“I know it works in practice,” a French scholar (steeped in a tradition emphasizing Cartesian rationalism) is reported to have said, “but does it work in theory?”
Certain churches may be the only institutions in this country that are more sexist in theory than they are in practice, as Mark Chaves suggests in his study Ordaining Women. For example, not infrequently women are officially barred from ordination at the same time they are allowed to engage in activities that, strictly speaking, belong to the exclusive province of “priests.” Women may be formally subordinated to their male leaders but tacitly permitted relative autonomy.
Of course, a conceptual separation between “theory” and “practice” is undeniably artificial, and however they’re defined, the two intersect and exert mutual influence over each other in complicated ways. Nevertheless, I think this vocabulary provides a useful model for exploring some of the disconnects in Mormon thought and behavior. Especially in Mormonism, where it strikes me that there’s a tendency to deliberately decouple policy from ideology, it might thus be helpful to introduce “policy” (formal, codified regulations determining the nature of men’s and women’s ecclesial participation) into the mix as yet a third category. We have relatively rigid policies determined at the highest levels of Church organization, somewhat rigid practices in response to them, and relatively fluid explanations for those policies flourishing on the popular level.
Let’s examine two not unrelated complexes of policy, theory, and practice: male-only priesthood and domestic patriarchy.
Official policy prohibits women from being ordained to priesthood office. However, the exercise of priesthood seemingly centers primarily around (a) the administration of ordinances and (b) presiding in ecclesial contexts, both of which activities women are permitted (required, actually) to fulfill in certain situations. The fact that at one time women could give blessings and that at another time women couldn’t pray in sacrament meeting only further illustrates the shifting boundaries around what constitutes priesthood activity. So the policy is that women have never been officially ordained, or certainly not in the way men are. The practice is that women have always nevertheless participated in supposedly sacerdotal activities, although the range of such activities is narrowly circumscribed.
(As a sidenote, given both these shifting boundaries around priesthood and the insistence that women are barred from it, one can make a good case that “priesthood” has in fact come to mean specifically those ecclesial activities in which women are not allowed to participate. Notice that men are also denied certain, less extensive or significant, ecclesial opportunities, but no corresponding term inscribes this fact in our discourse. In any case, if we accept this definition, then labeling priesthood policy “sexist” is tautological.)
What about our attitudes toward male-only ordination? Frequently, deliberately anti-misogynistic theories have been advanced as rationales for sexist practices (in, I believe, a bizarrely misguided attempt to compensate for such structural imbalances). Restricting priesthood office on the basis of sex, one popular theory holds, stems not from women’s definciencies but from men’s. Women’s putative spiritual superiority obviates any need for growth, and thus for ecclesial opportunities. In this case, a sexist theory basically discriminates in the opposite direction from a sexist practice, perhaps in an effort to create balance. (Of course, other popular theories abound, the most prominent being that motherhood and priesthood are somehow in opposition.)
Let’s look now at domestic patriarchy. Although Mormon liturgy requires women to submit formally to their husbands, in practice spouses (particularly of a certain generation) often share power equally in their relationships. In the ritual sphere, lip service is paid to an unequivocally patriarchal model where on the mundane level egalitarianism tends to be taken for granted. And our discourse reflects both attitudes: egalitarianism and patriarchalism vie with each other for prominence. The formal policy as encoded in our ritual advocates subordination, where the practice and attitudes of members all the way up the pipe seemingly tends toward egalitarianism (with a good dose of patriarchy folded in).
In sum, in different ways the Church is pledging allegiance to patriarchy, equality, and women’s superiority while restricting women’s opportunities in church settings, ritually subordinating women in their relationships to their husbands, and yet in non-ritual (less official) contexts encouraging equal partnership in marriage. The situation is fairly complicated, especially by the unacknowledged discrepancy between patriarchy and equality and the madcap swing toward extravagant anti-misogyny in some of our attitudes (which fit our policies rather clumsily). Nevertheless, in important respects the Church is considerably more sexist in its top-down, formal policies than it is in its attitudes or, to a lesser degree, its practices. Policy and ritual are the most sexist where attitudes are the least sexist (at least toward women). This makes sense given that official policy and ritual have to overcome enormous inertia to change, where attitudes shift with the wind.
Obviously this map of the current landscape sketches only bare silhouettes of its complexities. But here’s my question for you, and yes, it’s a devil’s bargain:
If you couldn’t have everything, would you rather belong to a church that was more sexist in policy, in attitude, or in practice? Would you prefer to worship in a structure that formally denies women opportunities but lavishes them with affirming rhetoric and unofficial opportunities, or would you find the reverse more appealing–a structure and set of formal policies that makes official provision for women’s inclusion at every level, but popular practices and attitudes hostile to women’s participation? Would you be more comfortable in a church requiring women to submit to their husbands’ authority with a husband who chooses to treat you as a peer, or in a church that proclaims equal marital status with an authoritarian husband? And why?
Personally, if I had to choose, I would opt for egalitarian policies and rituals affirming women’s status before God at the cost of sexist popular attitudes and informal practices restricting women’s opportunities. I would choose theory–specifically, policy and ritual–over practice, attitudes, or individuals’ behavior on the ground. Maybe it would be a mistake. But I would choose the domineering husband and the egalitarian liturgy.
Patriarchy results in all sorts of concrete negative effects in particular women’s lives, and I have no desire to trivialize those very real, personal issues. But, to frame it in an overly simplistic and unnuanced way, when our policies and practices are out of sync, the policies structure our relationships with God while the practices structure our relationships with each other (meaning, for women: with men). In a system that officially affirms women, one would have recourse, even if it were no more than intellectual recourse, to that set of ideals that construes the behavior of domineering men as unacceptable; one’s relationship to men might suffer but one’s relationship to God would likely remain intact. In a system that officially subordinates women, on the other hand, women’s opportunities–although provision might be made for them–invariably rest on the sufferance of men. In this case, it’s one’s relationship to God that is in danger of deteriorating.
Here’s the thing. I don’t want to be a bishop. I don’t want to attend extra meetings. I’m not that interested even in giving blessings, and I won’t be heartbroken if I never pass the sacrament. I don’t actually want power, even spiritual power (although perhaps I should). What I want is to believe in a God who believes in me.
No doubt others have had different experiences, but I don’t personally find Mormon men oppressive, in general or in particular. What I find oppressive is the system itself–not necessarily in practice, but in theory. It’s not domineering men that worry me most, but domineering terms–words like “preside” and “hearken.”
Over and over I’ve been told that men in the Church are taught to treat women with the utmost respect. That I needn’t worry that I’ll marry someone who will lord over me or take advantage of his position as presider, provider, and priesthood holder. That patriarchy is justified by men’s commitment to righteousness and obedience to God.
That’s just not enough for me.
A husband who treats me as a full partner isn’t enough. A bishop who values my input and respects my opinion isn’t enough. More than either of those, I want a God who treats me as a full human individual.
Patriarchy might work in practice. But it doesn’t work in theory.
- 23 April 2009