All sorts of grandiose claims have flown quite naturally from the claim that priesthood is the power of God; after all, if priesthood holders’ blessings aren’t any more effective than the prayer of the faithful non-priest, what then does priesthood mean? But the closeness of the priesthood bearer’s connection to heaven in relation to his non-priestly counterpart can’t easily be assessed using earthly yardsticks, as God and his mercurial habits don’t submit well to the scholar’s probe, so I’ll bracket metaphysical questions and confine my remarks here to the sociological manifestations of priesthood. (I might note, however, that the views of those who are convinced worthy women have just as much access to the divine as priesthood-holding men fit the thesis I expound below beautifully. What they don’t fit is the above definition.)
Whatever divine powers it may entitle one to invoke, in the human realm, priesthood is (male) ecclesial privilege. Priesthood is the conferring of a status that qualifies one to participate in a suite of activities of central importance to the community for which one would otherwise be ineligible.
It’s astonishing to observe that, in terms of general categories (but not all specific examples), there’s no activity priesthood holders are capable of engaging in that non-priesthood holding adults aren’t or haven’t been equally eligible to participate in. Priesthood holders give blessings, which women could also do at one point. Priesthood holders administer ordinances, as do women. Priesthood holders preside in the home; so do single mothers. Priesthood holders serve in Church presidencies, just like their female counterparts. Priesthood is important to missionary work, which women also engage in.
The boundary around what specifically constitutes “priesthood,” then, is shifting, arbitrary, and artificial; choosing to associate this particular set of activities under the single rubric of “priesthood responsibilities” is hardly intuitive. The only thread uniting the sundry behaviors labeled “priesthood” is that of exclusive male access. I submit that what priesthood means to the Mormon community can be subsumed specifically under the term “masculinity.” How else to explain how a man exercises his priesthood by presiding in the home but a woman, doing the same thing, does not?
When the subject of women and priesthood is raised, naysayers almost invariably suggest women’s ordination would propel men into barbarism, as priesthood is the single civilizing force keeping men from a life of criminal mischief (on good days a more watered-down version of this argument is proposed). Setting aside how insulting this is to those of the male persuasion, let’s examine its underlying assumptions. If priesthood simply refers to the “power of God,” men wouldn’t lose it if it were granted to women; surely God’s power isn’t about to run dry. Such arguments only make sense in the context of the assumption that priesthood is coterminous with masculinity, since this is the attribute men can’t extend to women without losing it themselves.
To a large extent, Christian virtues are coded as feminine. Where does that leave men in a Church also insisting gender is an essential aspect of eternal identity? They’re commanded to cultivate these virtues under the implicit understanding that they’re perhaps not able, or maybe even suitable, for such virtues. What’s needed in this framework is a conception of masculinity that makes virtue accessible to men through an avenue specifically coded as non-feminine, and priesthood provides exactly that. Priesthood is the means by which men publicly perform their masculinity through pro-social, community-sanctioned actions. It’s a way of being virtuous without being feminine—for the artificial reason that this particular set of activities has been deemed off-limits to women. I suspect any effort to increase women’s ecclesial opportunities (i.e., ordination) must wrestle seriously with this dynamic.
In other churches laypeople serve as a foil to a professional clergy; priesthood means something specifically in relation to those who don’t have it. It could be argued that women fill this role in the Mormon Church. In the end, the trouble with a kingdom of priests is that “priest” means nothing within a community itself unless someone is excluded. Priesthood is relative; it entails greater access to community opportunities and spiritual power than others have. If everyone were a priest, no one would be a priest.
- 1 January 2010