I’ve pretty much always been the kind of feminist who thought women should have the priesthood; I remember telling people this when I was in high school, and while they often laughed it off uncomfortably as teenage rabble-rousing, I was perfectly serious. This hasn’t changed, but, in watching the Church’s response to Ordain Women and some of the baby steps they’ve made towards (and away from) equality, lately I’ve been thinking more about what wanting women to have the priesthood really means to me.
There are lots of parts to that question, both emotional and analytical, but specifically, I’ve been thinking about this: what is the minimum I’d be satisfied with? Do women need to have the exact same priesthood as men, or the exact same responsibilities with that priesthood, in order to reach what I’d consider structural equality? (As a necessary aside, I’m assuming in this post that we’re addressing structural equality only, and that tackling people’s attitudes and worldviews would still be a separate task not fully addressed by those changes, which seems to be the case with race.)
The priesthood as the “power of God” in Mormonism plays multiple roles; this is overly simplified, but here’s what I see as the primary explicit functions:
1. Informal blessings, i.e. healing blessings, father’s blessings, even baby blessings and dedications of houses, chapels, and temples
2. Formal ordinances, i.e. baptisms, sacrament
3. Church governance, i.e. bishops, stake presidents, and the ability (apparently) to preside over most mixed-sex organizations
That’s not a comprehensive list of the functions of priesthood in Mormonism—one obvious function missing here is the priesthood’s role in socializing Mormon men into acceptable modes of masculinity, as well as providing a fraternal organization for sustained interaction; Julie M. Smith did this a lot more justice in her “Strands of Priesthood” post—but in this post I’m focusing primarily on the stated uses of the priesthood in Mormonism rather than the many unstated uses.
When I separate them out like this, I’d like to see some changes in each category, but it’s actually that third that I’m most concerned about; I don’t really think women can ever reach a point where they are seen as full equals unless they have at least the potential for full and equal say in governance. Our current governance system, even with baby steps like changing the Priesthood committee to include a woman (or “Family” representative, apparently), still operates more on a model of women being consultants rather than decision-makers: as in the business world, being a consultant can mean having great influence, or it can mean being utterly ignored, and that depends a lot more on the whims of the actual decision maker(s) than the value of your recommendations. Either way, and no matter whether you’re treated with kindness and respect, you’re on the outside of the organization, not the inside.
So, if my sticking point is governance, do women need the priesthood? I think, ultimately, that I could satisfied with a world in which men and women have distinct responsibilities, and in which there is something called “the priesthood” that women don’t hold. (“The priesthood” is in quotes here not out of disrespect, but just to mark that the priesthood in the world I’m laying out would be different—and reduced in scope—from today’s conception of the priesthood.) The changes could look like this:
I’d love to see administrative roles (like most of the calling of a bishop or stake president) be separated from priesthood entirely; we could thus make women eligible for callings anywhere in church governance, including presiding over men, without actually holding the priesthood or being able to perform ordinances. I’m no Biblical scholar—which I may now reveal with this analysis—but this also seems to have some historical precedent in the separation of Levitical priestly duties from broader prophetic or leadership roles for Israel; Deborah could serve as a judge in Israel without being able to perform priestly rites, and even Moses functioned in a more administrative leadership role than Aaron’s focus on formal and ritualized ordinances. This would require a lot of rethinking of the concept of priesthood keys for callings, of course, but we’re already taking baby steps diagonally around that rethinking, what with Elder Oaks talking about sister missionaries exercising priesthood authority in their stewardship. If we confronted it head-on and acknowledged the power of God as given to anyone with a calling via the proper authority—that authority given by the chain of church governance—those without the ritualized priesthood would still be able to function with inspiration in administration.
Continuing along the lines of the New Testament’s “priesthood of all believers,” we have historical precedent for women giving healing blessings, so it would require little or no change in doctrine to formally acknowledge that a just God should listen to the prayers of righteous women as much as the priesthood blessings of righteous men. With that, we could expand blessings to include women without giving them “the priesthood” per se; children could receive blessings from both parents, an acknowledgement of their shared responsibility, and the sick could be comforted and healed by the priesthood of all believers, or by anyone with the inclination, righteousness, or spiritual gift.
With church governance and ad-hoc blessings open to women, I’d be happy leaving formal ordinances in the hands of men only (and women in the temple). This, in fact, is the only way ideas like those in “The Two Trees” make any sense to me at all; in that argument, women have a responsibility to usher souls from pre-mortality to mortality (motherhood) and men have a responsibility to usher them from mortality to post-mortality, but then, in our current formulation of priesthood, men get all the bonus responsibilities of the other strands of priesthood (and all of church governance is a fairly large bonus responsibility). With a restriction in the scope of the formal, male-only priesthood, performing ordinances maintains some gender complementarity, provides a unique role for men both in their families and in the community, and acts as a more fair (though still not perfect) analogy to motherhood.
Much of this probably reflects my personal bias because I don’t feel a strong calling to performing ordinances and I do feel a strong calling to organizational leadership, but overall this would still be a system that makes more sense to me: we could maintain our claim to gender-specific roles and responsibilities, while still allowing men and women to fully and equally share the burdens and joys of comforting souls, healing the sick, administrating Zion, and declaring the word of God. I’m not saying this is my ideal; I think the concept of the priesthood is powerful, and a unique and important claim to Mormon authority, and untangling some of these strands would reduce its power, so I’d rather see today’s priesthood extended to women or some new priestesshood revealed.
What do you think? Do you want the priesthood (or want to share it, if you’re a man)? Considering all the functions of priesthood, how much is enough for you?