I take it as a sign of progress that much of the recent discussion on gendered priesthood and female ordination has concerned itself with considering the potential consequences of extending the priesthood to all worthy Church members. You can’t really think through the practical implications of something unless you think about it, and think about it rather seriously, in the first place. People who instinctively support and oppose female ordination are having serious and occasionally productive discussions about the origins, meanings, rationalizations, social consequences, and the future of gendered priesthood. Of course there are unserious and unproductive conversations as well. The specter of “women can experience labor and breastfeed so they don’t need priesthood” has reared its head again, and opponents of female ordination have reminded us that trying to imagine the origins and development of an all-male priesthood in sexism-free terms can be every bit as tendentious, speculative, anachronistic, unscriptural, and doctrinally foundationless as efforts to read explicit support for a unisex priesthood into the current LDS canon.
This is an interesting dynamic: whether you support or oppose female ordination, it turns out that trying to read equality of the sexes into your position on the basis of authoritative sources requires rather vivid imaginative skills. And yet, that seems to be the one thing that both sides agree on: equality between men and women is the ideal. Defenders of the status quo try to argue that equality already exists (or can be achieved without female ordination), and supporters of change argue that the ideal can only be achieved with female ordination. No one (well, no one of consequence, at least) is arguing in favor of male rule over women or inequality as an ideal in defense of the status quo. Arguments against female ordination, even from very authoritative sources, concede the ideal of gender equality and attempt to locate it in the current state of affairs. Opponents are not arguing that inequality is the ideal, and (interestingly) they aren’t simply arguing that the status quo is clearly unequal, but this is the way God set it up and so we just need to patiently deal with it.
Beyond their concession to the ideal of equality (manifest in their efforts to argue that equality either already exists because babies and stuff or that it can be achieved short of female ordination), there’s another common element to the arguments against unisex priesthood: the idea that priesthood is vital in the construction of Mormon masculinity (as distinctly eschewing some of the forms and excess of masculinity in the surrounding culture) and in the commitment, investment, and participation of men in church and family life. The argument (and while I’m suspicious of it on many levels, I don’t feel like I can categorically dismiss its legitimacy) is that holding the priesthood gives boys and men something that makes them valuable and needed in their families and religious communities. I am sympathetic to this line of reasoning, at least in part: I definitely believe that holding the priesthood and using the priesthood makes me a better man, father, and church member. I’m skeptical that these positive effects depend on the priesthood being male-only, but I don’t think I’m in a position, as someone so fully immersed in the phenomenon under consideration, to be able to rule it out, either for myself or for Mormon men in general.
This particular argument partakes of a wider, and highly salient logic in Mormonism: the complementarity of the sexes and of gender roles (the analogy of priesthood to motherhood, which I do feel comfortable dismissing, also partakes of this logic). It focuses on the role men play, on assumptions about the effects of holding and exercising the priesthood on what men do, and on the role of excluding women from priesthood functions (i.e making priesthood functions something that women, families, and the church rely specifically on men for) in this equation, but all such arguments treat the complementary roles of men and women, masculinity and femininity as an intrinsic part of the universe and God’s plan, in both descriptive and normative terms. Men and women are (somewhat) different, must play (somewhat) different roles, and the emergent outcome of men and women cooperatively playing and magnifying those roles, predispositions and inclinations, duties and responsibilities is essential to our filling the full measures of our creation and our Heavenly Parents’ designs for us. Supporters of female ordination are (rightly) skeptical of complementarian arguments, particularly as a normative code, since all manner of inequities and injustices can be enacted, supported, defended, and rationalized under their logic. This doesn’t mean that supporters of female ordination don’t think there are any differences between men and women; rather, it means that they’re suspicious of using complementarianism as a defense of formally imposing different roles on men and women and then naturalizing that imposition by saying “well, men and women are different.”
Skepticism toward ordaining women thus involves two important and linked premises: 1) that equality between the sexes, at least in theory, is ideal; and 2) that gender complementarianism is compatible with equality, that men and women can do different things, have different roles and responsibilities, and still be equal in the fullest sense (indeed, maybe even in a fuller sense than if men and women were playing exactly the same roles, since such an arrangement might stifle the full expression of men and women’s different natures and strengths). The combination of these two ideals is expressed perhaps most clearly in the paradoxical notion of husbands presiding in families alongside wives who are nevertheless equal partners. Most Mormons believe that priesthood holders should preside _and_ that wives are equals to husbands, mothers to fathers.
I enthusiastically agree with (1), that men and women should be fully equal. And while I have some serious reservations about cultural regulations based on the idea of the complementarity of the sexes and of gender roles, I’m actually willing to fully concede it here. In fact, to make my main argument (which technically is not that women should be ordained), I’ll concede that men and women _should_ play different roles, and that men should have something exclusive that they bring to the table, as both a socializing force as well as a source of motivation for fuller investment in their families and in Church activity. (As I noted before, I’m skeptical of this logic, but I’ll concede it nonetheless, if only on the grounds that I’m uncomfortable dismissing it out of hand).
So here’s my main argument then, the point I want to make to everyone who agrees that men and women in the Church should be and feel equal, but that they should be valued for the unique, vital, and gendered contributions they make and roles they play:
The ideal of men and women playing equal and equally valuable but complementary and at least partially different roles in Mormonism utterly fails as a description—much less defense—of the status quo. If the ideal is that men and women both bring something unique and valuable to the table of Zion, and that those complementary contributions and roles and responsibilities are, despite their superficial differences, equal, then we are manifestly failing to live up to that ideal. Men and women do not participate equally in the life of the Church. While much of what men and women do in the Church is functionally and actually the same, the formal differences involve massive incongruities and asymmetries. Those disparities exist, are real, are wide and deep, and extend well beyond the purview of formal priesthood duties.
Rather than affirmatively argue the case that the disparities exist, that men’s and women’s roles in the Church, while perhaps technically complementary, are massively unequal, I will encourage you to engage in a bit of a thought experiment, to conceive what the Church might look like if we took the rhetoric and the ideals of complementary equality seriously and applied them church-wide.
Imagine a Mormonism in which the ritual responsibilities of priesthood and church administration/governance are functionally uncoupled. There is already an orthodox, faithfully LDS basis for disentangling the ritual from the administrative functions of priesthood, and for thinking about them in different terms. We already conceive, at least to some degree, of there being separate priesthoods—Aaronic and Melchizedek—with one being more ritual (read: temple) in nature, and one being more administrative (extra-temple, routine, day-to-day administrative functions) in nature. Beyond that, there are two Melchizedek priesthood offices/functions—sealer and patriarch—the active holding and officiation of which formally rules out participation in the administrative priesthood structure. Patriarchs and sealers cannot serve in Bishoprics, Stake Presidencies, HP group leadership, or as General Authorities unless they cease to actively serve as patriarchs and sealers. In the case of these two vital and powerful priesthood functions, ritual authority and administrative hierarchy are formally and explicitly separated from each other.
It’s entirely reasonable (and well within the horizons of orthodoxy) to conceive of the temple as a separate, higher sphere governed exclusively by a higher priesthood, and to conceive of the Church as something that exists outside of the temple, guards and controls access to the temple, and provides support for people to make and keep temple covenants. In his capacity as Presiding High Priest, President Monson presides over the former. Simultaneously, in his capacity as Church President, he presides over the latter. With few exceptions, these priestly and administrative functions are combined in presiding priesthood offices throughout the Church.
But what if it were different?
What if the ritual components of Mormonism at the ward level were presided over by a Bishop (baptism, sacrament, even confessional elements and temple access) as the Presiding Priest, but there was also a Ward Presidency, with primarily administrative responsibilities (welfare assistance, staffing the ward, etc), in which women and men could both serve? What if there was, at the next level up, both a Presiding Elder, as well as a Stake Presidency (gender integrated)? What if, at the top, there was a Presiding High Priest who was in charge of all ritual/ordinance work in the Church—from managing the officiation of temple work to the calling of Bishops, Presiding Elders, Patriarchs, and Sealers—and a Church Presidency (dealing primarily with running the Church as a growing international corporate organization) which could, at any given time, be comprised of both men and women?
And what if other Church functions shifted to the purview of women? What if all church humanitarian projects were managed by the Relief Society (which was still accountable to the First Presidency, regardless of the sex of the latter’s members) and the whole Church Education System was governed by women (eduction is one of the few civic spheres traditionally associated with women’s roles)?
If differences don’t necessarily involve inequalities, then the most glaring forms of inequality in the Church come not from the ritual functions of the all-male priesthood but from the equation of said all-male priesthood with administrative authority and the entailed functional marginalization of women, women’s voices, women’s perspectives, and women’s authority at virtually all levels of Church governance. But in the hypothetical I outlined above, men and women still have separate roles: men still exercise the priesthood and what they bring to the table is still vital to the Church, requires strict standards of worthiness, and even allows men to bring something vital and unique into family life; and women play a much more expansive and still unique role, and in spheres that are traditionally associated with women (education and charitable work). And when it comes to those aspects of the Church most closely and inextricably linked to power asymmetries and social inequalities, men and women serve side by side as equals.
This thought experiment is not meant to serve as a blueprint for what I think the Church ought to be. Rather, it’s meant to demonstrate what a more fully and legitimately _equal_ gender complementarity might look like, what taking seriously and applying our current rhetoric about gender equality might entail, and the staggering difference between actually living up to that rhetoric and the current status quo.