Today, by way of celebrating thirty years since the lifting of what’s commonly referred to as the “priesthood ban,” I wonder whether we can come up with a phrase that’s equally economical but more descriptive. To my knowledge, the “priesthood ban” comprised the following policies:
A. Men of African descent were prohibited from holding the priesthood.
B. Men of African descent were therefore prohibited from participating in temple ordinances.
C. Women of African descent were also prohibited from participating in temple ordinances.
Obviously B was contingent on A, and accordingly these two facets of the policy are mentioned separately, but apparently in conjunction with each other, at the beginning of OD2: “a revelation had been received . . . extending priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members of the Church.”
But how does C fit in? From time to time the argument is advanced in various forms that endowed women hold the priesthood, and indeed this very policy of shutting black women out of the temple under the rubric of a “priesthood ban” can be adduced as evidence to this effect. At least implicitly C is surely also contingent on A, by way of B (in a Church with an entrenched gender hierarchy it would hardly be conceivable to exclude men of a particular race from certain ordinances while welcoming women’s participation). And there are some tantalizing ways in which women are permitted to officiate in ordinances exclusively in the temple, although the impropriety of touching a member of the opposite sex–i.e. convenience–has obviously played a significant role in this anomalous allowance. Nevertheless, if we accept the idea that women hold the priesthood but are simply not ordained to priesthood offices then the scope of the policy becomes much more doctrinally transparent.
However, I don’t find this solution at all satisfactory. First of all, in both its common and current official usages in the Church, “priesthood” refers to specific ecclesial privileges open to and incumbent on individuals who are ordained to offices in one or both branches, the Aaronic and the Melchizedek, all of whom are male, and not to members wielding a conjectural free-floating latent “priesthood” with a very narrowly circumscribed scope of authority. We can split semantic hairs over whether our definition of “priesthood” can encompass women, but we’re simply deferring the issue.
Secondly, OD2 itself never mentions women’s situation explicitly but merely hints in veiled language at the ways women would also be affected by this volte-face: “This . . . has inspired us with a desire to extend to every worthy member of the Church [does this mean male and female?] all of the privileges and blessings which the gospel affords.” And indeed, the privileges and blessings of the gospel open to other women were extended to black women as well. The declaration goes on to announce that every worthy man could now receive ordination and “enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple.” This latter quotation seems to be a fairly clear reference to women’s access to the temple, but if so, the way it’s phrased implies that (a) women would wait to be endowed until marriage, since their access to the temple is seemingly contingent on their husband’s access, and (b) black women would not marry outside their race. (These assumptions undoubtedly made sense in 1978, although now they’re perhaps obsolescent.) Notice that the way black women would be impacted is framed as one of the blessings black men would enjoy.
In light of this, I think it’s clearly not the case that our reference to the “priesthood ban” as a policy banning certain women from temple participation conceals an assumption that women actually hold the priesthood by virtue of their having received temple ordinances. Quite the contrary–OD2 is rather explicit on the point that only worthy males will receive the priesthood. Instead, the presuppositions we uncover in this text are that black women will not attend the temple until black men take them there; thus, their access to the temple is dependent on ordaining black men and is best viewed as attendant to it and not meriting significance in itself.
The effect of the policy on women is thus elided both in the declaration and by our shorthand phrase of choice (“priesthood ban”). Is there a better way of referring to the policy (“priesthood-temple ban”? “exaltation exclusion”?) in such a way that we show awareness of the breadth of its effects? Or is the point immaterial?
- 8 June 2008