If you’ve been following along these past few weeks (excepting my mother’s day vacation), you know I’ve been convening a personal study session on priesthood: what it means today, what it has meant, and what all of this means in light of a renewed call for the ordination of women by some LDS feminists.
And after weeks of study, this is what I have gathered, in summary:
Elder Boyd K. Packer has stated that the way Mormons now conceive of priesthood authority—restricted to men, identical with administrative authority, and opposite to motherhood–is not necessarily grounded in scripture; it may be just as much an outgrowth of tradition or custom. Priesthood keys are, in fact, rather haphazardly defined in scriptures, and they do not map neatly onto current LDS Church administrative functions. LDS Church historians date the implementation of our current concept of priesthood (as identified with men only and with exclusive administrative authority, and in opposition to motherhood) to the middle twentieth century, as introduced by leaders like John Widtsoe. Before Widtsoe, there is evidence of a more expansive notion of priesthood in Mormonism, dating from the moment in 1843 when Joseph Smith made the daring and I’d argue revelatory decision to interpret Exodus 40: 12 – 15 to apply to both men and women, effectively vesting women with priesthood through the endowment ceremony. An expansive sense of priesthood authority survives into the early twentieth century in the continuing practice of LDS women giving blessings of healing and even washings and anointings preparatory to childbirth. This practice contracted during the 1920s and 1930s. Correlation as an administrative program was introduced in the 1940s and 1950s and was used as a premise to contract the authority of women over their own auxiliaries in the 1960s and 1970s, as historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has remembered. We have seen a very modest recent correction in renewed emphasis on the use of mixed-gender councils at the level of ward decision making. But if we track the institutional authority of LDS women from the 1840s to today, could one plausibly characterize the situation of Mormon women as a restoration incomplete?
My goal this week is to follow the distinction Elder Packer has made and to understand the distinction between practices based in tradition or custom and practices that reflect a consistent and coherent LDS doctrine. Recently, we’ve seen the Church quietly set aside a longstanding custom of not inviting women to pray at General Conference. This was purely tradition; it was not reflective of a consistent or coherent LDS doctrine. Are there other customs in the way we assign authority that do not in fact have a foundation in consistent or coherent LDS doctrine?
It appears that there is a subarticulate LDS doctrine that endowed LDS women do enjoy priesthood power, even if they are not ordained to priesthood offices. Many Mormons take this as a deduction from the fact that LDS women conduct some temple ceremonies with authority delegated by the temple president, as well as by the fact that women in LDS temples participate fully in the priesthood-bearing rites described in Exodus 40: 12 – 15.
The distinction between a general priesthood power and specific administrative authority is often framed through the language of priesthood “keys.” But to study the scriptural definitions of keys is to find that keys outlined in the scriptures don’t neatly or consistently cohere with the shape of administrative responsibilities in the contemporary LDS church. In our current handbook, some positions are restricted to male priesthood holders that do not in fact have particular scripturally-delineated keys associated with them. The question that emerges for me, then, is, if the handbook restricts a particular administrative responsibility to a male Melchizedek priesthood holder but there are no keys associated with that position, is this restriction based on custom (as in the case of women praying in sacrament meeting or General Conference)?
There are some gender-restricted callings that are clearly based in custom only. For example:
Ecclesiastical positions customarily restricted to men that do not require priesthood power or authority (office / keys)
- Sunday School Presidencies
- Church historian
Then, there are gender-restricted callings that stipulate Melchizedek priesthood but have no particular keys associated with them. Is this a case where if a woman is in fact viewed as being capable of holding delegated authority, as women do in the temple, women might someday be permitted to serve in these capacities as well? For example:
Positions restricted to Melchizedek priesthood authority holders in the current Handbook but that do not hold scripturally-indicated priesthood keys
- Witnesses to baptisms and temple sealings
- Stake and ward clerks
- Stake and ward executive secretaries
- Stake high council
- Ward and stake mission leaders
- Bishopric counselors
- Counselors in temple, mission, stake, branch, district, and ward and stake auxiliary presidencies
There are also non-calling associated responsibilities that are customarily restricted by gender, but this restriction is clearly customary and does not have a consistent and coherent doctrinal foundation. For example:
Responsibilities that do not require ordination to Melchizedek priesthood office
- Blessing the sick (by historical precedent)
- Blessings of comfort and counsel before childbirth (by historical precedent)
- Father’s (and mother’s) blessings
There are also responsibilities that are restricted to male Melchizedek priesthood holders by the current Handbook but that do not entail scripturally-indicated priesthood keys and / or delegated authority. For example:
Responsibilities that under current Handbook policies require ordination to Melchizedek priesthood office
- Dedicating homes and graves
- Consecrating oil
- Blessing babies
- Witnessing baptisms / sealings
And there are responsibilities that scripture clearly associates with priesthood keys. For example:
Responsibilities that under current Handbook policies require ordination as well as delegated Melchizedek priesthood authority / keys
- Temple endowments
- Setting apart
- Presiding at meetings and over stakes, wards, branches, and quorums
- Worthiness and ordinance interviews
- Church discipline
- Issuing callings
What to do with these distinctions, I’ll get to next week. But in the meantime, it’s worth noting that many, many administrative responsibilities within the institutional culture of the LDS Church that have nothing to do with priesthood at all have been customarily restricted by gender, and this sends a powerful message about the value of women’s experience and authority within the Mormon world. These non-ecclesiastical segregations should be viewed as purely customary. Still, left uninterrogated, they seem to communicate the stamp of divine intent. I’m thinking here, for example, of the boards and leadership of all LDS Church subsidiaries and Church-owned corporations including universities (BYU, BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii, etc.), corporations (Bonneville, etc.), boards and leaderships of Church subsidiaries including universities (BYU, LDS Business College, etc.), corporations (Deseret Management Corporation, including Bonneville Communications, Deseret Book, etc.), Church Educational System, Humanitarian Services, LDS Family Services. If Mormonism truly values equality, where better to begin than by striving for 50%-50% representation on the boards of all major Church subsidiaries and within the leadership of Church-owned corporations? This isn’t even a matter of ecclesiastical authority or doctrine!
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