In his book of this title, sociologist Mark Chaves brings both quantitative and qualitative evidence to bear on his examination of women’s ordination as a general social phenomenon impacting the entire spectrum of Christian denominations. Mormonism receives no mention, perhaps because the issue takes on a different cast when applied to a lay ministry, but several of the issues he raises provide what strikes me as a useful framework for understanding our own church’s policy.
Although the situation is often conveniently dichotomized between denominations that ordain women and those that do not, the complexity of ways in which women and religious authority can be paired is worth keeping in mind. Ordination does not represent any one single set of practices. Congregations which bar women from the ministry sometimes create loopholes whereby women are nevertheless allowed to participate in activities supposedly restricted to the ordained, whereas churches which do ordain women sometimes exhibit tendencies to truncate their actual authority. So in spite of the ideological divide, the situation for women “on the ground,” Chaves suggests, may not be so different for women in churches that ordain them as for their sisters in churches that do not.
Chaves’s interest in the topic was sparked by his observation that major denominations such as Presbyterians and Methodists began ordaining women in the 1950s at a time when virtually no women were agitating for ordination. As he argues quite plausibly, the coupling of the liberal concept of equality with female ordination was one of the triumphs of first-wave feminism; earlier calls for women’s ordination were typically made without reference to equal rights, arguing instead that certain exceptional women should be allowed ordination since inspiration could subsidize their alleged natural incompetence in leadership roles, but without directly challenging women’s status in society. That is, they advocated women’s ordination in spite of a belief in women’s inferiority.
But as female ordination became representative of a commitment to gender equality, several denominations which accepted equality on ideological grounds felt they could not continue to deny women the priesthood, for symbolic rather than strictly pragmatic reasons (hence the situation for Presbyterians and Methodists alluded to above). The converse, Chaves argues at length, is that resistance to female ordination after such a policy has come to be construed as a commitment to gender equality betokens something far more significant than resistance to women serving in priestly functions. It is emblematic of resistance to modernity.
Rules about women’s ordination . . . often have less to do with women clergy than with symbolizing cooperation with or resistance to a much broader social project. . . . Women’s ordination symbolizes liberal modernity, and that is why it is so deeply resisted by religious organizations defined most centrally by their antiliberal spirit (128).
Chaves amply illustrates how opposition to women’s ordination in no way follows logically from these churches’ doctrine, which is why he considers a sociological explanation necessary. As participants in a variegated religious landscape, our own church inevitably takes cues from other Christian faiths; it seems not implausible that the church similarly signals its allegiance to broader cultural forces through a resistance to female ordination (among other issues).
But structural reasons undoubtedly play a role as well. Chaves finds a negative correlation between the following two factors and likelihood to ordain women: centralization, and lack of an autonomous women’s organization (both of which the church currently exhibits). In addition, it seems to me the church’s self-concept as a transcendent entity likewise hinders examination of policy (and fosters a spirit of authoritarianism preserving the status quo).
Eventually, however, as insistence on gender equality took root in the surrounding culture, even denominations opposing female ordination began to proclaim a belief in equality, as declarations of women’s inferiority became increasingly unacceptable to the broader public. Like other institutions stradding this divide, the church has adopted the ideology of equality in its rhetoric while failing to realize its implications for either policy or theology, a disconnect resulting in unmistakeable anxiety. Sister Beck’s talk in the last General Conference I find indicative of our underlying awareness of this disconnect and our anxiety surrounding it. (Why emphasize the equality of priesthood specifically, and not the equal access everyone has to prayer, for example, unless there’s something about the situation that bespeaks inequality?) Not surprisingly, an emphasis on motherhood in the church has sprung up only in the last few decades, seemingly in an effort to bridge this gap between our stated commitment to equality and our policies.
This unease, however, leads us to explain the situation to ourselves almost exclusively through the lens of equality and deters us from examining the underlying theological implications. By its very nature, no explanation in terms of equality can ever adequately address the issue, because it can never amount to more than a justification. It seeks to answer the question–Why is there an apparent imbalance?–and leaves unanswered the more central question–Why aren’t women ordained?
Opponents to women’s ordination frequently point out that priesthood power is not a right individuals are entitled to, but a gift granted by God as he pleases. I agree wholeheartedly. But I wonder what specifically it indicates that it pleases God to grant priesthood power only to men.
Within Catholic doctrine, the claim is sometimes advanced that a woman is unsuitable to serve as a priest for the reason a priest must physically resemble Christ. It strikes me that a parallel justification is begging to be articulated in Mormonism: the priesthood is the power to act in God’s name; one of God’s most salient attributes is maleness; therefore only males are fit to exercise that power. Given our doctrine that God himself is physically embodied, as well as abundant indications that gender is the only distinction recognized and codified by God, it would not be so farfetched to suggest that the efficacy of our ordinances rests in part on the resemblance to God of the person performing the ordinance, among other things in terms of biological sex. Such a doctrinal claim could easily be reinforced by gender policies surrounding proxy ordinances–only a woman can stand in for a woman, and only a man for a man. Similarly, can only a male stand in for a male God?
Conversely, one would expect that women by their very nature would be granted access to Heavenly Mother’s divine power. Unfortunately, Heavenly Mother has no known divine power. Heavenly Mother’s absence from positions of authority is replicated quite strikingly by the situation prescribed for women on earth.
It is difficult to avoid observing constellations of associations in which doctrine and policy mutually reinforce one another: power, public visibility, and maleness on the one hand, and subordination, limitations on public visibility, passivity, and femaleness on the other.
In spite of the implications of both doctrine and policy, I remain skeptically hopeful that the eternal situation is not as bleak as our vision of it. I do not presume to know the will of God. But too often I believe we accept God’s silence as a definitive answer to questions that were never asked. To take a trivial example, I suspect the reason organs are standard in our church rests not on any fundamental eternal principle, but rather the simple fact that organs were the norm in Christian congregations at the time our church was founded. No cultural forces have impelled us to suggest an eternal significance to organs, or to use organs’ symbolic value as a way of aligning ourselves with larger ideological forces demarcating church and world. Restricting full priesthood rights to men was equally the norm in Christian churches at the time the church was founded; for whatever complex of reasons, this practice has since been enshrined in our rhetoric as an everlastingly legitimate arrangement.
As Chaves points out, “denominational policies about women’s ordination carry a symbolic meaning well beyond their pragmatic consequences for religious organizations” (83). Quite frequently when the issue is raised, the focus centers on those pragmatic consequences to the exclusion of their theological implications. But more is at stake for women than their ability to administer a blessing or serve in a bishopric: the issue, for me, is less about personal rights and opportunities as it is about identity in the eternal sense.
- 30 May 2006