Ordination is the Answer to Correlation
In 1906, Joseph F. Smith initiated the first churchwide correlation effort, with the goal that there would “not be so much necessity for work that is now being done by the auxiliary organizations because it will be done by the regular quorum of the Priesthood.” At the time, the church auxiliary for women, the Relief Society, had “a wide and extensive sphere of action,” that included activities in the areas of welfare services, agriculture, merchandise, medicine, politics, publishing, education, real estate, and supervising the Young Ladies Retrenchment Association and Primary programs.
In 1909, “the physical housing of the Relief Society and Church auxiliaries with the Presiding Bishopric was one manifestation of emerging efforts to correlate a larger and more complex Church…and they began meeting together more regularly to discuss common concerns.”
A particularly poignant example of how this new arrangement worked occurred during World War I in 1918, when the government of the United States of America requested to purchase grain belonging to the Relief Society grain storage program to address worldwide grain shortages. Without consulting the Relief Society, the First Presidency and the Presiding Bishopric sold the Relief Society’s entire grain supply. When the Presiding Bishop was called to task by the Relief Society General President for selling Relief Society assets without permission of the Relief Society, he apologized and implemented a simple policy change that would prevent the Presiding Bishopric from overstepping its bounds in the future: going forward, the Presiding Bishopric would have authority over all final decisions about the Relief Society’s grain program and moneys resulting from grain sales. Problem solved.
Another push for correlation began in 1962, when Harold B. Lee announced his intentions “to place the priesthood of God where the Lord said it was to be—as the center and core of the church and kingdom of God.” Reference T
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism explains how this effort affected the Relief Society:
Under the comprehensive Church correlation program, the reporting and financing systems, magazine and lesson materials, and Social Services once managed by the Relief Society became the responsibility of priesthood leaders and professional departments, such as the new LDS Social Services Department.
In 1998, Boyd K. Packer observed that “the Brethren know they belong to a quorum of the priesthood. Too many sisters, however, think that Relief Society is merely a class to attend.”
And indeed, a class to attend is about all that is left of Relief Society today. Local Relief Societies in branches and wards may or may not continue to administer small-scale local relief projects, but church policy requires that any such activity maintain close male supervision. The current power structure gives a local bishop more authority over Relief Society sisters than the General Relief Society President.
Since 1997, the curriculum offered in this “class to attend” for women has been almost all about men. Two Sundays of the month are spent exclusively discussing quotes by former presidents of the church, all of whom are male. One Sunday is spent discussing an address given at General Conference. There is a 94% chance that this talk was given by a male speaker, given the ratio of male to female conference speakers. When there is a fifth Sunday, the lesson is by the male bishop. Only one Sunday of the month is reserved for a lesson by women. A female perspective is only auxiliary to the male/priesthood perspective, right?
In 2011, Pullitzer Prize-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich described these modern changes to the Relief Society in this way: “From 1969 to the present was a history of the disappearance of Relief Society.”
Today, there is not “so much necessity for work that [was once] done by the [women] because it [is now] done by the [men].” Men find themselves “as the center and core of the church.”
Where does that leave women?
Yet, there are advantages to the correlated power structure, even for women. Before correlation, fundraising was a constant concern for women of the Relief Society. Women had to pay dues to participate in the auxiliary. The visiting teaching program began as an effort to go house-to-house seeking donations. Today, the Relief Society is funded through tithing. Since women have never been exempted from paying tithing, it is appropriate that women and men alike benefit from tithing dollars. However, correlated resource sharing has been characterized by a certain preoccupation with ensuring that only men wield the knife that slices the pie. Most recently, a new rule added to the Church Handbook of Instruction in 2010 forbids women from serving as stake auditors. This newest change may have eliminated the last position of financial authority that has been open to women since the Relief Society gave up financial autonomy in 1978.
The elimination of gender-specific curriculum that has resulted from correlation could benefit both sexes by facilitating opportunities for men and women to discuss topics that may have been taught to only one gender in the past, such as nurturing children or honest business practices. Neil A. Maxwell observed that “for too long in the Church, the men have been the theologians while the women have been the Christians.” If we wish to have a church of sister scriptorians, women need access to the same theological education offered to men. However, since the correlated curriculum almost exclusively quotes men, the implicit message that men are the theologians is maintained.
Julie B. Beck praised the correlated power structure, in which local Relief Society presidents report to local bishops instead of to Relief Society leaders at the Stake or General level, because it allows local responsiveness and flexibility, needful because “every ward has its own unique characteristics, which no other ward shares.” The obvious disadvantage to women in such a system is that local Relief Society presidents are placed at the bottom of a long chain of all-male leadership hierarchy while Stake and General Relief Society “leaders” serve as mere consultants, lacking any supervisory authority. However, involving women in the holistic work of the church is a welcome improvement to only allowing women authority over other women and children. Under correlation, the church began involving women in councils of the church in 1979. Just this year, the church established new mission councils that involve women. Unfortunately, only certain councils may include women and when women are included, men are mandated by church policy to outnumber and outrank women. This kind of token involvement is a placebo, not a remedy.
Is there a way that the church could reap the benefits of correlation under priesthood authority without so many unfortunate side effects for women? Yes. The church could end the priesthood ban against women, ordain women and fully integrate them into the power structure of the church. Then, the visions of Joseph F. Smith and Harold B. Lee for a church correlated under priesthood authority could be realized without sacrificing female perspectives or eliminating service, leadership and financial oversight opportunities for female members of the church. If women were ordained, there would “not be so much necessity for [a woman’s auxiliary] because [women would be included in] the regular quorum of the Priesthood.” “The priesthood of God, [held by men and women alike, would be at] the center and core of the church.”