Zelophehad’s Daughters

Priesthood Attenuation

Posted by Kiskilili

There was a time not so long ago when only priesthood holders could offer sacramant meeting prayers. Priesthood blessings were said unequivocally to be more efficacious than ordinary prayer. And the priesthood may have even enabled those who held it to more appropriately interpret scripture and other sacred text than non-priesthood-holders. 

For some, that time has never ended. But in many stakes women now pray in sacrament meeting, and it is frequently asserted that a woman’s desperate plea is surely as efficacious as a priesthood blessing. Suggestions to the effect that spiritual promptings come more abundantly to priesthood holders may sound like so much silliness.

Nevertheless, there’s a certain logic to all such doctrine: if priesthood ordination is meaningful, why would it not entail the bestowal of increased spiritual gifts and better access to heaven? Why should a woman’s prayer effectively call on the powers of heaven with equal force to that of a priesthood holder?

What’s changed is obviously that it can no longer be taken for granted that women are not full members of the community. Has this shift in thinking resulted in an attenuation of our concept of priesthood, in an effort to make the situation appear more “fair”? Does priesthood mean less than it used to in order to downplay the now less explicable fact that spiritual authority is restricted by sex?

And will this trend (if such it is) continue into the future? Rather than ordaining women, will the Church instead one day indicate that the priesthood has little significance as women are called upon to fill roles and administer ordinances previously restricted to priesthood holders?

22 Responses to “Priesthood Attenuation”

  1. 1.

    Really, this has been one of my burning-questions-never-to-be-asked-in-Relief-Society! If a woman’s prayer is just as effective as a Priesthood blessing, then of what use is the Priesthood in giving blessings? I’m so glad you articulated this.

  2. 2.

    I think Paragraph 4 is lacking in fully understanding the situation (no denigration is intended, just a little further thinking was needed); instead, I think that the powers that be have just expanded their thinking (call it evolution, or “why didn’t we think of that before?”), since it was not doctrinal. The only scripture I’m familiar with that can be misconstrued that direction is, “…for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:35) As long as I can remember (for more than 60 years) women have spoken in church, so that hasn’t been an issue during my life time.

    I remember close to 50 years ago, the bishop asked me to organize a Sacrament Meeting, including talks, songs, and prayers, which I did, having my younger brother and his girl friend (long since his wife) assigned to give the prayers. I was told that the Church’s policy was that only Priesthood members gave the prayers in Sacrament Meeting. I didn’t understand that policy then and am glad it’s evolved–there is evolution in the Church!

    Our ward has been using sisters to give prayers in Sacrament Meeting for quite some time–even both prayers!

    What happens when there is no Priesthood bearers at a Sacrament Meeting–who conducts the meeting, blesses the sacrament and passes it, etc.? Or, is it just turned into Relief Society or Primary? Has this ever happened?

  3. 3.

    BiV, I share your consternation!

    Dan, thanks for your feedback. To be honest, I have no idea what I’m talking about and am too lazy to do actual research, so I’d love to hear others’ views. Do you disagree with me in terms of what the actual evidence is, or in that you don’t think there’s any relationship between our evolving concepts of priesthood and our evolving concepts of gender? Or maybe only that gender has evolved where priesthood has remained constant?

    If Church leaders have expanded their thinking on issues that are “not doctrinal,” which, as you parse it, can even include scriptural passages, could they expand their thinking on who can pass the sacrament? bless it? serve as SS president? baptize? etc.

    Obviously the situation is much more complicated than I laid out here, since women could give blessings in the nineteenth century and give sacrament meeting prayers up till I don’t know when. The priesthood functions in a multifaceted way in the community, and different aspects may expand and contract simultaneously. But I would love to hear whether others who know more about Church history consider it accurate to suggest that the categories priesthood-holder vs. non-priesthood-holder were at some point used primarily to distinguish between members and non-members, where now that distinction’s significance is primarily men vs. women within the community. If so, then the significance of statements to the effect of the benefits of holding the priesthood have taken on a very different resonance: no longer do they describe primarily or exclusively the value of Church membership, but coding the priesthood as male is much more prominent.

    This would make sense just in terms of broader cultural changes that have pushed the issue of women’s ordination to the fore: in Ordaining Women Mark Chaves claims half of American denominations now ordain women (this was published in 1997).

  4. 4.

    I think that this analysis doesn’t hold up as well with a broader historical context. It took a hundred years for blessings, healings, dedications and prayers to become formal priesthood functions to the extent that they have/did. Perhaps it is just the pendulum swinging back.

    Also, while there are some stakes that still have a policy on the order men and women pray in Sacrament meeting. I know of no stake that doesn’t allow women to pray in that meeting. Are you sure that you do? Further that policy that women didn’t pray in Sacrament lasted for only a decade starting in 1967 (which goes back to my comment on broader historical context).

  5. 5.

    No, I’m quite sure I don’t know of a stake in which women can’t pray at all in sacrament meeting (although it’s possible one exists)!

    I guess I’m thinking just of recent developments–say since second-wave feminism and the elevation of the role of motherhood to prominence in Church discourse. Is the idea that women’s prayers are as efficacious as priesthood blessings (which is by no means official) recent, or does it have a long pedigree? Is there a relationship between things like this, the switch back to allowing women to pray in sacrament meeting again, the bleaching of the semantic value of “preside” when applied to the priesthood holder in the home, groups of women sustaining the prophet separately, etc., or am I connecting dots that belong to independent spheres? To me this looks less like an unavoidable pendulum swing in which the impetus is basically internal as it does like a response to specific social changes in American culture.

  6. 6.

    A few weeks ago, for example, Molly Bennion made the following comment at BCC:

    Today I heard in church that because men have the PH they are better able to understand scripture.

    Was there less suspicion over such assertions at some point in the past (of course priesthood holders better understand scripture!)? Or are such claims for the significance of the priesthood themselves entirely recent (and perhaps not even regarded with general suspicion)?–in which case, I’m completely off!

  7. 7.

    Has this shift in thinking resulted in an attenuation of our concept of priesthood

    Yes, absolutely.

    The next logical question is if this is problematic. The answer to that depends on which view is more true. If we had falsely bloated the role priesthood plays in spiritual gifts like healing or in one’s ability to access heavenly assistance (as I believe we had) then it is a good thing.

    will the Church instead one day indicate that the priesthood has little significance as women are called upon to fill roles and administer ordinances previously restricted to priesthood holders?

    It seems more likely to me that if the trend continues priesthood will be more associated with ordinances (there aren’t that many of them — baptism, confirmation, sealings, etc) and less with gifts of the spirit or leadership roles.

  8. 8.

    I would say that the lionization of motherhood dates well before second wave Feminism in Mormon discourse. I think that that the ideas regarding the relative efficacity female ritual administration (and later, prayer of faith) has a long history. I’m not sure about the rhetoric surrounding the idea of presiding in the home. In the 19th century, there were plenty of prominent homes where the father was absent.

    But if you are simply saying that the rhetoric of priesthood from 1950-1980 is different than it is now, I think you are quite correct.

  9. 9.

    It seems to me that priesthood is indeed shrinking in scope, function, and conception. It was once grandly seen as God’s power and the essence of exaltation. At that time, priesthood was seen as a power to be eventually extended to all, male and female alike. However, the gradual empoverishment of our vision of female priesthood has created a conundrum: if priesthood is the essence of exaltation, and only males can have priesthood, then only males can have exaltation. This conclusion is clearly unacceptable, on both practical and theological grounds. So our response has been to deemphasize priesthood as the sine qua non of exaltation and instead to point toward family and specifically childbearing and child-rearing as the essence of godliness. We are left with an evolution in the direction of a concept of priesthood as God’s bureaucratic authorization to run the church organization — an authorization now increasingly devoid of charismatic content.

    The new central token of exaltation, the nuclear and reproductive family, has its own dilemmas of exclusion, of course. Homosexuals are more acutely denied exaltation now than they were when exaltation was as much or more a function of priesthood and miraculous, charismatic power than of procreation. The same is true for the infertile. I might note that lesbian women are trapped regardless: either the fading vision of exaltation as principally a function of priesthood, or the rising tide of exaltation as procreative nuclear family leaves such individuals in the cold.

  10. 10.

    Very interesting idea, RT.

  11. 11.

    Interesting points, Kiskilili. Who was it who said recently that they had been reading Church sources on exaltation and they were struck by how often it was connected to patriarchy/priesthood? Was that you, Lynnette? It would be interesting if, as you suggest, and as RT explains so well, they’re getting uncoupled now to give women a place.

  12. 12.

    This is a little bit of a threadjack, sorry.

    My stake recently had a change in leadership. The previous stake president had told the ward and branch leaders that he *wished* (he stated flat-out that he didn’t have the authority to enforce) that they would have SacMtg opening prayers given by a Melchizedek priesthood holder. I learned of the policy when, on primary program Sunday, I had been asked by the primary president to say the opening prayer, and the bishopric member conducting asked if I couldn’t say the closing prayer instead. Then my husband fessed up that he had already known of the policy (he had been in the branch presidency of the branch we had been attending before), but didn’t tell me because a) he knew that it would make me made, and b) the branch president had decided to disregard the request.

    I was peeved to learn of the policy, and vented about it to more than one person. In January of this year, we got a new stake president–incidentally the man who had been bishop of my ward when I was disinvited from saying the opening prayer. RIght after he was installed, one of the friends to whom I had vented about the prayer policy wrote him a long letter asking him to please consider changing the policy. Reportedly he then asked around and found out that most of the other wards in the stake had, like the branch, been disregarding the policy.

    Another rumor has it that the new handbook, which came out last year, allows for restrictive prayer policies. Does anyone have access to a current copy to verify this for me? In any case, the new SP decided that, regardless of what the handbook does or doesn’t say, sex/priesthood-based prayer-giving restrictions would be thenceforth lifted.

    Sorry I don’t have more to say about the real point of your post. I can only hope that people do come to think about priesthood power as separate from maleness.

  13. 13.

    Fascinating analysis, Roasted Tomatoes–that was exactly the sort of thing I was wondering about!!

    Thanks for your comment, Geoff–I’m not sure whether I consider it problematic or not. I have to admit I wouldn’t find it an appealing “solution” to apparent gender inequalities if priesthood shriveled away to nothing.

    J. Stapley, regarding topics such as the lionization of motherhood becoming prominent only in the last few decades, I’m going off my memory of things like Armand Mauss (which I don’t have with me at the moment). If you disagree with his analysis, I’d actually be interested in a post explaining how you would trace the trajectory of the rhetoric of motherhood in the Church differently. Same thing for wifely subordination, both in theory and in practice. But of course no pressure, obviously.

    Janeannechovy, it’s interesting how some areas cling tenaciously to the idea that only Melchizedek priesthood holders should offer sacrament meeting invocations, long after the policy was revoked! Even though this frustrates me, at the same time, there’s something I find appealing about its insistence on a robust concept of priesthood, both in terms of ecclesial privilege and its apparent metaphysical ramifications (although I’m not sold on the gender discrimination aspect). Sometimes it seems like we downplay and denigrate our spiritual gifts in an effort to console ourselves that they’re not universally available.

  14. 14.

    Thanks for this post, Kiskilili. I’ve wondered a lot about this question as well, especially when hearing the common idea–as mentioned by BiV–that a woman’s (particularly a mother’s) prayer of faith is just as efficacious as a priesthood blessing. I can certainly see the appeal of that way of thinking, in that women aren’t excluded from drawing on the powers of heaven. But I have hard time seeing how this claim doesn’t in some way devalue the priesthood.

    The situation reminds me a bit of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, and the problem of infant baptism. Since the consequences of an infant dying without baptism were presumed to be so drastic, the rules had to be bent as far as who was allowed to administer it. Better to let non-ordained people perform functions normally limited to the ordained than to risk infants being shut out of heaven. (With Vatican II, of course, and its acknowledgment of the possibility of salvation outside the Catholic church, the baptism issue became less pressing.) But I think there are some parallels to our struggle to make sense of what women can and cannot do. The spectre of a mother who doesn’t happen to have quick access to a priesthood holder dealing with a gravely ill child, for example, is disturbing enough to call forth the hope that she can do something that is just as good.

    Today I observed two non-LDS acquaintances, one of whom was about to go deal with a challenging situation. The other woman put her arm around the first, and said a prayer for her. It made me think of this post, and I’m curious–would those who believe that female prayer is potentially as efficacious as priesthood extend this to those outside the LDS church? Or would something else (the gift of the Holy Ghost, maybe) be invoked as contributing some vital ingredient?

  15. 15.

    RoastedTomatoes, that’s really interesting! As Ziff mentioned, I was just noticing in my (admittedly not terribly in-depth) look at how the term “exaltation” is used, how frequently it’s tied to patriarchy. It’s interesting to me that exaltation or becoming godlike–at least in the traditional model, though I agree with you that we’ve somewhat distanced ourselves from that– –is clearly tied to power. And here’s a sidetrack off that–I’m thinking this raises yet another problem with the priesthood-motherhood dichotomy. Exaltation presents men with an opportunity to greatly expand what they can do with their priesthood, as they learn to create worlds or what-not. But if motherhood is the female equivalent, what expanded opportunities does it offer to women (besides that of getting to have billions more children than would be possible in this life? ;) )

  16. 16.

    What, Lynnette? You want more than that?

  17. 17.

    What can I say? I’m just one of those demanding women who always wants more more more. It probably stems from being a power-hungry feminist. ;)

  18. 18.

    I have heard that a “Mother in Israel” has huge power. I also know for a fact that as women ordinance workers perform priesthood ordinances in the temple, they ARE exercising priesthood power. My temple president spoke to our morning shift, and said, that the ordinances performed in the temple on the male side were no more efficacious that those performed by women on the women’s side. The keys for those ordinances are held by only one person–the President of the Temple–and he sets apart every worker with the same powers.

  19. 19.

    You may find this interesting.

  20. 20.

    sort of a threadjack (but this thread is old anyways)… I just found out that a young (female) cousin was just called to be the seminary president. Back when I was in seminary (and in the seminary presidency) that calling was always given to a boy.

    I am told that several seminaries around out city do in fact have female presidents.

    it is a bit of a stretch to say that the next step will be calling sisters to be sunday school presidents… but it got me thinking.

    thanks for a thought-provoking post (as always)

  21. 21.

    Interesting, G! Certainly in my day there were no female seminary presidents! That’s wild!

    Stueben, I have to say that’s an outrageous comment from sol’s stake presidency! If sewing is part of my divine gender role, I think I’m in for a rocky eternity–I have never hated another class with the vehemence with which I detested eighth-grade sewing.

    Cynthia, I wonder though what prevents women from exercising the priesthood outside the temple or holding priesthood offices, if it is in fact doctrinal that women have the priesthood? Also, I’m personally uncomfortable with the equation of the powers of mothers in Israel to priesthood power. To the degree that we value agency, mothers’ power is limited (by their children’s agency). But perhaps we’re approaching a conceptualization of priesthood power that is equally vacuous.

  22. 22.

    [...] – bookmarked by 6 members originally found by Iarwain on 2008-09-30 Priesthood Attenuation http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2008/05/04/priesthood-attenuation/ – bookmarked by 1 members [...]

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