Women and the Priesthood 1: Why and Why Not

When I was a bishop's counselor, I took pains to give women and girls equal opportunities with men and boys to preach and lead in the congregation at large. When it was my turn to plan and make assignments for sacrament meetings, I studiously alternated men and women (and young men and young women) as 15- and 20-minute speakers. When I organized fifth-Sunday third-hour combined youth meetings, I made sure the young women's class president had an equal say with me and the Aaronic Priesthood quorum presidents and assistant in topic, format and choice of panel members, and I made sure she got to conduct her share of the meetings. Before the opening exercises for fifth-Sunday third-hour combined meetings, I made sure the Relief Society president and Young Women's president sat at the front along with the stake presidency (members of our ward), the bishop, and the presidents of the Elders, Teachers and Deacons Quorums. When I attended fourth-Sunday Primary presidency meetings, I acted solely as the bishop's representative. I neither presided nor conducted. I mainly listened and I generally only spoke when I was spoken to. The Primary president had the keys in those meetings. I didn't. In fact, I had no keys at all except the ones in my pocket. When I set apart Primary teachers, I made sure the Primary president was there to witness, because she, not I, had the keys for that auxiliary.

So far in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Priesthood is not given to girls or women. No one really knows why and it makes sense to wonder. It also makes sense that many people would object to this distinction between males and females, seeing it as a form of discrimination inherited from the patrilineal, patriarchal societies in which the Big Three monotheistic religions emerged. It makes sense to believe that the distinction made sense in the past but doesn't now. After all, apart from a few general cognitive and anatomical differences that have nothing to do with church (and which are often negated by individual development), there is no reason to distinguish between males and females at all. Girls could prepare, pass and bless the sacrament as easily and well as do boys, and women could receive revelation, dedicate temples, assign missionaries to missions, set and interpret church policy, plan, preside over and conduct general, area, stake, district, ward and branch conferences and other meetings, preside over missions and temples, ordain people to the Priesthood, set people apart for callings, conduct disciplinary councils, organize and conduct hometeaching, take minutes, bore entire congregations with aimless high council talks, manage ward, stake, area and general church records, and collect, count and deposit tithes and offerings as well as do men--probably better in many cases.

In the developed, educated West, at any rate, gender simply doesn't matter except in the delivery room and hidebound corporations with good-old-boy glass ceilings. So why does it matter in a church supposedly famed for the relative (if not quite absolute or universal) sophistication and progressiveness of its membership? We're educated, right? There are renowned secular intellectuals in our midst, right? Members of this church have contributed to progress in many or most fields of endeavor, right? Why don't women and girls get the Priesthood?

I don't know. That's for the Prophet to find out. Oh, I can ask the Lord (and maybe I will), but I don't get to expect a straight, definitive answer (though it's not impossible I could get one), and I certainly don't get to broadcast my answer as binding on the Church.

Now, as we know from Church history, a revelation or two in the Doctrine and Covenants and a remark by the Savior himself in the Book of Mormon, the Lord tends to answer the questions that get asked. We also know from our experience with the Declaration on the Priesthood that a question can get asked for a long time before the answer comes. There could be all kinds of reasons for this, including our readiness as a community to receive it.

With a small (but rising) number of exceptions, the General Authorities of the Church are American sexa-, septua, octo- and nonagenerians who grew up in or near Utah, Idaho or the Mexican colony. Many of them have ancestors with names in Church history. Some are even descendants or near relatives of General Authorities, including apostles and prophets. They were raised in communities in which the sexual division of labor was a natural given. Females comprised the weaker and fairer sex, for which the doors in buildings and vehicles should be opened, but for which many social doors were simply closed.  These people are leading the Church in an age notable for its firm insistence on full equality in every sphere, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. It cannot be easy for them. The situation certainly isn't easy for people who feel at their core that some of our policies and practices arise from foolish and vain (or at least outmoded) traditions, not divine decrees.

I often wonder what the Church would be like if it had been restored later. What givens of the eighteenth century would we not see if the Church were restored today? I'm pretty sure we wouldn't care whether the Church had the same organization as the Primitive Church and we wouldn't be so impressed by the visits of angels or the translation of an ancient American record. We would care more about social justice and social equality and we would probably expect the Prophet of this Restoration to be a middle-grade, mixed-race, non-American, trans-sexual lesbian with a degree in xeno-biology, possibly a clone, preferably at least test-tube conceived. That last sentence will be funny to some people and offensive to others, but stop chuckling or fuming and get my point: No religion is ever going to make the grade with its later adherents. That's one reason we have Apostasies and Dispensations.

Let's face it. We're less than a decade shy of two centuries since the plowboy knelt in the grove to get God's response to an earnest bit of critical thinking. Two centuries is a long time to coast on a Visitation, let alone the lesser visits, visions, voices, promptings and impressions we've had since then. All is not well in Zion. Never has been. And maybe it's time we at least started importuning for clarification on issues that matter to us as a people, as geographical and ideological subgroups of the people, and as sincere but conflicted individual group members.

Denying women the Priesthood is one of those issues. It doesn't matter to everyone, but it matters to some--and many others at least wonder. Surely we can expect the Prophet to have the matter in mind and to tell us he's working on it. There's plenty of precedent, if that's what's required. Why do we have the Word of Wisdom? Emma Smith got sick of scraping up tobacco stains after the School of the Prophets. She told Joseph how she felt and Joseph stewed on it. Many another section of the D&C came to us because somebody other than the Prophet had a question that concerned the Church. The answer may not come when we'd like it--and we may not like it. We can sustain or oppose it when it's put to the sustaining vote.

But there's one more thing about the Word of Wisdom. It's "adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints". In other words, if you can be called a saint, you can stomach this revelation. That works both ways. If the Prophet does approach the Lord with the question of whether women should receive the Priesthood, and if he does receive a revelation, will you or won't you accept it, whatever it says? If you won't, you can't be called a saint. In the meantime, state your concern and wait.

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