The other day I overheard a conversation between my six-year-old daughter and my mother-in-law. They had been talking about how her older brother would become a deacon later this year. My daughter said enthusiastically, “When I turn twelve, I’m going to pass the sacrament too!”
You should understand that one of this child’s favorite Sunday rituals has been taking the sacrament tray from the administering deacon and distributing it to the rest of the family; when she returns the tray to the deacon and sits back down, she has a big smile on her face and it’s clear that she feels she’s done something very grown-up and important. The written word is an imperfect medium; you’ll just have to trust me when I say it’s pretty freaking adorable. (Imagine your own kid and then multiply it by ten. That’s how cute my kid is.)
So imagine her disappointment when her grandmother informed her that passing the sacrament is a job only for boys. Crestfallen, and with that childish sense of entitlement, my daughter asked, “But what do I get when I turn twelve?”
It was probably good that Grandma was fielding these questions and not me. For one thing, I’m not sure I would have had the heart to disabuse her of the notion that she would someday be a deacon. I mean, she’s only six—she’s got a whole other six years to figure it out on her own, so why not let her have her dreams? (Of course, I’m the same mother who responded to my children’s first queries about where babies come from with “Magic.” When it comes to introducing my children to uncomfortable truths, I take procrastination to the HNL.)
I have an older daughter who became a feminist at a very young age—not unlike her mother. Unlike her mother, she has never hesitated to voice her opinion about anything that seems to her unfair. It was especially difficult for her to keep silent when this boy she considered a complete jerk was deemed worthy of ordination when she herself would forever be ineligible simply because she was female. My older daughter is a thoughtful, intelligent girl who occasionally resembles the archetypal shrill, humorless feminist. She has valid arguments, sure–but boy howdy, week in and week out? That shtick gets old. If she had demanded to know what she’d get when she turned twelve, I probably would have answered, “Jack crap, sister!” with a little too much relish.
But when my sweet-tempered, naïve six-year-old asked the question, it made me very sad.
Part of that sadness—maybe most of that sadness—was realizing that she hadn’t figured out on her own yet that only boys serve the sacrament; if she had noticed that only boys were doing it, she hadn’t attached any significance to that fact, until her grandmother informed her of its significance. Certainly I don’t blame Grandma for telling her the truth. But it does make me sad.
I realize that this anecdote plays perfectly into the argument that women who want the priesthood are confused about what the priesthood is for. It isn’t for enhancing your six-year-old’s self-esteem. It isn’t for making you feel special or better than others. It isn’t like joining a country club. It isn’t a legal right that you’re entitled to. It isn’t about you. I can honestly say that I myself have never felt a pang of jealousy watching twelve-year-old boys pass the sacrament. I have never particularly wanted the priesthood, per se. I don’t entertain fantasies that my life would be so much different if only I had the priesthood. I think I have a more mature understanding of the purpose of the priesthood than my six-year-old does, but just like her, I can recognize it for the privilege that it is.
A few weeks ago we had the George Albert Smith lesson on the priesthood, which talked about the privilege of holding the priesthood.
“I wonder sometimes if as fathers we take pains to explain to our boys the seriousness of the obligation assumed when a boy becomes a deacon. I wonder if when the boy is ordained a deacon the father lets him feel that he has something now that is eternally important. …
“I remember, as if it were yesterday, when John Tingey placed his hands on my head and ordained me a deacon. I had the matter so presented to me and the importance of it, that I felt it was a great honor. The result was, it was a blessing to me, and then after awhile other ordinations came to me. But in each case the foundation was laid in my mind that here was an opportunity for another blessing.”
So yes, on the one hand we want to impress upon young men what a privilege and honor it is to hold the priesthood, while on the other hand we insist to our young women (and women of all ages) that it’s really no big deal. Seriously, ladies, you don’t want it. You shouldn’t want it. Nothing but trouble, that priesthood! And yet, very important. Without it our church would be nothing. Worse than nothing, a fraud. But at the same time, you aren’t missing out on anything. Trust us!
Can you see how that might accurately be described as a mixed message?
A long time ago I was talking to a friend who belonged to a non-denominational Christian church. We were talking about baptism. In her church, any member–i.e. any (real) Christian–can baptize another person into the church. She herself had baptized people. “Wow,” I said. “That must be cool.” She replied that it was a pretty great experience–not in the sense that it made her feel important, but in the sense that it gave her joy to play a role in someone else’s journey to Christ. Of course there are many roles to play in other people’s journeys, but this was the first time I can remember feeling curious about the experience of performing a sacred ritual. I’d been raised in a church where women just didn’t do those things, and I’d never really given it that much thought (although I’d thought about other gender-related issues quite a bit). But when I found out that my friend had baptized people, my reaction was “Wow.”
I suppose that it shouldn’t have been “Wow” because after all, she didn’t really have the authority to baptize people and she was baptizing them into the wrong church, so big whoop-de-do. But, you know, it was what it was.
Imagine that you’re at a dinner party and you turn to the stranger next to you and casually ask, “So what do you do?” and the person replies, “Oh, I’m an astronaut.” What other response could you possibly have but “Wow”? I mean, here’s a real person, right in front of you, a mere mortal, and they go to freaking space for a living. Space! That’s how it would be for me to meet a female priest. Because as a Mormon woman, I could do or be almost anything, in theory—a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, President of the United States…all I’d have to do is be a lot smarter and more talented. But to be a priest I’d have to go back in time and be born male, which is not just unlikely, but actually impossible. Do you see what I mean?
Of course, I should be overcome with astonishment and joy that the priesthood exists and God authorizes anyone to act on His behalf. (I think that was George Albert Smith’s point.) What’s remarkable and impressive is that the priesthood is on the earth today. I get that. I’m not a dummy. And I realize that what’s really impossible is for a woman to talk about how she feels about not holding the priesthood without sounding all whinypants about it—“oh, I can’t bless the sacrament and I feel so marginalized, waaaaaah”—so maybe there’s no point continuing in this vein.
I’m not going to argue that LDS women should be ordained to the priesthood. If I were, I promise you I’d bring more to the table than a couple of personal anecdotes and a handful of snide remarks. (So, yeah, you can bet on me not arguing for the ordination of women anytime in the near future.) Frankly, I’m not sure what to make of all my personal anecdotes, which arouse conflicting feelings within me. It’s not threatening when good men exercise their priesthood authority. I see a group of young men passing the sacrament or blessing the sacrament, and I think it’s a beautiful thing. I see a group of men huddled around a newborn or laying their hands on a newly-baptized member of the church, exercising this privilege of invoking God’s power on earth, and it stirs something in my heart. Not envy. Something else. Something good. I honestly don’t know if it would be the same if the group was co-ed. I have no basis for judgment, and honestly—honestly–I don’t spend much time fantasizing about it. (Perhaps I have no basis for fantasy either.)
All issues of institutional power aside (a whole other can of worms for a whole other blog post), I maintain that generally I don’t envy men their priesthood responsibilities—not because I fear the burden would crush me, but because I’ve always lived with the reality that it’s impossible for me to have the priesthood, and when last I was possessed by a desire for the impossible, I was mainly pre-occupied with unicorns. What troubles me is not that I don’t have the priesthood, or that my daughters won’t have it. What troubles me is this: Our young men serve in the church by performing their priesthood duties. By contrast, our young women serve in the church by…well, as near as I can figure, by dressing modestly. My question is not what my daughter “gets” when she turns twelve, but what will be asked of her? What messages will she get about her role in the church? In the universe? That’s what troubles me.