Guest Post: Does it matter who holds the priesthood?
In the past few years, the Church’s approach to explaining its ban on women holding the priesthood has been to play up the idea that all members have equal access to blessings of the priesthood. For example, in a 2013 Conference talk, Elder Andersen said,
We sometimes overly associate the power of the priesthood with men in the Church. The priesthood is the power and authority of God given for the salvation and blessing of all—men, women, and children.
A man may open the drapes so the warm sunlight comes into the room, but the man does not own the sun or the light or the warmth it brings. The blessings of the priesthood are infinitely greater than the one who is asked to administer the gift.
What this type of rhetoric carefully ignores, of course, is that it’s only men and boys who are actually holding and exercising the priesthood, and that there are benefits to being in the group that performs the ordinances, as well as costs for those in the group that doesn’t.
I was particularly struck by this point when reading the talks given this past Conference by two teenagers from Provo, one by a girl (Laudy Ruth Kaouk) and the other by a boy (Enzo Serge Petelo). Both talks were titled “How the Priesthood Blesses Youth,” I’m sure in an effort to emphasize the parallel nature of their experiences. But the content of the talks belies this feeble attempt to make them look similar. Kaouk’s talk was about the value of receiving priesthood ordinances, while Petelo’s talk was about the value of performing priesthood ordinances. Although of course not discussed in the talks directly, it’s not news that whereas boys (and men) are able to both perform and receive priesthood ordinances, girls (and women) are able only to receive them.
In Petelo’s talk, he also tells a story that highlights how simplistic Elder Andersen’s comparison of performing priesthood ordinances to opening the drapes is. Petelo tells how his younger sister’s baptism was delayed a month so he would have time to be ordained a priest and could be the one to perform it. Elder Andersen’s analogy tells us that it doesn’t matter who opens the drapes, only that they get opened. But Petelo’s story tells otherwise. It was important enough that he be the one to do it that they delayed the ordinance.
Another issue that that opening the drapes analogy ignores is that there’s not just an ordinance performer, but also an ordinance gatekeeper who authorizes it to take place. For example, a priesthood holder performing a baptism has to get permission from the bishop (for a child of record baptism). It’s always a man who authorizes and a man or boy who performs an ordinance (other than for women’s initiatory in the temple). This is important because for women and girls, this means that having an ordinance performed means getting authorization from a man, someone who the Church does its best to make sure has a very different church experience from you.
For example, the all-male priesthood of ordinance gatekeepers and ordinance performers can limit women’s access to priesthood ordinances in the following situations:
- A young single woman who isn’t getting married or going on a mission wants to go to the temple for her endowment. She must first convince a perhaps reluctant bishop that she’s ready.
- A teen girl or adult woman wants to get her patriarchal blessing. She must get permission from her bishop.
- A woman who was sealed to her husband but is now legally divorced wants a sealing cancellation. She must convince her bishop and stake president to forward her request to the First Presidency. Many local leaders are reluctant to do so if she’s not immediately getting sealed to another man. (This is an issue of having an ordinance undone rather than done, but it’s still relevant.)
- A woman or girl wants to take the sacrament during a global pandemic, when people are leaving their houses as little as possible. If she’s in a house with a priesthood-holding man or boy, she can get it. If not, she can’t. (Note that this also highlights that the sacrament—by far our most common ordinance—is the exception to the apologetic about male-only priesthood that says that you can’t do ordinances for yourself.)
- A woman wants to serve a mission. She must convince her bishop to submit her papers. (A mission isn’t a priesthood ordinance, but the situation is similar in that women have to go through a male gatekeeper to access a valued Church experience.)
For some of these, men and boys’ experience as ordinance receivers is similar, but for others it isn’t. For example, although a sealed-but-divorced man also has to get permission to be sealed again, he’s not likely to be facing the same scrutiny because he’s not undoing a saving ordinance. A single woman who wants to go through the temple may face a bishop who has no real sense of the gender imbalance among single adults in the Church, and who may just put her off and say she can go when she’s getting married.
To fix Elder Andersen’s opening the drapes analogy, I suggest the following additions:
- A woman has to go through one man, who will authorize a second man to open the drapes. This can make the process slow and unreliable.
- Either the gatekeeper or the actual opener of the drapes might disagree with the woman that the drapes even need to be opened. “I have a lamp next to my desk,” they might say. “The glare from the sun will be too much. Why can’t you see well enough? Also, you are forbidden to buy a lamp for yourself.”
- A woman wants the drapes to be closed, but again, the gatekeeper might disagree and leave them open. The woman has no recourse.
- (Unrelated to the main topic of the post, but also, men start telling the woman that she kind of has the same power that they do because she’s able to appreciate the sun when it streams in, even though she’s still of course banned from touching the drapes.)
So to answer the question I posed in the title, of course it matters who holds the priesthood. The GAs would like us to imagine that priesthood-holding men and boys who gatekeep and perform ordinances are nothing but a conduit for God’s power to flow through, so it’s fine that women and girls are barred from it. This clearly does not align with reality, though, as priesthood-holders also have their own needs and wants, and these can easily interfere with others’ access to ordinances through them. As a result, women and girls’ access to priesthood blessings is limited not only by not being permitted to perform ordinances, but also by having to go through often unsympathetic all-male gatekeepers to receive them.
Ziff blogs regularly about Mormon topics with some of his sisters and friends at Zelophehad’s Daughters. He is also a big fan of the Exponent, and he’s happy to have the chance to guest post!