I have been working on Mormon conceptions of authority, power, priesthood, and related ideas for a while. In fact I am currently wrapping up a paper on new ways to look at authority throughout church history. It was consequently with interest that I read comments by the church’s highest female ecclesiastical officers on similar topics.
On April 5, 2013 the Church Newsroom published a transcript of a conversation entitled “Top Mormon Women Leaders Provide Their Insights into Church Leadership.” In this conversation Ruth Todd, a member of the Church’s public affairs teams posed questions to RS General President Linda Burton, YW General President Elaine Dalton, and General Primary President Rosemary Wixom. I’d like to review sections that treat priesthood and draw some tentative conclusions.
The moderator begins the discussion on priesthood by simply asking “How do you access the priesthood in your lives?” Sister Wixom responded that she accesses the priesthood through the covenants she made at baptism and in the temple, in her relationship with her husband, and in church service. Sister Dalton and Burton discussed how the authority of the priesthood and the power of the priesthood are different things. And that as women, they access the power of the priesthood the same way that ordained men access it, i.e., through righteousness. Dalton stated that “as a mother of five sons I have been so blessed by the power of the priesthood,” too which Sister Burton immediately responded, “[a]nd I have five daughters and have been equally blessed by the power of their righteousness by cleaving to covenants.”
First I’ve argued a bit that the collapse of priesthood authority and godly power is incoherent, not that church leaders care what I think. So personally I like that they are making that distinction. But I’d like to offer a good-faith restatement of the conclusions from these comments with the assumption that they are actually answers to the question and not spin:
Both unordained women and ordained men access the priesthood by participating in salvific ordinances and subsequently exercising faith to receive the power of God.
Here I think it is clear that these women are sidestepping the topic of authority. They do not address how women can access authority, perhaps because they believe they cannot (in later comments they state their belief that most Mormon women in fact do not want authority).
The moderator then asked, “How do you utilize the priesthood as you are leading and guiding your individual organization?” Sister Wixom related a story of being asked a question by an apostle who indicated that she, not he, would receive the revelation to answer it. She then stated that her “calling came from our prophet, and he was allowing me to carry that mantle, and I would be the one — with the help of my counselors and the board and, above all, inspiration from our Heavenly Father — to come to the conclusion to the answer of that question.” Sister Burton and Wixom then related an account of how they traveled to the Pacific Area of the Church and after a tour having the Area Presidency ask them for their impressions.
Again my restatement:
Women can utilize the priesthood by receiving a stewardship from priesthood officers.
My comments above about these women believing that they cannot access authority, seems to fall apart. It is clear that in these statements, these leaders believe that they receive and wield a particular authority. I’d imagine that if you were to ask them if this authority was a priesthood, they would quickly answer negatively. However it is quite telling that they spoke of this authority when asked how they “utilize priesthood.”
This is really interesting stuff, and with Elder Ballard’s recent push towards cosmological understandings of priesthood, this discussion of the nuts and bolts application of priesthood in the day-to-day church provides a fascinating counterpoint. That the Newsroom thought to ask these female Church leaders at all how they utilize the priesthood is remarkable.