(originally published in the winter, 1985 issue of Exponent II)
It happened again today. In giving the announcements in sacrament meeting, the first counselor in our ward bishopric invited the “young women” and the “Aaronic Priesthood” to meet with the bishop after the meeting. I suppose it is hopeless to protest. Now that the Mutual Improvement Association (I liked the word Mutual) has become the AP/YW, it seems inevitable that priesthood will become as much a synonym for boys as for men…
Unfortunately, in the process of teaching our young men that they bear an awesome responsibility, we sometimes convey unfortunate attitudes toward women. I was both amused and dismayed one Sunday when, as I went into the chapel, I almost literally ran into one of my Seminary students as he was coming down an aisle with too many sacrament trays balanced in his hands. Instinctively I reached out to help him. He flinched. It was a pure reflex, nothing personal intended, but I instantly knew that I was no longer Sister Ulrich but an unclean woman steadying the ark.
Part of the problem is our vocabulary. Because we use the word priesthood to refer to both the vehicle and the power, we get into some curious situations, almost like mistaking a utility pole for electricity or a sacrament cup for water. In October conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley began his sermon by referring to the “great meeting” held on consecutive Saturday evenings by the “priesthood” and by “the women of the Church”… Do we assume that because male members over twelve “hold” the power to act in the name of God that their contributions to the kingdom are somehow more central than those of women? I am sure President Hinckley did not mean to suggest that, but the inference can easily be drawn.
In Doctrine & Covenants 84, Joseph Smith taught that the priesthood “continueth in the church of God in all generation, and is without beginning of days or end of years.” It “administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom.” Through it the “power of godliness” is manifested “unto men in the flesh.”
I don’t understand all that those words imply, but it seems perfectly obvioius to me that the priesthood in this sense is quite distinct from any group of persons, male or female. In fact, in Section 84 and again in Section 107 the prophet seemed to teach that the priesthood was distinct from any office in it. “And again, the offices of elder and bishop are necessary appendages belonging unto the high priesthood. And again, the offices of teacher and deacon are necessary appendages belonging to the lesser priesthood.” (84: 29-30; see also 107: 5).
Reading that scripture again this week, I was struck by the word appendages. My dictionary says that an appendage is “an adjunct to something larger or more important.” Though some people like to treat the activities of women in Relief Society, Primary, or Young Women as somehow lesser than the activities of elders or bishops, I can see no difference between an appendage and an auxiliary.
Maybe it is time we tried to distinguish between the larger power to do God’s work and the particular assignments each of us has in the Church. As we begin to do so, we may discover how little difference there really is between men and women. The minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society certainly dispel any notion that Joseph Smith reserved the term priesthood for male members. On March 30, 1842, he told the women gathered at the Lodge Room in Nauvoo that their new society “should move according to the ancient Priesthood” and said that “he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day — as in Paul’s day.”…
Last fall I met a high school friend that I hadn’t seen for twenty-five years. She has never seen a copy of Exponent II. She does not read Dialogue or Sunstone, but she does go to the temple faithfully, and she has worked hard to support her family and raise her children in the Church since her husband’s tragic death. She told me that when she heard President Hinckley’s talk at General Conference she turned off the television, gathered her teen-aged children around her and said, “I don’t want you to ever think that the priesthood is synonymous with the men of the Church.”
May her tribe increase.