Sometime around now, we have had or will have the Sunday School lesson on the priesthood. If it is like my Sunday School class, then someone (in my case, an elderly man with a walker!) will raise the inevitable question of why women don’t hold the priesthood. I am not sure whether or not women should have the priesthood, and, ultimately, it isn’t my decision to make. But I am sure that as much as I would like to see gender issues remain alive within the church, raising the question often produces institutional anxiety and reveals that women themselves are divided on the issue.
As a comment on FMH recently put it, women seem to fall into three camps: it is sexist that women don’t have the priesthood, women don’t need the priesthood but having it held only by men leads to sexist applications, and there is nothing wrong with the current arrangement. Given the anxiety and internal division that the question raises, focusing on it strikes me as an unproductive means (even if a potentially desirable end) for Mormon women to achieve the goal of crafting a more meaningful place for women within the church as an organization. It tends to shut down conversations about gender more than promote them.
More pragmatic might be a strategy that does not demand that the church adopts specific changes, but instead asks the church to collaborate with women in coming up with solutions to the problems that the current situation creates. Although whether women should have the priesthood is open for debate, what is not open for debate is that under the current system significant numbers of women feel marginalized. We can argue that these women misunderstand the gospel, but we can’t tell them that they don’t feel what they do. How they feel is a fact, whether it be that they feel the current system denies women leadership opportunities, causes young women to feel inferior to young men, or creates situations where husbands or fathers can abuse their authority in the home. And if we would like them to feel differently, then we need to understand what within the church organization and culture has pushed them towards feeling the way that they do and to formulate a better response.
My thought, then, is that women might do better to articulate how they have been made to feel as a consequence certain practices within the church, and then let the church lead the way in trying to find solutions that would address these concerns, whether it might be involving women more in decision making, eliminating rules that make them feel patronized, asking for more revelation on the question of women and the priesthood, or increasing the funding to the Young Women’s program. And, yes, in the end, maybe women would receive the priesthood. But none of these intermediate steps present glaring doctrinal challenges, and are thus easier to argue for.
Admittedly, it might be naive of me to believe that the church would listen to and respond to women’s feelings (especially since there are not any women in the priesthood chain of command), but today it strikes me as more effective to present problems that the church can be a partner in solving than to demand a particular solution that authorities might not feel authorized to give. By asking church leaders for help solving these concerns, they could become partners excited to build a stronger future rather than perceived targets of criticism. The fact that in my ward a man, not a woman, raised the question of women’s equality gives me hope that what women say will get listened to by the men in their lives and eventually, or by extension, their leaders.