of ordaining women in the LDS church. One recurring question was what the Church would look like, structurally, if women were ordained to the priesthood. It’s a serious question and the people asking it apprehend something important about the LDS Church: that our leadership structure is inextricably connected to gender and that ordaining women could shake the whole thing up beyond recognition.
Mormons face a unique challenge when they are asked to envision a Church in which women are ordained, because our leadership is organized so differently from most other Christian churches. When a mainline Protestant sits in church and thinks about female priesthood, she imagines her pastor as a woman instead of a man, but not much else changes. The reason being that most organizations in her church (the Christian education teachers, the committee that visits the sick and elderly, the rummage sale organizers, the coffee hour organizers, etc.) are not segregated by gender (with the exception of things like a women’s or men’s Bible study group). I am less familiar with Catholicism, but my understanding is that outside the parish priest, the lay members (both women and men) do a lot of that volunteer committee work as well.
However in Mormonism there are relatively few ways to serve that are not dictated by gender. Music callings, Primary teachers (but not leaders) and Sunday School teachers (but not leaders), family history, and Cub Scouts are pretty much it. If we need someone to serve in a bishopric, any Relief Society calling, Young Men or Young Women’s organizations, Sunday School presidency, Ward Mission Leader, Primary Presidency, any priesthood quorum calling, or as Ward Clerk the first question asked is whether the candidate is male or female. Our Church is deeply organized around gender.
For this reason I wonder if it’s harder for Mormons to envision the ordination of women than it is for other Christians. We are not just imagining the one or few spiritual leaders of our congregation as possibly being women. We are faced with the question of what to do with all the rest of the structure as well, which would presumably look quite different. We also have a multiplicity of offices of the priesthood, a complication that is less present for other Christians. I wonder if for many LDS church members re-imagining all of these things is so unsettling and overwhelming that they quickly reject the notion that ordaining women could be right and good. After all, though imperfect, there is a lot to enjoy and appreciate about the Church as it currently stands.
I wonder if they also fear that sacred spaces just for women and just for men would have to disappear, and that every corner of the Church would become co-ed. They would feel this as a loss. I would as well. So I would just like to acknowledge that there would be a lot to figure out if the prophet received a revelation that women can be ordained. A lot to figure out, a lot to examine, but I don’t think it would necessitate a change to everything that is familiar and beloved about the Church. For example, the multiplicity of priesthood offices in the Church could be a feature to build on. When Joseph Smith said at the founding of the Relief Society, “I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time” (Derr, Cannon, and Beecher pg. 1) he must have meant priesthood keys (what other keys are there?), and he was giving priesthood authority of some kind to women. Not priesthood office as we know it now, but modern revelation could build on that foundation and create an order of priesthood for women. I am fond of Relief Society and wouldn’t want to see it disappear, replaced by mixed priesthood quorums. But I’d also like to see it truly presided over by women. On the other hand, creating a priesthood order for women while preserving the majority of leadership roles for male priesthood holders would leave unanswered need as well. Perhaps both single-gender quorums and mixed quorums are the answer, I (of course) don’t know what the answer will be.
I think Ordain Women is wise to refrain from articulating a precise vision of what women’s ordination would look like. They are calling attention to needs that exist and asking that the prophet will seek revelation. I have some ideas about what the Church might look like, what would change, and what could stay the same. But these are just my ideas and they are not relevant to the question of women’s ordination. What’s relevant is what is right and true and revealed. I believe ordaining women is in harmony with gospel truth, and that it will eventually happen. I have confidence in the men called to lead the Church, that they seek revelation with open hearts. I believe the Church would be expanded and blessed by giving priesthood authority to women, even if I don’t know what the Church would look like after that happened.
Finally, Harold B. Lee once said to Boyd K. Packer (both apostles at the time), “You must learn to walk to the edge of the light, and then a few steps into the darkness; then the light will appear and show the way before you.” He meant it as personal counsel, but I think it can apply to the whole community of Saints. Let’s not close our hearts to further light because we don’t know what lies ahead. Elder Lee followed his comment by quoting from Moroni: “Dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.” I’d just like to say that the position of women in the LDS Church tries my faith every single day. But I’m staying. I am patient. I expect women’s place in the Church to evolve, but I know it will happen slowly. Perhaps the trial before us all is to learn to be one before we can receive more.
I think God is like the truth-teller in Emily Dickinson’s poem:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;
As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.
The 9th Article of Faith says God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” It can be difficult to know those great and important (or superb and dazzling) truths are there but remain untold, even if for good reason. I don’t know what they are, but I do know that there has to be more to come for women in this Church. I think we hamper our sensibilities if we declare that unchanging doctrine means there is no more doctrine. Or none of that kind of doctrine. I hope that the difficulty of envisioning how the Church would look with women ordained won’t prevent us from being sensible to more light.
Derr, Jill Mulvay, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher. Women of Covenant: The Story of the Relief Society. Deseret Book, 1992.