Elder Bednar began his address in the Priesthood session with a quotation from President McKay. “If at this moment each one of you were asked to state in one sentence or phrase the most distinguishing feature of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, what would be your answer?” President McKay’s response was, according to Elder Bednar, this: ‘“divine authority” of the priesthood’. This comment was especially pertinent to me because the previous weekend I had somewhat downplayed the uniqueness of LDS claims to Priesthood authority in a conversation with some of my fellow co-bloggers. Over the last few years I have come to frame the restoration in two ways: first, I see restoration and apostasy as concurrent processes occurring both within and without the Church and second, I believe that it is the particular assemblage of doctrines, ordinances and covenants that makes the prophetic restoration of Joseph Smith unique. One of the implications of this second principle is that the restoration cannot be hung on a particular doctrine or ritual as the unique feature of our religion. Rather the uniqueness follows the theological and institutional accumulation of a particular constellation of characteristics. As a result I have been in the process of rethinking Priesthood and Elder Bednar’s talk has given me impetus to hash this out in slightly more formal terms. This post, more than anything else, in as opportunity to think through these ideas a little more in this community.
Although I appreciated much of Elder Bednar’s remarks on the importance of service I also felt some concern over where Elder Bednar seems to locate, in practical terms, the power of the Priesthood in the home. It is not entirely clear to me why God would need Peter, James and John to visit Joseph Smith in order to restore the divinely sanctioned right to lead out in family prayer or Family Home Evening. We do a disservice to our view of restored Priesthood when we frame it in these terms. I understand that these suggestions come from attempts to make the Priesthood meaningful in the everyday, but such practices do not need Priesthood and we implicitly undermine the efforts of others who do not hold the Priesthood when they lead out in family prayer etc. In contrast to Elder Bednar, what I hear in the concerns of the women to whom he spoke was this: “I wish my husband would do more. I wish he would help organise Family Home Evening and scripture study. I cannot motivate him, but maybe you can, as his Priesthood leader”. The theological overlay, in my opinion, is not a reflection of some truth about Priesthood.
Before offering some thoughts on the uniqueness of Mormonism in light of Priesthood let me acknowledge, as a caveat, that I neither a theologian nor a historian. These more rigorous approaches to this question will have to be offered by others at a different time. In that context let me outline two conflicting sensibilities that under-gird this list of approaches to Priesthood. First, I feel a responsibility to unpack the ‘patriarchal privilege’ of holding a male-only Priesthood. Second, I believe that there is a divine and redemptive power (ie the Priesthood) that has been granted to the world by God. Therefore I have tried to understand this list in ways which are faithful to these two sensibilities but I recognise at the outset that I have not done this particularly well. Below I outlined five models and given them my own labels: The legal, covenantal, conservationist, kinship and performative-symbolic models.
The legal model is scripturally grounded in D&C 132. In this revelation JS teaches that a legal administrator must be authorized to perform particular ordinances. Priesthood keys are the right to authorize an individual to perform a particular ordinance and to invite the initiate into a new form of covenant making. I struggle with this model because I cannot see the importance, in God’s eyes, of being authorized. The legal model rests on notions of worthiness but is, therefore, inherently problematic because of the possibility of deceit between the authorizer and the authorized.
The Covenant model is located in the view that Christ’s high priestly role involved a capacity and a divine obligation to suffer-with His fellows. His ministry was guided by a sacrificial covenant to experience, to the fullest extent he was capable, the pain of those around him. This model suggests that this suffering-with is redemptive to the extent that the other person accepts this shared suffering. This attempts to focus on the redemptive quality of Priesthood by emphasizing an obligation rather than a specific set of gifts. This is not to say that people who do not hold the LDS Priesthood cannot suffer-with but that the obligation to do so is of a different kind. I find this view problematic because this self-sacrificial role of priesthood is not discretely different from the baptismal covenant outlined in the Book of Mormon.
The Conservationist model explains the unique claims of Priesthood through a charge to preserve the assemblage of ordinances and covenants given to the JS (and his successors). In this view, Priesthood is very similar to the obligation met by many of the Book of Mormon authors in relation to the sacred records, which were passed from one generation to the next. Just like Mormon, Thomas Monson has been given and accepted a responsibility to conserve this particular assemblage of doctrines, ordinances and covenants while emphasizing their importance to the world. This conservationist model also highlights the institutional nature of Priesthood. Because of my view of the restoration and the apostasy I am somewhat persuaded by this approach but I feel like it lacks an emphasis on the redemptive quality of Priesthood activity. However here is where my ‘privilege’ might be manifesting itself most clearly.
The Kinship model is most apparent in early Mormon practices of adoption and sealing. In short, Priesthood ritually expresses our connectedness to a divine lineage that can be traced to Adam and Christ, and which potentially envelopes the whole human family. Priesthood is the means by which this family is structured, formed and maintained. However, this theological approach to priesthood somewhat relies on the legal model or the symbolic model (discussed below) for its efficacy. In other words, it seems to me that Kinship itself is not a robust form of priesthood separate from the legal sense of being authorized to bind on earth etc. or the symbolic significance of rituals which bind us together.
The Performative-symbolic model is somewhat similar to the notion of the Priesthood of all believers. Ronan and Brad have discussed the implications of the appearance of Christ on the road to Emmaus and also the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. They suggest that the life of a Christian is based on the capacity to see Christ in another; to see treat the hungry, the naked etc. as if they were Christ. In this view, it does not matter whether the stranger on the Road to Emmaus was Christ, or an authorized administrator, but what matters was that they (the disciples) were able to see Christ in this stranger as he took bread, blessed it, brake it and gave it to them. In this sacramental act they were able to see Christ and herein lies the power of Priesthood. Priesthood ordinances (especially in the Temple) help us see the other people around us as if they were another. These ordinances reminds us that we are all a multiplicity. In the Temple for example, we learn to see each other as if we were Adam, Eve, Jesus or the person for whom we are a proxy etc. Priesthood is about developing the capacity to see each other with new eyes, and these ordinances and rituals help us to do that.
I do not understand fully the statement of Elder Bednar, nor of Elder McKay before him, that priesthood is the unique claim of the restoration. I am open and willing to being persuaded otherwise, but at this time I tend to see Priesthood as one part of a unique constellation of doctrines, ordinances and covenants which draws our hearts outward and binds us to others in particular forms of association.