Deconstructing the P word
About 30 years ago a Utah Valley area authority was giving a talk to a large audience. He spoke of attending a sacrament meeting where a newly baptized family, consisting of parents and several daughters, was being sustained as the newest ward members. The father of this family had been baptized a few weeks earlier. Then he had been ordained to the priesthood so he could baptize his wife and daughters the day before. The bishop of the ward saw this as an opportunity to teach about priesthood authority. After welcoming the family, the bishop invited the youngest daughter, 8 years old, to come to the pulpit with him. He asked, “What special thing happened to your family yesterday?”
She said, “We got baptized.”
Bishop – “Who baptized you?”
Daughter – “My dad.”
“Why was he able to baptize you?”
“Because he’s my dad.”
“Well, no. He has something special that makes it so he can baptize you. What does he have, that no one else in your family has, that makes it so he can baptize you? It begins with a ‘P’.”
The little girl looked a bit confused as to why she was asked to say this at the pulpit, but she gave the answer that was obvious to her. She said, “Penis?”
The area authority recounting this didn’t say penis, but he made it clear that is what the girl said. Then he emphasized the importance of not getting those P words – penis and priesthood- mixed up.
I think of that lesson when I consider this. It has not and does not work when any of us equate a physical appendage with the amazing power that comes to us when we live the qualities described in Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants. That section is, in my opinion, one of the clearest examples of revelation and pure knowledge as to how the power of God can work in our lives.
I grew up seeing examples of women and men who exercised the power of God in the world as it is described in Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants. One of the ways I saw them exercise this power was in the connection with priesthood assignments, callings and authority. When I was ill, and wanted a blessing, my mother placed her hands on my head along with my father. Mom’s work in the Relief Society was autonomous. I never remember the women she served with wondering about checking with the men who were in leadership over the ward before moving forward with plans and decisions. If they saw a need, they sought inspiration, and consulted each other in their experience and knowledge. They took action. When it needed to involve the men in the ward, they worked together. They accomplished great things. The way I saw people seeking and following inspiration was an example of partnership, and being united in purpose while honoring unique and varied ways to contribute.
No, it was not always perfect. Everyone I knew was and is a flawed and amazing person. Sometimes both at the same time. All were as likely as anyone to be carried away by power, or intimidation, or abuse of position. But I don’t remember hearing much rhetoric about strict gender roles when it came to exercising the qualities of the priesthood and the power of God.
That was then.
In the 50 years since that time, I have seen pendulum swings in messages about who can exercise the qualities of the priesthood and the power of God, and how God wants that done. Many of those messages never refer in any way to the teachings from sections 121. I have noticed that, for decades now, many have equated priesthood with maleness. Any actions that are done by men are assumed to be priesthood actions. Even callings and activities that do not require any priesthood authority, have now become inherently connected to needing someone who holds a priesthood office.
No building is secure unless a man is there. No activity is safe without a man. No chair can be stacked unless a priesthood holder is stacking it. No auxiliary leader can follow through with activities or plans until they have clearance and approval from men, even if the men have no experience, skills or understanding concerning those plans.
Much abuse and harm has and does occur because many assume that a man holding priesthood authority or calling automatically means that man has direct knowledge and understanding of what God wants, in more ways than anyone who does not have that authority can ever know.
This is often in direct contradiction to the inspiring teachings of section 121.
I have felt, since I was quite young, that women need to be included in all aspects of priesthood leadership, including ordination. I do not see how the church, as an organization that claims to have far reaching purposes and goals, and as a faith that claims to follow Christ, can possibly accomplish great things in the world that can only come when all who seek it can call upon the power of God, until all members are included completely in the work.
But including women in ordination, without deconstructing the limiting, gender based rhetoric about the priesthood that has become so prevalent in recent decades, will not make the kind of difference that is possible when all people are invited into full partnership for ministering and administering. According to section 121, the essential qualities of the priesthood, whereby any divine power blesses us, are qualities that are available to all of us. The moment anyone claims authority and power based solely on the priesthood alone, without those qualities, God’s power is gone. In that moment.
And, I consider any claims of doctrine, or policy, or “God’s law” that are contradictory to the qualities of God which are taught in section 121 show a tendency to cling to tradition rather than humbling inspiration. According to revelation, this shows a need for us to use intense scrutiny.
Yes, I realize that it will take a massive shift in the questions that many members and church leaders ask, and how open we can be to further light and knowledge before this can happen.
It will take deconstructing meanings this culture has for the “P” word.
The more we equate tasks and understanding and knowledge to biological characteristics, or chromosomes, or appendages, the harder it is to receive paradigm shifting revelation.
May 2, The General Relief Society Presidency addressed questions about the Priesthood at BYU Women’s Conference.
Like many people, I hope and look for messages that include all of the progressive, radically inclusive language that I would like to hear. But I have learned not to dismiss every talk that does not include everything I hope for. There are several interesting points made in what the Relief Society Presidency said that can help us dismantle some of the exclusionary rhetoric of gendered priesthood.
I could analyze each part, and point out what works for me in some aspect of the official conversation I hope for. But that is more than I want to write here. There are points made that acknowledge there is a difference between men and women’s priesthood roles, without trying to justify those differences, or suggest that will never change. For me, that is a good step. And inviting women to claim personal action connected to priesthood power is always a plus.
My list of wishes about how women are empowered to completely participate in priesthood ministering and administering is much longer than what was covered at the conference.
And I hope we will embrace all messages that can move us toward effective deconstruction of a small, limited priesthood. In the space left, we can look to building a practice of full participation for all who seek the qualities of God, and the sublime power that flows from that.
For me, that is a restoring gospel.