Embracing My Own Spiritual Authority
September 2014. I am 8 months pregnant and feeling simultaneously vulnerable and brave. Kate Kelly’s words after her excommunication in June keep coming to me: “Don’t leave. Stay, and make things better.” (Reaction to Kate Kelly’s Excommunication ~ Ordain Women). I’m tired and discouraged, but emboldened to find a compromise within my church. I decide to discuss holding my baby during his blessing in October with my Bishop, feeling that this request falls short of my desire to bless my son, but still allows me to participate in a meaningful way.
While some friends advised we simply “bless him at home” without permission or that I just walk up with my baby the day of the blessing, these options were not right for me or my family at the time. Simply demanding that I hold my baby was not something that felt right for my marriage or my goal of encouraging gradual, positive change; of staying and making things better. Knowing this, other friends encouraged me to speak with my Bishop, one of the “good ones,” and trust the process. So, I turned to my Bishop, who had always treated me with kindness and respect, to renew my temple recommend. I brought up my desire to hold my baby during the blessing in this meeting
When I reflect on this exchange, I only see pain, misunderstanding, and fear. I entered the conversation knowing the power dynamic between us. He viewed his role as spiritual advisor and as an authority figure with a responsibility toward the well-being of the ward. I viewed his role as potential ally and someone who could confirm that God’s representatives could and would care for me. So, I was vulnerable, honest, and most likely defensive.
He questioned my motives because he viewed my request as a public display of defiance, rather than a personal act of faith, and I felt misunderstood and judged. He shared his own past vulnerabilities of faith and how he overcame them by letting them go. I only heard that I should push aside questions and concerns and be a good girl. He cautioned me about the danger I put my marriage and family in with my doubts, questions, and pride. I wondered how my heart could be so misunderstood by God’s representative and it devastated me to be reminded that my faithlessness let so many I loved down. He was trying to save and encourage me the best he knew how in a patriarchal system. My faith in that system was crumbling, so this exchange served only to confirm my greatest fears about God.
Despite our disagreement over the baby blessing, I received the Bishop’s signature on my recommend. The next step meant meeting with a member of the Stake Presidency and I was not sure I even wanted to go through another interview. Thankfully, a counselor in the presidency whom I trusted offered to meet with me in my home. We sat at my kitchen table and I could have simply answered the list of recommend questions. Instead, me being me, I shared my heartbreak, anger, discouragement, frustration, and hopes with him. While much of me resisted outside spiritual authority, the LDS girl in me still craved it and wanted it to solve and soothe my doubts and fears.
He listened in a way no male leader in the LDS church ever had. He acknowledged my pain and did not make the ordinary excuses. He resisted the urge to fix and explain away my feelings or my spiritual confirmations. In fact, he shared the feminism that ran deep in his family and his own belief that change was possible within the church. This leader also said he saw no issue with me holding my son and promised to double check with the Stake President. I did not feel unworthy, unrighteous, or suspect in his kind, thoughtful presence and felt a tiny shard of renewed hope.
This counselor said one additional thing in the meeting that I’ve rolled around, up and down, inside and out in my mind for the past six years. He told me, “I believe God gives everyone a challenge. Perhaps yours is to see inequality for women in the church.” The implication, of course, was to see this inequality and remain faithful no matter how the people within and the leaders of the LDS church responded. This seemed an impossible task, but I grasped onto the thread of hope he gave me for my son’s blessing.
A week or two later, this counselor approached me in the hallway near the Bishop’s office on Sunday afternoon. I saw the apologetic expression on his face and fought the desire to flee. He took me aside and explained that “the handbook” made it clear that only priesthood-holding men could participate in the blessing circle. I could barely respond as that shard of hope shattered, imploded, and nearly crushed me.
I could hardly breathe and needed to escape, but I did not have car or house keys. So, I found my husband in the chapel where they held Elder’s Quorum and quietly asked him for the house key, so I could walk home. He wanted to talk and to comfort, but I couldn’t do more than tell him the news and say that I needed to go home now. I left the car keys, so he could finish his meeting, then gather the kids and bring them home at the end of services.
We lived only a few blocks from the church and I sobbed as I lumbered home, my belly slowing me down. Where did I go from here? I’d always been told that “inspiration comes with information,” but this was just the end of a series of experiences where information, personal circumstances, and righteous desires made no difference. The handbook and male leadership always overruled. And in that moment, only two things seemed possible: either God did not hear me or God did not care.
Why share this story? Why pull out old wounds? What purpose does it serve?
I carried the anger, the hurt, the self-loathing of that experience with me for a very long time. Church felt like a trap meant to expose my weaknesses, unrighteousness, and failures. It appeared that the time I spent on my knees or in the temple—the times where I felt peace, exhilaration, and joy at the thought of women’s ordination—must be flawed by my pride and unrighteousness or a misunderstanding on my part. Perhaps it was my burden to be a feminist. Maybe I was meant to learn to endure God’s will for women and make it supersede my own? Was this what God meant for me, despite the confirmations I’d felt repeatedly that God’s plan for women is so much richer, deeper, and wider than what is currently practiced by the LDS church?
Deference to male authority was so deeply engrained in me, I wrestled continually with “what he meant” when pondering the counselor’s advice. Because he treated me kindly and represented how I hoped priesthood-holding men would behave, I wanted his words to guide me. When even he succumbed to the handbook, it all felt hopeless. I felt unanchored, even unable to glean useful guidance from the “good ones.” Where did this leave me if I could not rely on church leaders or trust my own revelation?
Six years later, I have no definitive answers. But if I could, I would gather 2014 me in my arms and tell her that she is not unworthy, or broken, or led astray. She is not required to stay until it empties her of hope, self-worth, and confidence in her own spiritual gifts. She can define what it means to stay. She can trust her communing with God. Her faith path can zig-zag, swirl, and take detours from LDS definitions of authority and revelation. It can also lean on them when—and if—they resonate with her. And, if God gave her the gift of deep empathy and care for equality and women, then she could—and would—learn to embrace it. To embrace her own spiritual authority.