Zelophehad’s Daughters

The Conundrum of Women’s Initiatories and the Two Paradigms for Priesthood

Posted by Kiskilili

How do we lance the following Gordian knot in our theology?

Ordinances are only legitimate when they’re performed by authorized priesthood holders. All authorized priesthood holders are male, exclusively. Yet ordinances performed by authorized women are equally legitimate.

There have been a number of attempts to develop a theological vocabulary that describes female-performed ordinances in relation to priesthood without actually accounting for their existence in any meaningful way: men occupy offices in the priesthood where women simply have access to raw priesthood power, or women perform ordinances under the auspices of priesthood without actually exercising priesthood.

(There have also been attempts to capitalize on this apparent inconsistency to construct rationales for expanding the role of women in the church, since endowed women are seemingly already divinely invested with priesthood power—or, conversely, to construct rationales for maintaining the status quo, since worthy women are already allegedly on the same footing with regard to priesthood as worthy men.)

In this post I hope to address this problem from a different, more sociological and less theological angle, proposing a framework that allows us to conceptualize how this odd state of affairs came to be and continues to operate; the exploration of its theological implications I’ll leave to others.

As I see it, the murky concept of priesthood is invoked in Mormon contexts to answer two fundamental, but very different, questions: 1) What distinguishes us from other religions? and 2) What distinguishes men from women? The first use is what I’m going to call the “interchurch” paradigm for priesthood, the second the “intrachurch” paradigm. In its interchurch paradigm, priesthood is the concept that explains our near monopoly on access to metaphysical power dispensed especially through rituals, where in its intrachurch paradigm priesthood is the concept around which Mormon masculinity is most centrally constructed and is invoked to account for a masculine predominance in social power in the church. Others have pointed to the odd and non-original conflation in the term “priesthood” of ritual power with administrative power—that is, “priesthood power” with “priesthood offices”; however, I believe the second paradigm encompasses not administrative power per se, but, much more specifically, what it means to be masculine in the church, which includes inter alia privileged access to administrative authority and responsibilities.

For the most part the admixture of these two different paradigms works reasonably well, largely because men perform virtually all ordinances; their privileged access to metaphysical power reinforces their privileged access to social power and vice versa. Additionally, the two paradigms dovetail nicely in that they do not represent equivalent conceptual categories: the interchurch paradigm centers on particular (ritual) activities where the intrachurch paradigm accounts for particular (masculine) identities. They are thus mutually compatible in theory.

But at a few sites in our practice and language the paradigms do not overlap perfectly and ragged, untidy edges are visible. The clearest of these can be seen in the performance of women’s initiatories: According to the interchurch paradigm, women’s enactment of legitimate and binding rituals can only constitute priesthood, since it has metaphysical effects that are exclusively available in the church. But in the intrachurch paradigm, women must by definition not be exercising priesthood since priesthood is the exclusive province of men. This is how I resolve the dilemma with which I open the post: there are women who do exercise priesthood in the temple as it is construed in an interchurch context (the performance of metaphysically valid rituals), but they do not exercise priesthood as it is construed in an intrachurch context (the performance of Mormon masculinity).

On the other side, “priesthood” can designate the men’s organizations in the church, which are frequently counterposed directly to the women’s organizations. Priesthood is the concept around which all male spaces and male activities are structured. Although it has been denounced from the pulpit, a tendency to use the term “priesthood” in reference to men as a group, in whatever capacity they are performing their masculinity in a specifically church context (e.g., putting away folding chairs), persists. In fact, on several occasions I have seen male members complain, in response to the Ordain Women movement, that women don’t really want the priesthood because then they would be obligated to put chairs away and help people move. I believe this betrays an understanding of priesthood specifically as the performance of masculinity in Mormon contexts, and I identify such activities as a somewhat complementary site to female-performed ordinances—at which the two paradigms do not perfectly line up—because, as I understand it, the expectation that men carry out any activity that requires the slightest degree of physical strength arises quite straightforwardly from our expectations around masculinity and is only tenuously connected to access to metaphysical power.

(It is because of the nature of this second paradigm, in which the disparate activities that fall under the conceptual rubric of “priesthood” are bound together by nothing more than our concept of masculinity, that men frequently experience women’s stated interest in priesthood as a direct assault on their masculinity, and understand women’s ordination to entail the dismantling of Mormon masculinity entirely.)

How did this mismatch in our concepts of priesthood arise? I’m not qualified to do more than venture a guess. I suspect the first paradigm is older than the second; this would explain why it is trivially easy to find quotes from early church leaders referring to priestesses: priesthood had not yet developed its masculinity vector. As the church was forming, the interchurch (then only) priesthood paradigm likely had paramount importance: priesthood was what animated our religion and gave it legitimacy vis-à-vis all others, making provision for the dispensation of metaphysical power not available through other channels. At this time patriarchy was absolutely taken for granted. In fact, in the nineteenth century even churches that ordained women tended to continue to preach their subordination and even inferiority to men. This situation was likely reflected in early Mormonism, in which it is possible a masculine monopoly on the metaphysical was not understood to constitute an aspect of priesthood even though the church was explicitly patriarchal and priesthood offices were occupied by men. It is the situation that obtains in the temple to this day: women are inducted into an explicitly patriarchal structure as their husbands’ subordinates, a fact that does not, however, preclude their becoming priestesses.

It seems likely to me that the combination of patriarchy with the process of the institutionalization of the metaphysical power to which the church claims exclusive access had a natural tendency to clamp down on women’s means of accessing metaphysical power over time, evidenced especially in the increasing opprobrium with which women’s administration of blessings came to be viewed. In other words as the (patriarchal) structure of the church more closely regulated expressions of charismatic authority through rituals, women were increasingly sidelined: men’s privileged access to social power organically resulted in their increasingly privileged access to metaphysical power. The institutionalization of an already patriarchal religion may have brought about a progressively tighter association between the masculine and the metaphysical. All that spared women’s initiatories from becoming streamlined into the developing masculine monopoly on the metaphysical may have been the intimate nature of the physical contact these rituals required as recently as 2005.

By at least the mid-twentieth century, women’s ordination in North American culture more broadly had become inextricably linked with a commitment to gender egalitarianism, and it is likely this linkage informed the church’s evolving understanding of both patriarchy and priesthood. Just as women’s priesthood came to be seen as a manifestation of a commitment to women’s equality, women’s lack of priesthood may have similarly been construed, even by those advocating it, as a commitment to women’s subordination and alienation from ecclesiastical power structures. The virtual monopoly that had developed on men’s access to metaphysical power—in its origins an organic outgrowth of patriarchy—may thus have come to be invoked to explain that very patriarchy.

This developing association between the masculine and the metaphysical may have allowed a new paradigm for priesthood to take root and flourish, one that construed priesthood not simply as the authority to perform valid rituals or even the divine license to exercise social/ecclesiastical power rooted in that privileged access to metaphysical power, but as masculinity specifically, in all its complexity. When patriarchy became a question, priesthood-as-masculinity became a prominent part of the answer. Naturally in an institutional religion metaphysical power, accessible in Mormonism especially through the performance of rituals, ratifies social power; this relationship is obviously far from coincidental. Because priesthood holders can access the power of God, they are entitled to exercise social power as well, both domestically and ecclesiastically. But what makes the two paradigms of priesthood an imperfect fit is that priesthood as an overarching concept does not simply connect metaphysical power with social/ecclesiastical power, but with masculinity.

Here’s how I conceptualize it: The connection between metaphysical and social power is institutionalized religion, where the connection between social power and masculinity is patriarchy. In Mormonism, there is a third connection, if imperfectly drawn, between metaphysical power and masculinity:

priesthood paradigms triangle graphic (1)

This connection between metaphysical power and masculinity makes sense in Mormonism in a way that it would not as cleanly even in other denominations in which priesthood is restricted to men, because virtually all Mormon men are priests. Additionally, in the abstract it is satisfying to “round out” the triangle such that each of the three points is implicated in both other points; creating a third leg associating metaphysical power strongly with masculinity cinches all of the connections tighter. However, this connection is neither ineluctable nor perfectly carried out: as we have seen, even in patriarchal religions, metaphysical power need not be the province of the masculine. And while men have always had privileged access to metaphysical power in the church, they have never had exclusive access, as evidenced by the continued  practice of authorizing endowed women to perform initiatories.

It is my contention that patriarchy, the relationship between masculinity and social power, precedes and is not entirely dependent on the association between metaphysical power and masculinity, although it appears to be justified by it. They might reinforce each other, but patriarchy and priesthood are not inextricably intertwined. For this reason it is entirely conceivable that women could be ordained and continue to be marginalized. However, to the degree that I am right that priesthood as presently conceived is one of the primary ways by which we currently account for patriarchy, in such conditions the church would perhaps have to develop new theological mechanisms to explain women’s continued subordination and marginalization.

25 Responses to “The Conundrum of Women’s Initiatories and the Two Paradigms for Priesthood”

  1. 1.

    Shoot what a great essay! This is one I’m going to read over and over as I continue to think about these issues.

  2. 2.

    This is fascinating, Kiskilili! I really like your interchurch vs. intrachurch framework, and your thoughts on how this state of affairs came to be. And I think your analysis is spot on in capturing why some men are so flabbergasted about women wanting to take away their masculinity in seeking ordination.

  3. 3.

    Great stuff. I think one reason the contradictions inherent in women performing priesthood rites in initiatory has seemed to so often fly under the radar of theological thinking by our leaders is that no man ever witnesses the acts. I think it’s almost entirely outside of their consciousness. Sure, they are aware, intellectually, that it happens. But the weight of what it means, the fleshy reality of it, are not things that occupy any space in their minds.

    I have long thought that minds would explode if all men witnessed a female initiatory at some point. Maybe now that they are less physical, that could happen? Minds would explode.

  4. 4.

    That’s a really interesting point, Cynthia. I can imagine them all turning to each other and asking, “How did we not get rid of this a century ago?”

  5. 5.

    Haha! Fantastic Cynthia.

    One day, I will be able to craft an elegant, thoughtful, faithful and clear essay like this. One day. I hope.

    Thank you, Kiskilili :)

  6. 6.

    I enjoyed the essay, and Cynthia your thought is also compelling.

  7. 7.

    You articulate well some of the inarticulate thoughts that I’ve had lately on this topic. We seem to adopt a very “Catholic” view of authority when we talk about the authority of the priesthood as exercised by men in the church–emphasis on hierarchy and authorities. But then when we talk about (justify?) the fact that women in the church can still do lots of good works that don’t require priesthood ordination, we can sometimes adopt a very protestant “priesthood of all believers” kind of rhetoric.

    One point to consider, which might begin to explain the conundrum of women officiating in initiatories (i.e. performing a priesthood ordinance by priesthood authority but without priesthood ordination) is whether the priesthood in the temple is fundamentally distinct from the priesthood to administer the church and perform ordinances outside the temple. We use the same terms (Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood) but the priesthood in the temple seems to operate in significantly different ways from the priesthood outside of the temple. Something similar to Stapely’s “cosmological priesthood” ideas.

  8. 8.

    Thanks so much for this essay. It allows me to better understand – certainly with more compassion – the people who are (to me) inexplicably threatened by female ordination. If a person makes the life-long commitment, with all the sacrifice entailed, to an identity based on a God-given gender role, then a challenge to it shakes the universe. I should have understood all along, since it’s everywhere in the church from Primary songs to YW lessons. Somehow the sociological way you frame it makes it easier for me to understand with charity.

    Sigh. I suppose that says something about the way I judge and accept truth/reality.

  9. 9.

    It strikes me that this may partly explain why I’ve been “meh” on women’s ordination. I don’t really like the hyper-hierarchical obedience-for-obedience-sake way priesthood is run now and don’t really want to buy into it. On the other hand, Abraham’s explanation of his yearning for metaphysical power is very appealing. Perhaps the solution is to gently decouple priesthood from male identity.

    This essay will continue to give me food for thought.

  10. 10.

    Thanks, Catherine, Ziff, Olea, and Kevin! I’m glad you found it helpful.

    Good point, Cynthia. I worry that if men witnessed the ritual it would be so at odds with their understanding of how priesthood works that they would “correlate” it under the umbrella of masculine priesthood, rather than expanding their understanding of priesthood and gender. It is striking to me that there’s no category of activity associated with exercising priesthood that a woman can’t currently do or hasn’t been able to do in the past (preside, administer ordinances, give blessings, etc.). That cries out for a theological explanation.

    JKC, I agree completely: When we talk about our church vis-a-vis others, the priesthood is the power of God to which our members have exclusive access (a notion not dissimilar to what Catholics claim). But when we talk about women, suddenly it’s the priesthood of all believers! The prayer of faith is every bit as effective as the priesthood. I would love to see someone do a study of the various things “priesthood” has meant in Mormonism over time.

    CRW, it took many debates with men in the early days of the bloggernacle—about whether men would slide into barbarism if women were ordained—before it dawned on me that the assumption behind such claims is that if women have priesthood, men stop having priesthood. If priesthood is simply “the power of God” and it’s priesthood specifically that redeems men from their natural state, this argument has no merit. But ordaining women would force us to radically reconceptualize masculinity.

  11. 11.

    It’s probably just my lack of awareness, but I don’t know of a church that ordains all adult men and women, or that asserts that all adults belong to a “priestly” caste. In most traditions priests belong effectively to a separate (holier) category of membership. In Mormonism we seem to think we democratized that impulse, but all we really did was map it onto gender, where men occupy the priestly caste vis-a-vis women (even setting aside the paid upper echelons of the clerical hierarchy). Even in the Community of Christ, where women are now ordained, not all women (or men) are ordained. I wonder what priesthood would mean in a tradition where everyone in their majority had it.

  12. 12.

    Kiskilili, just spitballing, but what do you think about this theory: The radical democratization that Mormonism proposed is telling the everyman farmer etc that he can literally be King. Unfortunately, it seems like Mormon women have always been offered up as part of the deal as the presided-over (kinged-over?).

  13. 13.

    I completely agree. In the early church, when women’s status as property was taken for granted, there’s a case to be made that it was radical democratization of the sort I’m imagining: everyone was a priest, and women weren’t people.

  14. 14.

    (Although as long as you have a first and second elder, or a prophet and an apostle, it’s probably no different from anyone else. Some people have priesthood and some people have priesthood keys.)

  15. 15.

    Again, so true. And yet it depresses me so, because I don’t think this generation of men (or maybe even the next) will be able to unlink their masculinity from the priesthood. Man, this is the only time I’ve ever seen the appeal of anarchy and wanting to reset everything from square one, because we are too far gone for change to ever be done, it seems. I don’t support that, but it makes sense to me.

  16. 16.

    Long time lurker, but had to comment in this beautifully articulated post. I have been tossing around similar ideas in my head but had not been able to elucidate them in this level. Thank you for your deep thinking. My husband and I were able to have a really good conversation about this article and talk about how within the church preisthood and masculinity are so intertwined and how problematic it is for both men and women.

    With regard to the initiatories, I believe that if the initiatory had always followed the format it does today (fully clothed, only head anointed) there is no way women would have ever administered it. I worry often that at some point this precious gift of allowing women to administer ordinances will be taken away now that it has changed so much. I think other commentators are on to something; it exists so outside of men’s sphere that it is totally protected. His line of thinking also bears out in terms if women one time giving healing blessings and the blessings and an mountings that were offered to women who were pregnant and giving birth. I do not think it is a coincidence that this practice declined with the rise of modern medicine. As medicine became more and more if a science, it’s doors closed to women and the services if healers, herbal women and midwives were supplanted by male doctors and hospitals. This also necessitated that society overcome it’s squeamishness about men having access to women’s bodies for medical purposes. Medicine has replaced many miracles but also done much good; yet I can’t help but hunk that it also paved the way for the decline if women utilizing spiritual gifts related to healing and their own blessing rituals.

  17. 17.

    Kristine A – Don’t lose hope yet. There is a clear path to a change in understanding, and it’s already been set in motion. It may not be obvious just yet, but recent/current declarations on the doctrine of the Priesthood coupled with a return to the scriptural declarations already canonized lead only to one inevitable end concerning the organization of the Priesthood. And it will lead to the rise of Zion. Great things ahead.

  18. 18.

    It is probably worth noting that a few recent conference talks have made a point of attempting to de-link priesthood from masculinity at least on some level (e.g. “men are not the priesthood”). It remains to be seen how seriously we will take such teachings.

  19. 19.

    Kristine A, I don’t want to make any particular claim to virtue because of this, but I feel that priesthood and masculinity have been rather forcefully un-linked from each other in my mind and heart.

    The problem resulting from this is that, at the moment, I feel so out of sync with LDS religious discourse that I no longer know how to respond to daily and weekly religious functioning. I feel like the guy on the dance floor who has suddenly forgotten the steps for the disco line dance. (I picked disco line dance, because it’s awesome.) The dance goes on, and I feel stupid.

    So while that separation of church and gender state has happened, it requires such a radical redefinition of my faith that I feel very, very lost. The anarchy you wondered about is happening, and I’m looking forward to when it stops sucking. (It will stop sucking. Right?)

  20. 20.

    Andrew C… I’m really curious about your observations. In what way has separating priesthood and gender required a redefinition of faith? Could you share an example?

  21. 21.

    AshleyNYC: Your comment reminded me a lot of the book Witches, Midwives and Nurses. It’s a short (but good) read.

  22. 22.

    My brother tells me I wasn’t clear in my comment, and because you asked, Laura, I’ll try to clarify. I realize that my thoughts at the time came out of significant confusion and emotional distress, so I’ll try to be less sad and more specific. This will be too long, so please forgive me.

    Feel free to skip to the next comment. You have been warned.

    Kiskilili’s original post seems to describe my feelings about myself and priesthood for the majority of my life. My identity was as a deacon, teacher, priest, and elder in Israel. I didn’t think clearly about the separate roles of men and women, but my identity as a man was entirely blended with my identity as a priesthood holder, one big existential smoothie.

    More recently, two things have pushed me to reconsider this. First, one portion of my (partial) recovery from depression has been to discard certain mentalities regarding a “checklist” gospel: do these tasks in this order, all done, here’s your salvation. Instead, I had to accept that my personal worth was a very complex thing, and not easily quantifiable. Priesthood “worthiness” became a less useful guide, and the priesthood hierarchy above me fell over sideways. Suddenly, the bishop became someone on the same level as I was, and I could consult him if I felt it was necessary, but my responsibility was to God above me, and really to no one else–at least in a hierarchical sense.

    Concurrently with this, I had much more extensive interaction with groups marginalized by my faith tradition, specifically women, people in the LGBT genders, and people of other faiths, including some good Muslim and Jewish friends. I looked at these good people, I looked at history, and I concluded that if God wanted us all to be Mormon in this life, He had come up with a really crappy plan to accomplish it.

    So if I was no longer defined by my priesthood, and I was no longer convinced of the urgency to convert and perform saving ordinances for all these good, creative people, then what is the priesthood for? Someone needs to administer the church, but if priesthood keys are only there to help people hold meetings, then that’s certainly not something integral to being a man; it’s just integral to running an organization, and women can do that very well. Is the priesthood to manifest the power of God in the world? If I had seen flashier miracles in my life, perhaps I would have more conviction about an exclusive right to God’s power, but I can’t deny the power of God manifest in the life of my gay, atheist friend, in the lives of our sweet, gentle Muslim neighbors, and how they make my life better.

    So now priesthood feels separate from my identity as a man, but also possibly from my identity entirely, and that thought is uncomfortable and makes me feel sad. I suspect I won’t be able to reconnect with my identity as a man and priest until I also have a firm conviction of my wife’s role as a woman and priestess. Until my faith opens the way for all good, worthy people to clearly and unequivocally take part in the power of God and the administration of His church, I expect I will always feel hypocritical.

  23. 23.

    How very interesting. I am a woman, and have been hearing about how other women feel marginalized and disconnected from our faith for a long time now. I have always thought that it was sad, but didn’t realize how steeped I am in the male narrative: as soon as I read Andrew C’s post, I thought, “Uh-oh! That’s not good if men are questioning their role in the church!”
    And then I shook my head… So much for my feminist enlightenment. I am still a product of my church culture. Must work on that.

  24. 24.

    I am in awe. This is the most insightful and thought provoking thing I’ve read all year, OP and comments alike.

    In The LDS Church, Priesthood = The Power of God, a usage distinctly different from most other Christian religions where the word Priesthood = The Fraternity of the Servants of God”.

    I’ve bristled for ages every time I’ve heard men or boys referred to as “the priesthood” because, as wonderful as they are, they simply are not the embodiment of The Power of God.

    Perhaps part of the problem then is that we use the same word to define something that one has, belongs to, or is.

  25. 25.

    What a well-framed perspective. This post has me thinking about people who respond to women wanting the priesthood by pointing out that men can’t have babies. They seem to be implying that being able to perform priesthood ordinances is as inherent to the male biological make-up as birthing children is to women’s, thus, the leaders of the church can’t simply grant women the power to perform priesthood duties. If this is the case, how is it that women perform initiatories in the temple and perform other priesthood duties such as serving missions and pronouncing blessings with the laying on of hands (in the past)? Our own history suggests that church leaders can both grant power to women to perform such ordinances as well as take that power away.

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