When will the female priesthood ban end?

Monday was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. I was actually surprised at how badly I took the news of Kate Kelly’s excommunication. When I heard about it, I just felt sick, and even my usual coping strategy of information-seeking didn’t work very well. Every Facebook post and news story I read just made me feel sicker and want to cry more. I had expected beforehand that excommunication would be the outcome. Or at least I told myself that I was expecting it. Given how difficult hearing the actual news was for me, though, I guess I had been holding out more hope than I realized that the outcome would be something else–anything else.

But that was Monday. Today, I’m trying to think about the future, specifically, the future of the LDS female priesthood ban. I really believe that it will one day be lifted. I just have no idea when. But because I find it soothing to crunch numbers and speculate, I’ve gone ahead and done that in this post. I realize, though, that this is little more than guessing.

Now that Kate has been excommunicated, and action has also been taken against at least one other OW board member, it seems clear that the current Quorum of 15 is not, on the whole, open to the idea of ending the female priesthood ban. Even if they are not actively directing the actions against OW, they’re certainly not stopping things either, so it’s probably fair to guess that they’re at least mostly opposed.

I wonder how long it will take the Quorum to come around to ending the ban. Nate Oman suggested in a post at T&S back in January that they probably don’t want to give in to OW partially because they don’t want to be seen as open to being pushed around by people who ask questions. I think that’s probably true. But I wonder which members of the Quorum this would apply to. I think it’s reasonable to guess that the more senior they are, the more ownership they would feel of decisions (or non-decisions) like these. So while part of me worries that, like the children of Israel waiting to get into the Promised Land, we might have to wait for a complete replacement of the Quorum before there’s any possibility of a sympathetic group, I do wonder if perhaps the more junior members of the Quorum might be open to reversing previous policies by the time they become senior members.

Of course the obvious next question is this: How long does it take for the Quorum to turn over? I looked back to the start of David O. McKay’s presidency (1951) and counted how often a Quorum member died. It looks like the average is one death every two years (although there’s a lot of variability around that: from 1995 to 2004, for example, there were no deaths in the Quorum). Taking that average, the senior half of the Quorum (say the most senior eight of the 15) might be replaced in about 16 years, and the entire Quorum in about 30 years.

I thought I could do a little better than that rough estimate by looking at the ages and life expectancies of current Quorum members. I used the CDC’s 2009 life table for White males to run a little simulation of Quorum member longevity 10,000 times. I’ve described the simulation at the end of this post.

This chart shows the results. I looked at the time to replacement of 30 possible subgroups of Quorum members: the most senior one, the most senior two, and so forth through the most senior 15 (i.e., the entire Quorum), as well as any one, any two, and so forth through any 15 (again, the entire Quorum). These “any” groups are defined as the first members to die, regardless of their seniority. There are 10,000 results for each subgroup, so rather than try to show them all, I’ve just shown percentiles from the results. Percentiles are found for each group by lining up the 10,000 results in order by size, and then picking out results that are a certain percentage of the way through the list. I chose the 10th, 25th, 50th, 75th, and 90th percentiles.

years for GAs to be replaced simulation

In case percentiles aren’t easy to think about, it might be helpful to think of them as probabilities. They tell the chances of a subgroup being replaced (dying) in the specified number of years or fewer. For example, the most senior four members have a 10% chance of all having died by the time four years have passed (because their 10th percentile is 4 years). They have a 90% chance of all having died by the time 12 years have passed (their 90th percentile is 12 years). The 50th percentile (median) tells how long until the subgroup has a 50/50 chance of all having died. If you could only pick one number to summarize the result, this would be a good choice.

My guess was that maybe the most senior half of the Quorum would have to be replaced before they might even possibly imagine lifting the female priesthood ban. The simulation says there’s a 50/50 chance that they’ll all have died in 12 years. In 17 years, there’s a 90% chance that they all will have died. Anyway, the reason I put the whole table up is so that you don’t have to be limited to my speculations. If you want to know how long it will be before the most senior 10, or any five, are replaced, for example, you can look at the appropriate row to find out.

Twelve years sounds like a long time. It’s shorter than the 16 suggested by the average of one replacement every two years. But how many people will leave the Church, formally or informally, during that time? How many of my family members, how many of my friends will be chased out by either formal discipline, or more likely, by what RJH of BCC described so well as the “Dolores Umbridge wing of the Church”? And 12 years is just a guess about how soon the Quorum might begin to have a glimmer of a thought that the female priesthood ban should end. Even if I’m right, how long after that might it take for a consensus to be reached so the ban can actually be lifted? Years? Decades? The timeline looks bleak.

But I still think I have reasons to hope. First, maybe I’m totally wrong about the timeline, and the issue will be taken up by the Quorum in just a few years. Second, it seems clear that OW is continuing to gather strength and support, and will persist in its good work of bringing attention to the ban (perhaps even eventually the attention of the Quorum), whether Kate is on the Church’s membership rolls or not. Third, I’m also hopeful that, as many other people have pointed out, because OW has pushed the boundary of what women’s issues might be talked about in the Church, it might be easier now to address some of the many other discriminatory problems in the Church that don’t require ordination to solve. (For examples of such issues, see Nat Kelly’s list in this fMh post or Chelsea’s list in this WAVE post.) Finally, I am encouraged by stubborn people like fMhLisa, who said the following (in a Trib Talk yesterday, at the very end) about whether she was going to act differently at church:

Even though I feel like there has been a strong signal sent out that perhaps they don’t want us, I. don’t. really. care. I want the women who are struggling. I want the gays who are struggling. I want everybody who has questions to feel like they belong, and so I’m going to speak up more because I want them to know I want them.

I can’t say that my reasons for hope somehow cancel out my discouragement over Kate’s excommunication or my guess that it will be years or decades before the Quorum considers ending the ban. But I must say that I am happy to find that I have a nonzero number of reasons to be hopeful.


The Simulation

I used the CDC’s 2009 life table for White males (follow the link and see Table 5). For each Quorum member, I assigned the probabilities of death in the next year based on his current age, and then for all subsequent ages up to age 130. (Note that the life table only goes to 99. I expanded it by taking the change between age 98 and 99 and adding it to the age 99 value. This has little effect on the results, as even 90-year-olds are not good bets to live to be 100.) Then I simulated a bunch of random numbers between zero and one and compared them to the probabilities assigned to each Quorum member to find his implied life expectancy. As soon as a random number for a member fell at or below the probability of dying in a given year, I counted him as having died for purposes of the simulation, and went on to the next Quorum member. I repeated the process 10,000 times for each Quorum member.

In each one of the 10,000 simulations, I checked how many years it took for subgroups of Quorum members to die. I defined groups in two ways. The first is the most senior X members, where X is a number ranging from 1 to 15. For example, the group of the most senior two members is President Monson and President Packer. The second way of defining a subgroup is any X members, where X is again a number ranging from 1 to 15. The subgroup of any two members isn’t defined as any particular members, because it’s just the first to die, whoever they are. In one simulation, for example, the first two to die might be President Monson and Elder Nelson, but in another simulation, the first two might be President Packer and Elder Perry.

One important limitation to note is that an actuary friend of mine has told me that the avoidance of smoking increases longevity across the lifespan (i.e., its effect is not just in making it more likely a person will live to old age, but also in making it more likely they’ll survive from old age to older age). I haven’t adjusted the life table probabilities for the fact that the Quorum members don’t smoke, though, because I wasn’t sure how large of an adjustment would be appropriate. This means that the values in the table are more likely too small than too large (i.e., Quorum members will live longer on average than the simulation thinks they will).


  1. The error in the assumption here could be expecting that the senior Apostles are the ones who are more fundamentalist and traditional in their convictions. It’s hard to read between the lines in their statements to determine who falls where but based on analyzing their General Conference talks and articles they’ve authored for the Ensign, it certainly seems several of the younger Apostles hold similar convictions.

  2. your forgetting one very important detail. The church does no belong to the 15 senior apostles, It belongs to the Lord, It Is his church. The Prophet only directs the church according to how the Lord wants it to run. If they Lord said tomorrow the woman will be granted the priesthood it would be done. If the Lord will say When/if woman will be given the priesthood not the General Authorities.

  3. Another problem could be that those that remain will be likely to replace the dead Q15 member with someone like themselves. It could be two or three iterations away before there’s enough change in the attitude of the 15 to open the door to change.

    Inertia is heavy, and the rhetoric of generations anchors it in place. I heard enough of motherhood = priesthood in my 20 years as an active member to make me think that ordination of women won’t happen in my children’s lifetimes. It will take more than 15 dead prophets, seers and revelators to affect a change that substantive.

  4. Queue prophets, seers and revelators as mindless puppets of God. Yeesh. This is why I shouldn’t read the comments (or comment, for that matter.) Sorry Ziff. Back to lurking.

  5. Ziff,
    I think that the percentile categories should be moved over one or two slots to compensate for the healthier than average lifestyles of the apostles. 30 or 34 years until they are all replaced looks like a good guess.

    I take Elder Oaks talk as something like the 1949 First Presidency statement on blacks. The big thing to look for is if his position gets walked back in a few years like Pres. McKay did on making it a policy and not a doctrine, or if his talk becomes a foundation for the official and final(until further revelation comes) position. I would lean towards the later being most likely, meaning that a jarring revelation is probably the only way that change would come.

  6. OD, I agree. Among the junior apostles, Bednar, Cook and Christofferson have always seemed fairly hardline conservative to me.

  7. If contemplating the deaths of a half dozen people who stand in the way of what you want is what cheers you up, I highly recommend the movie Kind Hearts and Coronets. Alec Guiness plays eight roles, all deceased by the end of the story. It’s quite a hoot, and Joan Greenwood’s voice is unforgettable.

  8. John, thanks so much for framing it as though I’m trying to plot their assassinations. I’m not particularly interested in anyone’s death. If they were politicians, I would contemplate when their term of office would end. But they’re in for life.

  9. Hey Ziff, you could have saved yourself a lot of time if you’d only read Jared’s comment before you went to all the trouble of preparing your post.

    Fascinating post, btw.

  10. Is there any point in advocating (dangerous word?) for a retirement age of 80 for apostles. It seems like elder abuse for them to continue much longer.

    My father is in this age group and he certainly wouldn’t want to do what is expected of Apostles. We have had a number over the years who have not been too healthy.

    Reading about the effort that went into the 1978 revelation, I’m not sure how many of the over 80s would be up to it?

    It does seem that the only hope is Uchtdorf, and his becoming the Prophet before he is too old. Hopefully from the first presidency he can influence the choice of replacements.

    Perhaps if God is the interventionist God some believe, he can take one of the options needed to save the church from stagnation.

  11. Thank you for this: “what RJH of BCC described so well as the “Dolores Umbridge wing of the Church.”” Beautiful.

  12. MIke (comment 1)– LOL

    Jared– I agree this is the Lord’s church, but I’ve noticed people don’t seem to get revelations until they’re open to them. God didn’t pop up in the Smith house just because it was “the Lord’s time” and start following fourteen-year-old Joseph around saying “Hey Joe, wanna start the only true church? I’ve got a revelation for you, Joe!” Mark E. Peterson was so utterly resistant to the possibility of ending the black temple/priesthood ban that he had to be out of the country before everyone else could receive the revelation to end it. I suspect there are apostles now who could imagine expanding the role of women in the church, and apostles for whom it is simply unimaginable. I don’t think in that latter category they’re going to be open to receiving a revelation about it, even if God is willing to give one.

  13. “Is there any point in advocating (dangerous word?) for a retirement age of 80 for apostles. It seems like elder abuse for them to continue much longer.”

    Amen to that, Geoff.

  14. Nice analysis. I also wish there was a way to factor in how people change. Elder Oaks for example has become much more conservative as he ages.

  15. It looks like the decision on gay marriage will be taken for the church. Is there some way the same could be done for women?

  16. Benson’s run made it clear the older members of the Quorum don’t do much. It is the younger ones running around with their heads cut off.

    As far as I can see, what the senior members actually do is 2 talks a year and a handful of trips on a private plane.

    Bednar may travel couch, but Monson sure doesn’t.

    As far as the female ban, I believe it will be eventually lifted, but I don’t see it happening in my lifetime.

  17. I’m not a regular reader (though I might become one), but I just wanted to comment and say it’s interesting that I saw this just now after coming here to read about chicken patriarchy and then just exploring. I was actually looking at their birthdates just yesterday trying to figure out the timespan for Elder Holland becoming church president. I am not personally especially concerned with priesthood. It’s not my cause (though I find myself very upset by the people saying mean things about the OW sisters). I am hopeful that we would see a lot of positive changes for women on things like the temple liturgy, discussion of the female Divine, etc. in a church lead by Elder Holland, and I look forward to that time for my 3 daughters, the oldest of which will be finishing high school in 12 years.

  18. In the mean time we’ll just have to settle for the prophets, seers and revelators that are in place now.

  19. Despite a claimed belief in continuing revelation, none have been announced since 1978. We now have infallible prophets, seers and revelators who neither prophesy, see, nor reveal. Expecting spontaneous change from a geriatric group of 15 white males is expecting too much.

  20. Has anyone entertained the possibility the.Lord wants men to be ordained, but not women? And that’s why the brethren have taken the stand they have? Maybe it’s not all about perceived equality at all? Would that be unthinkable and cause you to question His authority?

  21. Women bring us into this world through physical birth. Men administer the ordinances of spiritual rebirth bring us back into God’s presence. Even Jesus Christ accepted this system. Who can spank a prophet in the foyer? His mom. That’s the plan we agreed to before we came to this earth. Submission is such an ugly word to our contemporary ears, yet it is part of that strait and narrow gate we read about. How many of us will balk at the requirements before it’s over?


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