Sunday, June 29, 2014

The First Presidency Strikes Back (A Few Scattered Thoughts on Priesthood)

The First Presidency has finally spoken, albeit indirectly, on the matter of Kate Kelly and Ordain Women. Here are a few thoughts this Sunday morning, presented in list form to spare me the trouble of having to organize my writing into cohesive paragraphs:

1. It's genuinely nice to see something directly from the Office of the First Presidency rather than another statement from paid spokespeople. It's not Pope Francis visiting the poor and the marginalized, but it's not nothing.

2. The First Presidency letter says, "Only men are ordained to serve in priesthood offices." Some will take this as an authoritative and definitive answer to Ordain Women, but it won't end the debate. That brief sentence doesn't provide any justification for existing policy, doesn't attempt to address any OW or feminist concerns, and doesn't preclude female ordination in the future. I'm not convinced that critiques of church policies are best answered by simply restating the same policies (I suspect most OW supporters are well aware that only men serve in priesthood offices), but either way don't expect to unblock your unruliest friends on Facebook just yet.

3. The letter also says, "In God's plan...the blessings of His priesthood are equally available to men and women." This is already sparking discussion about what exactly "blessings of the priesthood" means. I know that I've heard hundreds of lessons, talks, and testimonies stating that holding and exercising the priesthood--and priesthood offices--are tremendous blessings in their own rights, so it seems odd to claim that the same blessings are available to women. Either holding the priesthood means something special or it doesn't. The above quote only makes sense if you limit "blessings" narrowly to the specific ordinances and rites administered by the priesthood. Regardless, to me that debate misses the point because...

4. Priesthood is more than just a mystical power or a mandate to serve. In the church, Priesthood is governance. Priesthood is a right to sit in councils and make decisions that will affect entire wards, and even the church itself. Priesthood determines who can speak at church and who cannot. Who holds specific callings and who does not. Where budget is allocated and where it is not. Who is excommunicated for dissent and who is not. The reason I support Ordain Women is not because I believe women need priesthood to access the power of God. That power is already available to everyone through faith. But priesthood means the ability to have a voice, to be heard, to make decisions. Priesthood is agency. Any suggestion that women have as much agency in practical church affairs is simply inane, not worth taking seriously. That is why women need the priesthood--because priesthood matters. It is a hegemonic power structure integral to how the church functions, yet over half of the membership is systematically excluded from it.

5. You might have guessed that I found the letter a little disappointing and inadequate, but I also want to try and read it charitably. The first paragraph ends, "We express profound gratitude for the millions of Latter-day Saint women and men who willingly and effectively serve God and his children. Because of their faith and service, they have discovered that the Church is a place of spiritual nourishment and growth." At its best the church is exactly that, and I believe the First Presidency means that sincerely. I don't know who actually drafted this letter, but I like to think that the problems I see stem from genuine institutional blind spots, not any kind of willful ignorance or malice. Recognizing structural inequalities, let alone fixing them, is extremely difficult, especially if you've benefited from those structures in profoundly spiritual ways, as I believe church leaders have. The church is a very human institution, and I can't blame its leaders for being human too.

6. I don't have time right now to analyze the second half of the letter, which discusses apostasy and dissent, but at one point it says, "Members are always free to ask questions and earnestly seek greater understanding." I hope that's true. I hope that is what the church leadership and members genuinely want. I hope we can create a church environment where sincere questioners and even sincere doubters feel welcome. I do not believe we are there now, but Mormonism is a remarkably adaptive and inclusive religion. These are difficult times for a lot of people, but there might just be hope for us yet.


  1. Casey, I may be entirely off base here, but I think you can understand the letter in the same way you parse a joint diplomatic statement. Someone presented a draft to the FP and the 12, they went around with their objections, and the resulting wording is what everyone could agree to. Thus, I think the reason why the letter states "Only men are ordained to serve in priesthood offices" without addressing the possibility of ordination in the future is that there is no agreement among the 15 about that issue.

  2. Well, that's better than my initial, more cynical take that given the fairly boilerplate nature of the statement someone in PR wrote it and a someone else's sectary stamped the FP's signatures. But since I still sustain them all I'll give the benefit of the doubt that at least some thought went into it :)

  3. Great thoughts, Casey (and great strategy with the list. :) ) I really like your summary point that "priesthood is agency." That's a great sum-up, a brief way of explaining how women's experience in the Church is so limited by the female priesthood ban.

  4. To #3 definitely agree that holding the priesthood is a blessing. I would counter that that sentence in particular is discussing the long view of things: that exaltation is available to all (God's plan), not necessarily that in the present everything is fair and perfect NOW. Just a thought.

    1. I agree that might be what they had in mind--although in my mind that would conflate the roles of priesthood and faith (a pretty common error nowadays).

  5. It is a breath of fresh air to actually hear from the First Presidency, and I hope they keep talking. It's starting to feel just a little less like being talked at (here's looking at you, Public Affairs!). Brilliantly put, especially #4. Priesthood matters. Full stop. Otherwise, OW would have shriveled up and died by now.

  6. Thoroughly impressed with this, Casey. Like Brooke, I was especially impressed with the way you articulated the points in number four. Exactly.

    It was indeed a nice thing to see a direct response rather than more from public relations, but I still wish there was a feedback mechanism in place so that these points that so many of us share with you could be addressed. Alas, the majority will seem to think that this is the final word.