Last weekend, I went to the United Church of Christ to attend an ecclesiastical council, at which a good friend of mine was a candidate for ordination—the culmination of many years of discernment and work. It was fascinating to see the process. She’d had to submit a paper in advance outlining her spiritual journey, which people had had a chance to read before the council, and she talked to the group and took questions both with everyone together and in smaller groups. Then they sent her out of the room, had a bit more discussion, and the delegates (who represented churches throughout the region) voted on the question. Happily, she was unanimously approved. I was enthralled by her story of how she got there, of how she had experienced God’s influence in her life. Even as an outsider, I can see how much she has to offer her community, and I was surprised at the sheer delight I felt to see this happen.
I mentioned on Facebook that I’d gone to this event, and Kevin Barney asked, are you suffering from ordination envy? My reply was that it was a complicated question, and attempting to explain it would be more along the lines of a blog post than a Facebook comment. So here goes.
As a grad student in theology, I know a lot of people, both women and men, who are ordained or who are preparing to be ordained. In watching that, I have of course found myself wondering—what if I weren’t LDS? Would this be something I would seriously consider? In a way, being LDS has been convenient, in that I haven’t ever had to really grapple with the issue. From what I’ve seen it can be a difficult decision, one that’s made after a lot of thought and prayer. I can definitely relate to the challenge of trying to figure out what God is saying to you. But I’ve never had to ask that particular question, because that path has never been an option for me.
That said, I don’t actually feel like it’s my particular vocation; though of course I can’t say for sure, I don’t imagine myself pursuing such a thing even if I were in a denomination where it would be a possibility. I’m working toward being an academic theologian, and I have a basic sense of rightness about that—something that has kept me going through the crazier aspects of grad school. So in that sense, no, I don’t have ordination envy. I don’t know what my life will look like, and that’s a real source of stress right now as I finish this program and deal with a nearly non-existent job market—but I don’t have regrets. I’m doing what I want to do.
But “ordination envy” might have more than one meaning. One version might be something along the lines of, not envy in the sense that I wish that were an option for me, but envy of other traditions in which women are ordained. As I was mentioning in a comment on a recent thread, I am so thoroughly Mormon that I go to church and usually don’t even notice that men are the authorities, the ones performing the ordinances. It’s so familiar. And I have to say, being in a divinity school environment and seeing women in other denominations play those kinds of roles was a bit jarring at first. I sometimes wonder to what extent LDS resistance to female ordination stems from the fact that seeing women perform priesthood kinds of functions is so unfamiliar, so unsettling. Despite years of feminism, it was a strange thing for me to get used to.
But I’ve come to really appreciate it. I think it makes a difference on a very visceral and powerful level. No matter what we might say about gender equality, our church services convey a clear unspoken message about which sex is the important one. And I love seeing other denominations in which women who have those kinds of gifts, who have a lot to contribute to their community in that role, are encouraged to develop that. They’re not accused of being power hungry. They’re expected to listen to where God might be calling them. That perhaps, is where I find the disjunct most difficult. Again, I don’t personally feel a call to that kind of ministry. But as a single woman, I am in an ecclesiastical sense, not only just superfluous, but actually in some sense a problem for an organization that doesn’t know what to do with people like me. (Just to clarify, I’m not talking about the actions of individuals on a local level, but rather the dilemma of where, and even if, singles fit into the church.)
And on that note, one of the other things that was utterly foreign to me is that the marital status of this friend didn’t even seem to be relevant to this process, or her place in the community. As far as I can tell, the fact that she’s married it isn’t seen as an accomplishment on the path to eternal progression; it’s simply where she happens to be. I cannot even imagine.
But getting back to ordination envy. The other meaning that question might have is, do you wish you could be ordained in your own tradition? Do you wish LDS women had the priesthood? Which is of course a different kind of question, since ordination in our tradition isn’t a vocation. We have a priesthood of all believers—except, of course, that it’s actually a priesthood of half the believers.
Well yes, I can probably say that I wish they did. I wish it because I think it would be really cool to be in a church in which women had that. What would it be like, really like, if we thought that women too could be authorized to use the power by which we say the universe was created? I realize that the day-to-day aspects are generally far more mundane. But it’s nonetheless a powerful narrative in which to situate oneself; you can hear it in the way church leaders talk to young men about just what it means that they are ordained to this. At this council, I was attempting to explain LDS priesthood to a friend, and the way it was gendered. He was flabbergasted. He said, you mean that 12-year-old boys get this but you don’t? I didn’t know what to say. I roll my eyes when people say that it’s not really a big deal because women can do just as much with prayer and faith. I think Mormon priesthood is actually a pretty neat thing. I don’t want to sell that short.
And on the administrative side that is also a component of LDS priesthood, oh yeah. For me, that’s a no-brainer. Honestly, I find it nonsensical to have an ecclesiastical governing system which largely excludes women and in which final decisions are always made by men. I’ve seen so many women who have reservations about anything, from practical details to broader issues, wrestle with the grim realization that while we may have influence, sometimes a lot of influence, we have no actual power. Our only hope is for the men to listen. In practice, many do; Mormonism, on the whole, is a strikingly benevolent patriarchy. But a patriarchy nonetheless, which means that if the men choose not to listen, there is no recourse. Any autonomy we have—and again, I’m not denying the existence of that—is granted by men. We only have a women’s organization because the men let us; they oversee it, and they could decide to disband it. The possibility of women’s voices making any difference is entirely contingent on the willingness of men to take them seriously. I can hear people objecting already—men get stuck in that situation, too. They have no guarantee of being heard. It’s undoubtedly true. But I don’t think it’s quite the same. Because it’s not simply that individual women might not get heard; it’s that in the ecclesial realm, a female perspective is inherently marginal. Women are not the core members of the church; we are an auxiliary.
And now I’m getting all worked up. I look at all that and think, all right, bring on female ordination! But this is where on a personal level it gets hard. I’ve gone back and forth on this question, but I have to admit that I’m not sure I myself want the priesthood. I don’t know what to make of that. You might interpret it in terms of a reluctance to step outside the comfort zone of my appointed gender role. Or even to some kind of belief in the way things are currently set up. To be fair, I can’t rule that out. I can actually understand the sentiment expressed by some women that it’s a relief that they don’t have it. The truth is that I probably feel that to some degree myself.
But then I have to ask myself, is it actually a good thing that I feel that way? Because I sometimes wonder whether the fact that I don’t seriously have to think about the question, seeing as how women in the LDS church aren’t going to be ordained anytime soon, allows for a certain complacency. I often hear that men need the priesthood so they’ll get their act together; otherwise they would presumably sit on the couch and watch movies all day. (The fact that this is incredibly condescending to men often seems to be overlooked.) But if that’s actually a sign of a need for ordination, I am in desperate need; I’m not one of those angel-like women who serves others so naturally that she has no need of any other motivation. I’m a religious mess. I’m slipping into inactivity (again) as I write this. If I don’t want the priesthood, in other words, I think that my lack of desire might be for the wrong reasons.
And after writing this whole post, I’m still not sure about the answer to the original question. I don’t know if I would say that I have ordination envy. There is much that I admire and am drawn to in other traditions, but in the end, they aren’t mine. I really do believe in the power of the LDS priesthood—I’ve experienced it—and that complicates the question. On the one hand, it makes me more tied to the church, no matter what I might see elsewhere. On the other, it means that I don’t think women are simply being excluded from some mumbo jumbo superstition which maybe isn’t that big of a deal; what they don’t have is something I very much believe is real.
Perhaps the best way to describe my feelings about the subject is not so much envy, but rather a kind of wistfulness.
- 13 February 2010