Women and the Priesthood is a Joke
Brad Wilcox’s now infamous Alpine, Utah fireside took the internet by storm two weeks ago, and I wrote my thoughts regarding his take on women and the priesthood RIGHT HERE, but there were so many problematic parts that it was impossible to cover everything in one blog post. Today I want to discuss the way women and girls with priesthood authority and power is too often considered one big hilarious joke by many men in the church. Brad talked about his kids playing church at home with their stuffed animals and joked, “I got a little nervous when my daughter started to bless the Sacrament”. He was clearly expecting a positive reaction from this one-liner, and from the audience’s chuckles you can tell that he got it.
Why though, is it so thoroughly absurd to men in positions of power in the church to imagine girls using priesthood power? The idea that Brad’s daughter would dare to even pretend to perform an ordinance was such a joke to him that he laughed out loud about it.
Years ago, I heard a podcast interview of a returned sister missionary who shared a story from her mission to a foreign country. This sister had always been a natural leader, good at the language and brave in front of investigators. She knew the gospel and the missionary discussions forward and back, and as such she stood out before long as one of the most effective missionaries in the area. In one particular area of her mission the church was new and fledgling, and missionaries were serving as temporary branch presidents until there was enough strength and experience in the membership to lead themselves. One day the elders in her mission decided to play a friendly prank on her and invited her into a priesthood leadership meeting at the church. With straight faces they told her, “Sister, as you know the branch here has been struggling and we’ve been asked to fill the role of branch president with one of our missionaries. The president has asked that this person be you.”
There was a pause while everyone waited for her response and she was momentarily confused. Then the other missionaries in the room broke out into laughter, letting her in on the joke. The woman on the podcast admitted that she laughed right along with them at the time. They were her friends and she felt like they were her peers, and in a way they were showing how much they respected her by even suggesting the idea.
The incident stuck with her though, and she thought to herself later, “Why is the idea of putting a woman in a leadership role so laughable that it’s an actual joke?” Hearing her experience struck a major chord in me at the time, because she was right. I understood at the same time why the joke was both funny *and* it was terrible that we as church members thought this way.
On the other hand, there are many churches out there that include women and girls equally at every level of church governance and ordinances, and to them it’s completely normal. In fact, when they see other churches that don’t fully include women it feels very wrong to them (which is probably how the woman at the conference confronting Brad Wilcox about women and the priesthood felt). In 2015 I experienced this firsthand when I spent a few Sundays visiting Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church in Provo, Utah. At the time I was longing for a church experience that ordained women and included them equally at every level. My husband was deployed to the Middle East that year and my calling was in cub scouts, so there was nothing that required I be physically in my ward during Sunday meetings. For the first time in my life (with three young kids in tow), I started taking Sunday field trips to other churches. Saint Mary’s was a small church, but full of lovely people. The Priest there was male, but just knowing that it could have been a woman meant a lot to me. After the services ended I stayed for their social hour and met a friendly woman (I will call her Jennifer) who introduced herself and asked me why I’d come that day.
I told Jennifer that I was Mormon (we were still allowed to say that back then) and usually attended my ward in Lehi, but I’d wanted to experience a church where women were ordained. She was very kind and respectful of my beliefs, but also very open about her experience moving to Utah as a lifelong Episcopalian. She had two daughters, probably in the 8 to 12 year old range, and she told me that once a month they had a “Children’s Communion” (or something like that) where all the young people in the congregation would help administer their version of the Sacrament to the congregation. It was her daughters’ favorite meeting of the month, and they’d always looked forward to being allowed to participate when they were younger.
She said, “I was so surprised when I visited an LDS church for the first time and saw how segregated by gender the Sacrament services are. I can’t imagine telling my girls that they couldn’t give out communion just because they’re girls – but the boys still could. They would be so mad! Do the girls in your ward not complain about it all the time?” I said, “Honestly, no. I don’t think it occurs to most of us that it’s even an option because we’ve never seen it done any other way.”
Jennifer then shared with me a story from another outsider’s perspective. A Latter-day Saint neighbor had invited her family to their daughter’s baptism and they’d gone to support them, curious what an LDS baptism was like. About a week later Jennifer’s mom came to Utah to visit them, and hearing about their recent experience asked them to explain to her how the ordinance functioned. Jennifer said, “Well, the dad took the girl down into the font and baptized her. The two grandfathers stood on either side as witnesses. (This was before women could serve as witnesses.) The bishop talked to everyone while the little girl changed into dry clothes, and then the dad and a bunch of other men in the room – uncles, grandpas, her older brother, and some male friends – formed a circle around her and gave her a blessing”.
Jennifer’s mom asked, “What are the women doing during all of this? Like, just sitting there and watching?” My friend said, “Yeah, pretty much.” The mom threw her hands in the air and said, “And the women just put up with that?!”
I honestly felt a little embarrassed. Why *had* I always put up with that? Is this how everyone sees us from the outside? Are they pitying the women like me who don’t even know we’re being excluded from important events because we’ve been so sheltered our entire lives that we don’t realize that other women get so much more in their faith communities?
Brad Wilcox’s words brought back the memory of Jennifer and her mom, two women who (as far as I could tell) were very dedicated women of faith. They’d both experienced the LDS religion on one level or another and found it unappealing. Joining our church would mean walking back their (and their daughters’) participation in church significantly.
I honestly believe many women investigate The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but choose not to pursue it beyond a cursory glance because they aren’t comfortable with the gender inequality, and I know of at least one personally who did that. My Catholic neighbor was investigating the LDS church a few years ago, around the same time that President Nelson became the new prophet. She’d grown up in Utah and her husband was an inactive member, while her in-laws and extended family were all stalwart and faithful. She lived in a neighborhood full of Latter-day Saints, and her kids were already attending church with our ward semi-regularly. I saw the excitement from the ward missionaries and neighbors as she began taking the discussions, but then it mysteriously fizzled out and I never heard anything more about it. Imagine my surprise when I found myself at a McDonald’s Play place a couple years later with my Catholic neighbor and the topic of church came up while our daughters played together. She explained to me, “I was really enjoying the lessons, but… I come from a family with really strong women. My mom and my grandma are incredible matriarchs….” She trailed off, not sure how to explain what turned her off about the church without offending me. I said, “Oh my gosh, no – I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND! I had no idea you had an issue with this, too. I thought you were going to get baptized and think less of *me* because I’m feminist and frustrated with the church’s stance on women. And that’s the reason why you didn’t get baptized?! I thought you’d be fine with it because the Catholic church doesn’t ordain women either!” (It turns out that while Catholic women aren’t specifically ordained as priests, she still felt they had a much bigger role in Catholic worship than LDS women do in our church and home life.)
When Brad Wilcox talked about the non-LDS woman who approached him at a conference and suggested his church should give women the priesthood, he made her sound shrill, unreasonable and uneducated. His mocking tone made me think of Jennifer, her mom, and my Catholic neighbor. All of them would’ve said the exact same thing, and none of them could’ve possibly explained to his satisfaction exactly what the Latter-day priesthood was. That doesn’t make what they have to say invalid. My best guess is that the woman approaching him came from a faith tradition where she’d been fully included since childhood, and knowing that LDS women don’t receive the same experiences was frustrating to her. Well, I’m frustrated now, too! In the words of Jennifer’s mom, how long will the women in our church “just put up with it” before enough of us demand change, too?