It first dawned on me that women weren’t necessary in church when I went to BYU Education Week as a teenager and heard what were meant to be faith-promoting stories about believing LDS women behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, who were unable to have an ecclesiastical organization because there wasn’t anyone with the priesthood to run it and who therefore didn’t get to take the sacrament for decades, but who nonetheless personally kept the faith. Rather than being inspired, I was somewhat taken aback when it occurred to me that for all the importance Latter-day Saints place on having an organized church, it is secondary to the importance of maintaining strict gender divisions. I realize that in the particular situation of the Cold War, there were added complications affecting what was possible. But a principle nonetheless became clear to me: if the choice was to ordain women, or to not have a church at all, Mormons would opt for the latter. (This led me to wonder: what if the only way to restore the church had been to work through a woman? Would the Mormon God simply decided to not have a Restoration rather than to allow a woman to act in his name and with his authority?)
Along those lines, I remember first mulling over the reality that a ward could run without any women at all, that if all the women stayed home on Sunday, you could still have church services. (I guess the only possible wrinkle would be what to do with the male Primary children, who could still have Primary teachers—just not a Primary presidency to keep the whole thing running.) If all the men stayed home, on the other hand, there would be no church services. Full stop. I shared this troubling observation with a male LDS acquaintance whose first response was to say, “you’re just trying to make me mad,” which (for once) wasn’t actually true—I was admittedly a pot-stirrer at this point in my life, but in this instance I really just was pointing to something I’d observed that was bothering me. He then said, “well, none of the men would come if there weren’t women there,” and dismissed the question. But I was kind of shaken by the stark fact that women were, ecclesiastically speaking, not needed.
This reality has far-reaching consequences. It affects the progress of missionary work and church growth—you need a certain number of Melchizedek priesthood holders to have a ward, and if you don’t have them, you’re stuck. This means that male converts are more valuable than female ones; I don’t see any way of getting around that. It hasn’t surprised me to hear anecdotal accounts of missionaries who were discouraged from baptizing too many single women but were rather instructed to focus on families. And from an ecclesiological perspective, arguably the most valuable thing that a heterosexual family has to offer a local Mormon community is the addition of a priesthood-holder to the ward.
I also think this set-up has shaped my personal experience of church in ways that I haven’t even always realized. I’ve been in some pretty lousy wards, and in some truly amazing ones. But especially as I got older and remained single, I became more and more acutely aware that even in the most welcoming, caring community, my status as a single woman meant that I was in some sense perceived as a burden on the ward, as a problem. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been in wards where I really did feel like people appreciated my voice and valued what I had to offer, and even went out of their way to give me opportunities to use that voice. That meant a lot to me. But even in such positive settings, I never could quite escape the sense that there was a way in which I was a sort of net loss, a drain on the ward. And in less good wards, this was much more blatant—in the last ward I attended before I kind of gave up on the whole thing, the bishop had zero interest in interacting with single women.
Male LDS leaders are fond of talking about how important and valued and women are. I’ve attended a variety of religious services this year, and as I’ve read about different groups in preparation for attending their services, I’ve been struck by how common it is for other traditions that don’t ordain women to make a similar move—they talk about how much they revere and admire women, how much women contribute to their communities, how important and crucial the “female role” is. There’s just this small detail that they don’t want women actually running anything, or representing the divine. And honestly, I’ve run out of patience with that mindset. If you choose to make gender roles central to your religious universe, and privilege them above even having the opportunity for organized religious practice in the first place, it comes with a cost, both in terms of missing out on the gifts that women might have to offer, and also the practical consequences of cutting in half the number of people who can provide the needed leadership to keep the whole thing going. But it appears that in many contexts, those with the power to change things have made the determination this is not too high a price to pay.
(Post-script: I’m imagining that someone is now going to say something about the declining membership among mainline Protestants, and suggest that we need to protect those people who simply can’t deal with women in leadership and will leave churches in droves if that happens. And from the cost-benefit perspective I’m articulating here, I’ll concede that they have a point. It’s possible that the problems male-only ordination poses for church growth are outweighed by the problems female ordination would cause, in terms of people leaving or losing interest. But I would hope that those making such calculations would at least be aware that male-only ordination doesn’t come without costs of its own.)