From the archives: Let My People Pray: It’s time to consider having women give opening/closing prayers in General Conference

This post from 2011 has become topical again due to All Enlisted’s new campaign on the issue. The original comments thread may be viewed here.

To my knowledge, no woman has ever given an opening or closing prayer in a general session of General Conference. It is time to reconsider this practice of not calling women to share in the giving of these prayers.

The church has been engaged in a sustained effort to identify and end inequalities between men and women that are without doctrinal justification, such as women not being allowed to give opening prayers in Sacrament Meetings and women’s voices not being adequately included in Ward Councils. In particular, the new Handbook and accompanying Worldwide Leadership Training Broadcast explicitly emphasize this theme. In doing so, the church is showing its awareness that seemingly little things, like restrictions on who gives the opening/closing prayers in Sacrament Meeting, can send a big message that “you aren’t important,” or, when working as they should (as under the new handbook), a message that “we really do value everyone’s voices.” These messages radiate from the little things to all aspects of how we treat one another.

As just two examples of the church’s recent efforts and teachings in this area, I offer the following:

Handbook 2, Section 18.5 Prayers in Church Meetings:

Men and women may offer both opening and closing prayers in Church meetings.

Elder Cook, “LDS Women Are Incredible!” April 2011 General Conference (emphasis added):

We noted that from our earliest history both men and women pray, perform the music, give the sermons, and sing in the choir, even in sacrament meeting, our most sacred meeting.

Perhaps the prayer restriction in General Conference has simply escaped notice. Whatever the reason, I think that the recent Handbook changes make this the time to consider including women in the offering of invocations and benedictions in a general session of General Conference.


Update: Because this piece has drawn some attention from elsewhere [1][2], I would like to note my contact information for questions regarding the post: Cynthia Lee cynthial@bycommonconsent.com

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    In the original thread, mine was the first of the 170 comments, so I would like to repeat it here:

    “I sustain the motion.”

    I will add here my guess as to the rationale underlying this practice: there are lots of GAs and only limited speaking slots, so there is a desire to slot GAs into those prayer slots to give them a chance to participate in some way. But to me this rationale, if it accurately reflects the thinking of the leadership, just underscores the problem, because there are only like two slots for women to speak in GC, and so keeping women out of all the prayer slots has a greater adverse effect on the visibility of female leaders than male leaders. And since speaking is presumably a more substantive participation than praying (which tends to be more pro forma and definitely shorter [well, at least ideally]), why is it acceptable for women to speak in GC but not to pray in GC? That doesn’t make any sense.

  2. I’ve definitely noticed a trend to give recently released GAs prayers in Conference.

  3. Discrimination comes in all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately the cure for this ill will most likely be a thinning of the “inspired” herd.

  4. maybe they can borrow Romney’s binder

  5. I regret that some who make an outward show of sustaining the Church are actually trying to sow dissension among its members. The leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are some of the kindest and most Christ-like men on the face of the earth today.

    I think it is really quite simple. The responsibility for giving prayers has been given to the Presidency of the Seventy, with instruction to make the assignments within the quorum. The Presidency of the Seventy honorably carries out that instruction. We don’t want to use the prayer assignments to play favorites or to give “moments of fame” to well-placed members who are friends of general authorities. We don’t want to get trapped by any false suggestion of proportionality, such as having a handicapped prayer-giver and a ___ prayer-giver and so forth so that we check all the boxes in some false pretense of fairness. It’s far simpler, and far more fair, to simply let the Seventy handle that responsibility. At least, that’s how I see it.

    There is no ban on female prayer. Rather, it’s just that the assignment belongs to the Seventy.

    When I go to a meeting and it’s time for prayer, I want to pray. That’s all.

  6. ji, is it safe to assume, from your easy identification with the Seventy (“We don’t want…”) that you are a man? Can you imagine that it might feel a teeny bit different to you if the Relief Society General Board had the assignment and no man, ever, was invited to offer a prayer?

  7. “There is no ban on female prayer. Rather, it’s just that the assignment belongs to the Seventy.”

    That this can be seen as a comforting explanation is part of the problem.

  8. Also, ji, there is no suggestion in Cynthia’s post, or any of the comments, that the leaders of the Church are unkind or un-Christlike. We can all agree that they are good, honorable, kind, Christ-like men, trying to discern and implement the will of God. No one is arguing otherwise.

  9. Also, ji, there is no suggestion in Cynthia’s post, or any of the comments, that the leaders of the Church are unkind or un-Christlike. We can all agree that they are good, honorable, kind, Christ-like men, trying to discern and implement the will of God. No one is arguing otherwise.

    Indeed.

  10. In fact, most of the post is just listing the ways that they are already taking great pains to reach out in love and respect to women individually and as a category.

  11. ji, I’m also surprised at the suggestion that the church is incapable of extending callings to serve to its members without devolving into “play[ing] favorites or to giv[ing] “moments of fame” to well-placed members who are friends of general authorities.”

    Let me turn it back on you–do you also think that when the church calls people to serve in the 70, the process often suffers from those kinds of problems? (i.e. “play favorites or to give “moments of fame” to well-placed members who are friends of general authorities”) If not, why not? And if not, why wouldn’t the prayer calling system operate equally smoothly as the 70 calling system?

  12. What is the source for the proposition that the assigning of prayers has been given to the 70?

    Is suspect that the real reason for the failure to ask women to pray is tradition, and that some of the FP and 12 really like the tradition, so much so that there is a lack of unity about changing the practice. Perhaps one day the opponents will change their minds (under inspiration).

  13. Thanks for bringing this post back up to the forefront. As a sort of follow-up to the Pants event I think this is a good move. A letter-writing campaign for something that is already approved that will give heart to us sisters in my opinion is a great way to go. I have heard many who have expressed pain over the fact that women are so invisible in General Conference, and I think this is a great way to help ease that pain. That doesn’t mean a woman will always have to give one of the prayers, but out of 10 prayers (2 each per session) I would think that it is not asking too much that half the population be represented.

  14. Currently, in the LDS Church, those who are “qualified” to speak in any meeting also are “qualified” to pray in that same meeting. In fact, being qualified to pray in a meeting is a lower standard than being qualified to speak in that meeting.

    I don’t think anyone in the Church would argue with that statement – except for a tiny number of exceptions who would prove the rule.

    Women speak in General Conference.

    The lack of female prayers in General Conference isn’t due to any written policy of which I am aware. Of course, I wouldn’t be aware of any written policy regarding assignments for General Conference, but I can’t think of a single logical imperative, theological or administrative, that would limit General Conference prayers to men. The only reasons I can construct are strictly traditional, since even cultural ones fail the standard I listed at the beginning of this comment.

  15. ji, I regret that someone who makes an outward show of being kind and Christ-like could, on any conceivable level, consider that wanting to hear women pray in a general conference of the church is “sowing dissention”. Of course I want to hear women pray. But mostly, I want my children and grandchildren to hear women pray. This is not a petty concern; who these children see publicly petitioning The Lord will play into their perceived personal access to God. Would you want your sons and grandsons to believe that God is more accessible to them than to their sisters? Would you want your daughters and granddaughters to believe that their right to approach God is less than that of their brothers? This is the message that they are receiving.

    I suspect I’m speaking for many women when I say this isn’t about us, it’s about our posterity.

    No one is disputing the character of the men who make these decisions. Most here know them to be some of the best people on Earth. That does not make them all-knowing.

  16. The more I read this comment the less sense it makes:

    It’s far simpler, and far more fair, to simply let the Seventy handle that responsibility. At least, that’s how I see it.

    Why don’t we just have the FP, Q12, and 70 do everything then? Why have anyone else participate at all? None of the choirs I’ve been in have been invited to sing in General Conference, so maybe we shouldn’t have any choirs sing except a choir comprised entirely of the 70s. That way nobody’s enjoyment of the Spirit of the music will be tarnished by a sense that who gets to sing is based on playing favorites or giving moments of fame to those connected with general authorities. For talks, no more Sunday School presidency, RS Presidency, Primary Presidency, or YW presidencies. Only FP, Q12 and 70. It is certainly far simpler that way!

  17. Quickmere Graham says:

    #5 ji says “We don’t want to get trapped by any false suggestion of proportionality, such as having a handicapped prayer-giver and a ___ prayer-giver and so forth so that we check all the boxes in some false pretense of fairness.”

    Blatant, proud, deliberate unfairness is definitely preferable to hypocritical forced fairness any day of the week. Wouldn’t want “a handicapped prayer-giver” up there feeling like we owe them something!

    [we usually don’t call folks “handicapped” anymore, by the way.]

  18. I think it’s clear that women don’t pray in General Conference because of reasons, and also answers.

  19. I find it more than a little disturbing and depressing that we even have to ask this question to begin with. (Which is why I absolutely support its being asked.) Seriously? How can anyone be against a woman praying in GC — least of all God?

  20. wreddyornot says:

    “How can anyone be against a woman praying in GC — least of all God?”

    Perhaps it’s the same body as the kind having authority who’d chaff at being asked if they’ve asked Heavenly Father where Mother in Heaven is.

  21. It seems that many wouldn’t mind women praying or wearing pants or anything else–they just want to make sure it comes from the top, with absolutely no prodding from the masses. This position strikes me as a bit naive, as there have been many, many changes in policies that were sparked by outside influences and member suggestion. This fact has seemed to escape many, though, and it seems to threaten their testimonies to think that a prophet could be prompted to pray about an issue that didn’t come directly from his own mind, or that the Lord didn’t give him the idea for in a vision or in the temple or what-have-you. I also think many are threatened by the idea of these suggestions being public and vocal–they are afraid that ALL or at least many church revelations will now come as a result of outside pressure, and they will never be able to be sure what is inspired and what is forced. At any rate, it’s bursting their bubbles of belief in infallibility.

  22. In a selfish impulse to take #5 ji further afield…

    Elder John B. Dixon, West Africa Area President offers the GC invocation on the Saturday Morning Sesssion, April 2012 (see http://www.lds.org/general-conference/watch/2012/04?lang=eng&vid=1540527214001 from 4:26 – 5:32). He has no right arm, and I was thrilled to see that shown on the video.

  23. Wow, AnnE, thank you so much for sharing that! That is wonderful. (Bonus: High on the Mountain Top opening song, love it.)

  24. Shoot, AnnE, now I feel trapped by a false suggestion of proportionality.

  25. If it truly is an assignment for the 70, why not invite their wives to participate.

  26. Here we go again. . .

  27. I’m all for women praying in GC. But I think that All Enlisted being the group pushing for it makes it less likely to happen, not more.

  28. jimbob, indeed, I am deeply ambivalent on the issue of any kind of campaign or letter-writing, for the reason you state. It’s hard to know what the right approach is. Sometimes getting up the nerve and initiative to speak up or act on what you think needs doing/changing in the church is a good thing (Emma and the word of wisdom, sisters independently deciding to start the Primary and the church officially adopting it after the fact), and sometimes it is very counterproductive and even wrong (those people who took out the ad in the SLC newspaper decrying the 1978 revelation). In a lot of these instances, it is only possible to judge with hindsight. So, it’s a tricky business.

  29. Yeah, letter writing isn’t my absolute favorite, but I haven’t got any better ideas, so letter writing it is.

  30. Cynthia, one interesting difference between the examples you give is the trans-ward composition of the movement supporters. Even the fact that it can be considered a “movement” seems to play against its success. That is, local initiatives have made a big difference for the way the church operates. But such initiatives usually occur in wards and stakes rather than online groups. The fact that some church leaders currently caution members about unspecified but non-pornographic online influences should also be considered.

    What about changes like the COB pantyhose thing? How do changes like that happen, which don’t seem to be the result of proactive initiative by a ward or stake group I wonder.

  31. Awesome, AnnE

  32. Cynthia, I want to see that 70s choir (quire?). I might even want to hear it. Let’s see, what would be their signature tune? I know! “American Woman!”

  33. I submit the extent to which this is a big deal to you is closely correlated with how you interpreted and place important emphasis on the word “trying” in comment 8: “We can all agree that they are good, honorable, kind, Christ-like men, ****trying**** to discern and implement the will of God. ”

    It’s not that they are prophet’s and revelators who **are** discerning and implementing the will of God. But they’re just trying to — not so different than anyone else or in any other church, right? And the fact that they’re trying, preclude them from getting it wrong often.

    Note – I’m not arguing for infallibility here. I’d assume most active Mormons would certainly allow room for improvement in the way things are said or managed in the church. But I’ve never actually heard of the First Presidency and Quorum of the 12 as merely “trying” to discern and implement the will of God.

    So I’m thinking the degree to which we really zero in on that word would be a pretty good predictor of where we land on most liberal vs. conservative issues on the church.

    In other words, I suggest a liberal identifies more with the statement that the apostles are “trying” to discern and implement the will of God, and that a conservative identifies more with the statement that the apostles “discern and implement” the will of God.

    My personal opinion is both are obviously true, but I’d identify more with the latter statement than the former. For myself, this personal philosophical leaning is inseparable with this teaching, “For he that receiveth my servants receiveth me; And he that receiveth me receiveth my Father; And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him.”

  34. Wow, kaphor. That is the _nicest_ way anyone has ever accused me of not sustaining the prophets, even it if was a little long-winded.

  35. Kaphor, does prophetic “fallibility” extend only to less-than-optimal communication and management efforts on the part of senior LDS leadership? When it comes to actual discernment (as opposed to communication-style and management), are prophets essentially “infallible”? Serious question.

  36. kaphor: chalking this up to a litmus test for liberals versus conservatives is rendered ineffective by thinking about when church leaders spoke on immigration issues to the Utah legislature. (I’m more interested in your response to Aaron B. than me, though.)

  37. Kristine – passive aggressive much? I specifically said, “for myself”. That’s the under pinning for me. Disagreement is ok, but it’s frustrating when I can’t even articulate my own thinking without it becoming a perceived attack.

    With regard to my point, I found how you used the word “trying” really interesting. I think can easily be applied to a difference in how you and and I would approach a whole host of issues — from the priesthood ban, perhaps to gay marriage, etc. etc.

    BH – Conservative was used as short hand for traditionalist or progressive, not as a political identifier. For whatever it’s worth, I was in favor and arguing passionately for liberalized immigration approaches long before the church.

    Aaron – my comment plainly stated that I think it’s both true that prophets are trying to discern and implement and also actually discerning and implementing. Inherent in the trying would suggest that there is often (always?!) opportunity for improvement. I’d assume President Monson or any Apostle would tell you they feel they “respond better” (whatever that means) now than earlier in their lives.

    I frankly think the whole concept of infallible is a misnomer and misunderstands the plan of salvation. I think if we’re learning and progressing and pointing our lives to Christ, we can’t be failing. Asking me to essentially describe just how many angels can fit on a pin head really misses the point.

    My point was that I think the divide on this issue really can be seen in the use and reliance on Apostles “trying” to implement the will of God. Sure they’re trying. (am I talking in circles) But I’ve heard a lot of people get up and testily to the inspired teachings of the prophets. I’ve never heard someone testify to the prophets trying to teach inspiredly, as it were.

    That difference is surely telling in our we philosophically approach the issues, but it doesn’t imply anyone is a bad person, etc.

  38. our we = how we

  39. So, in other words, kaphor, based on your last comment, you agree with the statement that the leaders are trying their best – and, I think, nearly everyone here believes they are inspired prophets, seers and revelators who best efforts usually are really good efforts (and much better than ours would be in their shoes) but not always the perfect will of God.

    I’m curious why you think you and most of us here are saying different things when it looks to me like the statements are saying the same thing. It appears to me that the difference is the way you chose to interpret the intent of the word choice, not the word choice itself.

  40. The comments above have convinced me that the LDS bloggernacle has exceeded its purposes. Dont you realize you’re flirting with apostasy?

  41. Saying that it would be a good idea for women to pray in general conference, because there is no doctrinal reason whatsoever why they can’t and also several leaders/prophets + the church Handbook of instructions have said that women can given opening/closing prayers in all meetings, now counts as “flirting with apostasy”?

    L. O. L. Or, if you prefer it in fancier language: That is utterly laughable. Go read some church history. Joseph Smith would be happy to get feedback and suggestions and have even really heated debates with members over WAY more significant things than this.

  42. Interestingly, there was a lot of apostasy in Joseph’s day.

    Without levelling apostasy charges, there is unfortunately nothing in this “movement” designed to sanctify, unite, increase faith, or reduce real suffering. I don’t see a deeper faith born of scripture, words of the prophets or revelation.

    I see a platform which could be used for these things, instead focused on a subject that at best is focused on appearances. It’s not the content of the prayers in question but the gender of those who give it – and implicitly the authority, apparently incorrectly or unwisely used, of those who extended the call to pray.

    The hope that seeing a woman pray in conference enlightens and teaches our daughter to fly and our sons to value women is misplaced if we instead focus on perceived slights rather than the words given in conference which point us to Christ.

  43. “The hope that seeing a woman pray in conference enlightens and teaches our daughter to fly and our sons to value women is misplaced if we instead focus on perceived slights rather than the words given in conference which point us to Christ.”

    One must focus on them (the gender issues in the church) in order to see the damage that they do, and in order to repair that damage if possible, and also, if possible, to prevent further damage. What damage? Do you not miss the “droves” of young women and men who “are leaving” the church over gender issues? I do. They are my children. Do you not feel for the women who aren’t cherished and happily paired with a loving husband, and are ill treated by poor policies that no one will focus on enough to see how hurtful they can be to many women? And the more I see people in the church stubbornly stick their heads in the stand and utterly refuse to even consider that there may be a problem with our church that *might* be within our power to ease, the more I wonder how I can support an institution with my whole heart.

    The real question of focus is “to what end?” We focus on all kinds of things for different purposes all the time. We can focus on these things with an eye to mitigating the damage and suffering they cause, implement a change, and then we all can, without painful distractions, refocus anew on our covenants with Christ. If you see “nothing in this ‘movement’ designed to sanctify, unite, increase faith, or reduce real suffering,” you simply aren’t looking very hard in the right places.

    I’ve served this church with my whole heart for 30 years, and it’s getting harder for me to shelve my problems onto an already overloaded shelf, while I wait for the disinterested members to see that there are quite a few of us suffering in a damaged condition, before I can even begin to clear off that overloaded shelf.

  44. Mark Brown says:

    kaphor,

    “there is unfortunately nothing in this “movement” designed to sanctify, unite, increase faith, or reduce real suffering. I don’t see a deeper faith born of scripture, words of the prophets or revelation.’

    I will suggest, as gently as possible, that just because you don’t see it, as you readily admit, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. It is often hard to know what, exactly, is going to be helpful for another person. Most of the talks and lessons at church do nothing for me and they often seem pointless, yet I am happy to be there and be supportive because I assume they are useful for my co-worshipers. I will also suggest that there may be suffering which you are not seeing — as the hymn says, “In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that they eye can’t see”.

  45. Mark Brown says:

    Also, what MDearest said.

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