#hearLDSwomen: Speaking Last in Sacrament Meeting
At the end of 2016, when we were wrapping up our tithing settlement, our bishop asked if we had any concerns or questions. My husband responded with, “Why can’t a woman be the last speaker in sacrament meeting?” I like to think that my husband asked that question because he believes that women are as capable as men in being able to deliver the closing address during our worship services. Or perhaps he was concerned about the message it sends our daughters that a man must always have the last word.
But in truth, it’s probably because he was tired of hearing me complain.
I don’t remember how the bishop responded—probably something to the effect of “there is no reason.” He may have even pointed out that there have been times in our ward when a woman was permitted to speak last (which is true: the last time I gave a sacrament talk, almost five years ago, I went last and somehow the Church kept right on being true). Maybe to satisfy my own curiosity, I decided to start keeping track of the gender of the final speaker for the Sundays in 2017. Excluding fast Sundays and stake and general conferences, there were 37 Sundays when the lineup of speakers was decided ahead of time by the bishopric. Of those 37 Sundays, there were four occasions in which a woman was scheduled to speak last. That works out to be a little over 10% of the time. (I have been keeping statistics for 2018, and so far it’s pretty much the same.)
However, saying that a woman was scheduled to speak last doesn’t tell the whole story. On 2 of those 4 occasions, after a woman gave the final talk, a (male) priesthood holder—either a member of the bishopric or the stake high council—took to the pulpit and delivered unscheduled, extemporaneous remarks. After all, we do have a rank structure where the priesthood (i.e., men) have the right to claim the last word in virtually all of our mixed gender meetings. So if a woman believes she is going to speak last in sacrament meeting, there is only a 50% chance that she actually will. (Of course, spontaneous remarks by the presiding authority, who is always male, sometimes happens when the last scheduled speaker is male. But it doesn’t happen anywhere near 50% of the time.)
Additionally, the four women who were, at least on paper, the final speakers in sacrament meeting were not just ordinary female ward members like me. Two were returning/departing missionaries, one was the wife of a former bishop, and one was the wife of a current bishopric member. This sends a clear message that only certain women are considered worthy of having the last word in sacrament meeting—and even then only 50% of the time.
When women are placed between the youth speaker and the male speaker 90% of the time, that implies that while women may be more knowledgeable/spiritual/better public speakers than teenagers, they are not quite on the same level as the men. They are also not listened to for as many minutes as men, since the last talk is generally the longest. My husband argues that the reason for this is that the last speaker often has to lengthen/shorten/otherwise edit their talk on the fly, and this is difficult, so not letting women go last is actually chivalrously protecting them from this onerous task. (This feels awfully similar to the idea—discredited by the Church itself—that never speaking to or about Heavenly Mother is for Her own protection.) Apologists will sometimes tell you that women are more righteous than men, which is why we don’t hold the priesthood. You do have to wonder if the quality of our worship services would improve if the “more righteous” gender were given more minutes at the pulpit and more opportunities to have the final say.
I feel the same way about women speaking last in sacrament meeting as I feel about women praying in mixed-gender sessions of general conference. (The latter was allowed for a short period of time, but sadly hasn’t happened in over a year.) It’s almost worse to see these things happening occasionally than it would be to see them happen never. If women never spoke last in sacrament meeting or prayed in conference, you could tell yourself that there must be a good reason for it. You could probably convince yourself that it’s actually God who wants men to always have the last word. After all, if He wanted things to be different, He would have said something to the prophet, right? But seeing women deliver the final sacrament talk rarely rather than never tells me that it’s not forbidden by God, it’s just that the people who are making the decisions (who are always male) don’t notice or don’t care.
Pro-tip: When planning meetings for the congregation, schedule equal numbers of women and men to pray and to speak last.
“If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:23)