It has been about three months since the disciplinary process that eventually led to Kate Kelly’s excommunication from the Mormon church for “apostasy” began. Now that the initial furore over that act has died down, it is worth spending a moment to see where the Church now stands regarding Kelly and OW in particular, and women’s issues in general. A recent piece by BBC World Service radio offers a fascinating glimpse into the Church’s current mindset. In the report, Head of Public Affairs Michael Otterson and Deseret Book CEO Sheri Dew offer their thoughts on the affair and women in the Church generally.
Given the chronological distance from the excommunication (affording plenty of time to take stock), the setting of the interviews (a very fair BBC report), and the people involved (Otterson — who has reminded us he speaks with the Brethren’s approval; Dew — the senior female conservative voice in the Church), I believe it is fair to assume that what was said represents a good indication of current Church opinion on the issue.
Before I summarise what I believe that opinion to be, two things need stating: 1. Obviously, we don’t have the transcript of the full interviews. The Church is welcome to correct anything here that is not properly representative of what was said. 2. A sensible discussion of the conclusions I am going to draw can only really happen if you listen to the piece.
So here, in no particular order, is what the Church most likely thinks about Kelly, Ordain Women, and the current and future state of women in Mormonism:
1. Kate Kelly is an apostate whose excommunication is seen as justified. BBC: “You would say she is an apostate?” Otterson: “Yes.”
2. The Temple Square protest, however we might celebrate religious protest in other contexts (Jesus at the temple, Luther at Wittenberg), was unacceptable and is what probably most brought the hammer down, along with internet advocacy in general (which, on its own, may not have been enough, I think). Otterson: “Protesting on Temple Square at the time of our sacred conference, advocating on the internet for positions that are different to the doctrine is not ‘asking questions’ . . . this is clearly not correct. The issues that have been raised are fundamentally at odds with the doctrines and practices of the Church.”
3. There is no possibility of female ordination on even the far horizon. The vehemence with which it is being rejected will not be able to be undone for a long time. Comparisons with other monumental changes in the Church (the end of polygamy, the ordination of blacks) are seen as a “red herring” (Otterson) because in the case of polygamy, monogamy was still practised, and in the case of blacks, there was always the official belief (Otterson claims) that it would change. There are no similar parallels for women’s ordination: “It is simply not on the agenda for the Church. I cannot say it more clearly than that . . . if God wanted to change it He would change it, but there is no indication that that is likely to happen.”
4. The public reason given for not ordaining women is its lack of precedent in early Christianity (Otterson: “There is no record of [Jesus] ever ordaining a female apostle or female bishop”). Whilst this only partly reflects the complex issue of women’s roles in the early church[*], it seems to satisfy the leadership, or at least, it is seen as a satisfactory public explanation. It works for the Catholics, who I predict will ordain women before Mormons do.
5. Some changes for women in the Church — without ordination — are happening and will continue to happen. Dew: “There are some things I would like to see change and they are mostly procedural. What I would like to see is the visibility [of women] change to reflect what actually is happening in the Church.”
- If you want women to be ordained in the Church, it is very unlikely to happen in your lifetime. If that is a big problem for you, the Church is not going to offer you much comfort.
- However, the public status of women in the Church is going to improve somewhat, both in symbolic ways (increased public visibility of women leaders on the general level) and in practical ways at the everyday level (e.g. more sister missionaries). Dew calls this the “optics” of women in the Church.
* The following could easily be used to doctrinally buttress women’s ordination if the Church ever comes to that view (but it hasn’t, so it doesn’t):
The existence of female prophets in the Bible (not a priesthood office, but that’s a distinction that Mormonism tends to ignore) as well as women in the ancient diaconate; women’s function in the sacerdotal acts of the temple and quasi-ordination to the patriarchal priesthood therein; and the role of women in the historical events that many of the sacraments symbolise (the covering and uncovering of the body of Christ in the Eucharist, the witness to the resurrection of Christ in baptism, the anointing of the body).