By RJH and Angela C
Does the letter address Mormon feminists’ concerns?
RJH: Michael Otterson admits that some women feel “demeaned or marginalized” at church but goes on to lay blame at the feet of local leaders, suggesting that better training is the solution. I doubt that this will allay feminists’ concerns, who mostly see the problem of women’s status in the church as structural. Even the wisest bishop cannot do anything about the fact that the administrative structure of the church does not give women an equal voice with men. A woman at a disciplinary council will still be judged by a room full of men; a fourteen year old boy will still have a public profile at church (sacrament administration, home teaching) that a girl does not share; a Relief Society president still has to have her budget approved by a man; the talks at General Conference are still overwhelmingly given by men. We might argue that these things are the way they should be but that is not the point, which is simply that “local leaders” can do very little about them. I know I try my hardest but the system only allows a tiny bit of leeway.
AC: As far as feminist concerns go, the letter is a mixed bag. On the upside, it’s clear that blogs are being read, at least some of them, including comments (the quotation in Bro. Otterson’s letter was from a popular comment on FMH blog). Also, there is a desire to appear empathetic to women. The word “feminist” is used in a positive way, although that positive view is limited by a tone argument (if feminists ask nicely and are well behaved, we’ll listen to them). In doing this, Bro. Otterson is making it clear that some feminists are acceptable and will be heard while implying others are not and will not. The danger is that, like most long missives from the church, there is plenty of latitude in here for local leaders (so easily identified as rogues in section two) to continue to be rogues, demanding temple recommends from women deemed to be the wrong kind of feminist. My own experience has been positive in terms of local leadership, so to me the focus on local leadership feels like a dodge. It’s top leadership that has yet to demonstrate a clear understanding of women’s issues.
How much contact with the rank-and-file do senior Mormon leaders really have?
AC: Obviously, they have contact with their extended family members, and I have also observed that members living abroad have more access to senior Mormon leaders than do those living in the US, except those who happen to be related to people who are connected. It seems to me that they often hold group meetings with local leaders in these overseas trips (a great opportunity to reign in the rogues I would think). The real issue is that members are very deferential to authority in the church, which partly correlates with political conservative values (according to Jonathan Haidt’s studies). It is also due to the culture within the church, that I know many senior leaders are eager to dispel, of worshiping our leaders. People line up around the block to shake their hands, sing “Follow the Prophet” and “We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet,” and gush to one another about brushes with fame when they *gasp* saw an apostle in person (speaking of which, I sat in front of E. Oaks in a production of King Lear once). Many interactions are fraught with this perception of inequality in status. All leaders suffer from that to some extent, but in the church there’s an added religious component to the worship.
RJH: By accident of family, I have had contact with senior leaders in greater measure than most (still small), especially for someone who lives outside of the Mormon corridor. They are good men. However, I would not characterise these contacts has particularly “normal.” Our mode of interaction with the Brethren is extremely deferential and so I question the assertion that they fully experience the members’ everyday lives. Again, this is not a criticism, just an assertion of reality. This is why it is essential that Public Affairs play the role of mediator, especially with the “difficult” groups.
Was the defence of male-only ordination convincing?
RJH: No, because of all of the ways Julie Smith has pointed out. An appeal to the New Testament is simply not going to work. The best argument is a Mormon one: only men are ordained because that is how authorised Mormon leaders see the doctrine of the priesthood, and thus we believe it to be God’s will. Given our history of having new light and knowledge revealed to us (plural marriage, blacks), the core request of Ordain Women does not seem unreasonable to me.
AC: This is a church of ongoing revelation. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, why quote a dead lion when you have a living dog? Additionally, the scriptures are not clear on this matter. Women are called prophetess and apostle in the Bible, which the church hand-waves away as meaning something else, some girl thing not equivalent to the man version; honestly, I don’t think women in the church are buying this explanation, and I’m talking about normal non-fringe women I sit next to every week in Relief Society. Other churches and biblical scholars interpret these scriptures more directly. Is it any wonder women want a revelation to clear up the matter? More disturbingly, the letter implies that women who seek ordination are unworthy by comparing them to a milquetoast, docile version of Jesus’ female followers, again implying that true followers of Jesus would never ever ask tough questions that make people uncomfortable. I don’t see these women that way at all, and I certainly don’t perceive Jesus as someone who would disapprove of people asking tough questions. On the contrary, he exemplified challenging the existing authorities, using his intelligence and common sense. I suppose that’s because we project the qualities we admire onto them to fill in the gaps in the narrative. Bro. Otterson’s portrayal of what Jesus would approve and disapprove probably says more about him than about Jesus (as would my own portrayal of the same, I hasten to add).
Should Public Affairs meet with Ordain Women?
AC: I can’t help but think of the quote from 1776: “Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about.” In my experience as a business executive, I often had to meet with groups of employees who were unhappy with various things or wanted their needs to be known. It’s tricky because you want to meet all reasonable needs, you want to create an environment where the things that are bothering people don’t get in the way of them doing their job, and you also want to have time to do all the other things that are on your plate. Meeting with Ordain Women would be a fairly easy thing to do, and it would clarify the common ground. Ignoring discontent only makes it grow due to speculation. I’ve had lots of groups I dreaded meeting with that turned out to be quite reasonable in person. There’s something about sitting in the same room together, in this case I assume opening with a prayer, and seeking to understand their needs and find common ground. It takes a little time investment, but it saves so much time. The other comparison I keep thinking about is being a missionary. I talked to all kinds of people who were on the fringes of society: drunk people, prostitutes, the mentally ill. That’s the beauty of the gospel. You meet people where they are. Why don’t we do that within the church as well as without? If the members of OW are apostate (an assertion I question), then all the more reason to meet with them. Don’t we want them to stay in the church, even if they make PR’s job more challenging? My husband and I love all our children, not just when they do what we say and don’t challenge our authority.
RJH: Yes. The meeting with Mormon Women Stand was very unfortunate because it signalled, intentionally or not, that the church is only interested in dialogue with “good” Mormon women. Even the the refusal to name Ordain Women is disrespectful. The letter calls for civil dialogue but cannot help itself from getting jabs in with words such as “apostasy” and “extreme.” The unwillingness to engage is not only upsetting to Ordain Women, I imagine, but also the many women who may not share the desire for ordination but who are sympathetic to their basic starting point: that certain women’s voices are not valued. It’s not fair, perhaps, to compare the church with a world faith of the scale of the Roman Catholic Church, but it may be worth pondering for a moment the incredibly positive impression that Pope Francis is making. The Catholics are not formally liberalising their teachings in any way, but Francis (prompted in some ways by his PR advisers no doubt) has shown a willingness to engage with people beyond the safe halls of the Vatican: interviews with secular newspapers, impromptu press conferences, phone calls to ordinary Catholics whose lifestyle choices have been less than ideal. There is something to learn here, perhaps. Beyond OW, I would suggest Public Affairs meet with some Bloggernacle women too, given that they seem interested in Mormon blogging. I can think of five who should be top of the list.