I loved my mission. It was by far the time in my life when I felt the happiest and most confident in the Church, most certain of its truth, most integrated into its community. Swedish Mormonism seemed an idyllic and open-hearted version of its American cousin, where the utter weirdness of the Church relative to the dominant, very secular Swedish culture meant that the Mormons trying to keep their church alive needed everyone–they couldn’t nudge each other out over small things, they couldn’t afford to reject the weirdos or the disaffected. The boundaries were bright and the margins were thin–if you were willing to be in at all, you were in all the way.
I know that I’ve romanticized things wildly, that I was linguistically and structurally shielded from whatever petty politics likely went on under the surface, and I know that in my own memory, I gloss over how tired and frustrated I often was. No one I ever taught ever got baptized, of the many inactive people I met with, none came back to church, and my numbers were always abysmal (though I was graced with two mission presidents who never said a word about it), but I got to know such interesting people, and I felt like I was doing God’s will. I worked mostly in small branches, relatively isolated from the mission and zone leadership; I saw missionaries other than my companion only infrequently, and we were mostly in charge of our own work and our own decisions. I had a tiny, hard, barely-effective contribution to make, and it was deeply, wholly satisfying to be making it.
Coming home was a shock, and then a long slow unravelling that I’ve been trying to make sense of ever since. Church is different when you’re not a missionary, it’s in your native language, and you’re a single woman in your late twenties. It was startling to re-encounter some of the church’s more toxic rhetoric about women, and unnerving to find out just how big and devastating Prop 8 had actually been. And yet I could still stay, still work, still contribute, while I was in a singles’ branch. I was dating someone seriously, and it looked like I would move safely on to those essential female contributions I had yet to make—getting married and raising up babies. Except then I broke up with that someone, most people stopped speaking to me, I was released from my calling and not given another one, my attendance became haphazard, and eventually I was quietly (without being asked or told) removed from the branch. Other elements of what had been a supportive spiritual network collapsed; my spotty attendance took a decisive turn into inactivity; and while I am still a believing member, it’s hard, now, to feel that it matters whether I go to church or not. I encounter a few friends there, but I find more suspicion and pity, and structurally, I am asked and allowed to contribute nothing. It feels nothing but empty, trying to find God in a place where I can barely recognize myself as a person.
I am not a member of Ordain Women, though I am deeply grateful that OW exists and has enabled a conversation that has been taboo for most of my life. I wish the leaders of the Church would take Ordain Women’s question seriously, ask God intently, and address it directly. I’m honestly willing to engage the possibility that God indeed intends the priesthood to be only for men, but I rarely see anyone rise to rigorously defend that position, so much as flail to assert the inevitability of the status quo. We can’t have a real conversation about gender and ordination until it can be excised as an issue from the benevolent sexism, saccharine idealization of motherhood, and clouds of chicken patriarchy that support and imbue official discussion about it. And while I lack OW’s conviction that women should be ordained, I am convinced, in every fiber of my being, without a shadow of a doubt, name your favorite testimony cliché here, that women absolutely must be integrated into church governance. We have a system that allows well-meaning men to take women’s input into account if they want to; we need a system that makes it impossible for them not to, that makes women a part of the decision-making process, not an auxiliary to it.
Despite my reluctance to join Ordain Women properly, I was happy to join them in line outside of the Tabernacle in April and ask for entry, on the grounds that serious questions should be taken seriously, and that respectful insistence on questions being heard is the only reliable route to institutional self-examination. It was a small thing to do as a part of a larger movement that is part of a much larger church, a tiny contribution in the aggregate, but it had been so very long that any contribution I could make was valued. For the first time in so very long, I felt a glimmer of what I felt on my mission—the satisfaction in the small thing I could do, the hope in God to make up the rest. My tiny, hard, barely-effective contribution was meaningful, and acceptable, and I clung to that. I still cling to that as I’m working towards activity again, against all of the reasons to give up.
I used to say, with characteristic melodrama, that if the Church excommunicated the leaders of OW, I would be out too, done with a church that does not brook dissent and clearly doesn’t want me. Now the unexpected reality of this situation has put the lie to my claims; I am crushed and angry and sad, but not going anywhere. Ordain Women suggests, literally but also by the figure of its very existence, that there is room for me in this church, room for an array of Mormon beliefs, and an array of ways to act on those beliefs. The Church itself suggests nothing of the same, but it did, it has–I cannot go into a church building and not think about my mission and everything that has changed and vanished in my life since then. If Ordain Women is apostate, then I do not know quite where I stand, but I will not leave just because I am passive-aggressively invited to do so; if OW is apostate, then the Church has re-defined apostasy in a way too broad not to apply to me, but I do not accept that ad-hoc and invective re-definition. It’s clear in a myriad of ways that the Church, or elements of it, doesn’t want me, but I don’t grant those elements the right to decide that–if this is the true church of Christ, then the dizzying spin of Public Affairs means nothing to the state of my membership. The only small, hard contribution I can make may be to stay here and reject the rejection; so be it.
- 18 June 2014