Neylan McBaine’s excellent presentation at the recent FAIR Conference inspired this response from guest Ben McGuire.
This presentation caught my attention because it covers issues we are dealing with in my home. My son was ordained a Deacon just this past Sunday. And my daughter has been questioning why he gets the priesthood and she doesn’t (and further why the boys do things in church that the girls don’t). How do I answer these questions?
The presentation deals with these issues and yet doesn’t do what I think it was intended to do. Discussing women’s issues within the LDS Church sometimes feels a bit for me (both as a man and as a faithful member) like walking through a field full of land mines. This presentation seemed safe enough for those who don’t see a real issue to begin with. It certainly doesn’t seem to go far enough for those who have difficulty with gender equality in the church. Does Neylan really reach a middle ground? Personally, I think that limiting the role of women in church leadership (and we do limit it) is a much broader problem than any middle ground may resolve.
In considering the presentation several thoughts struck me. The first is that it seemed primarily about how the division is portrayed, how it is seen, and not necessarily what it means. This perspective was hammered in with a quote from Maxine Hanks: “I don’t think gender tensions in Mormonism are due to inequality in the religion, but due to invisibility of that equality.” Neylan has this comment:
Is there gender discrimination in the Church? If discrimination means separation according to gender, yes. If it means delineation of opportunities based solely on gender, yes. Many argue that different opportunities based on gender is unfair, adverse, and/or abusive by definition. The Church does not satisfy secular gender-related egalitarian ideals, period; and our institutional behavior fits that definition of gender discrimination in several inescapable ways. We shrink away from accurately representing how we work, thinking it condemns us as a church. And in the eyes of the world it might. But the Church does not, and should not, operate according to secular concepts of power, status, etc.; and if we attempt to justify ourselves in this paradigm we will not only fail, but betray our own ideals.
We need a narrative that doesn’t rely on justifications. It shouldn’t rely on comparisons to fallen world paradigms. It needs to stand on its own, while acknowledging that it may have little precedent and little comparison to worldly paradigms that describe gender-related egalitarian ideals.
New narratives are wonderful things. But, if there is at some level real inequality causing real pain, then simply changing the way we talk about it won’t help deal with the pain, and it won’t help deal with the inequality. Nor should we simply concur that just because the church has a position that this position is always right (consider the change to priesthood in 1978). I think this presentation provides at least a potential misunderstanding of Maxine’s comments (of course I could be misunderstanding Maxine as well). Doctrinally, the church is (or at least was) much more liberal than some want to think it should be. Historically we can see periods when women participated in ways that are not sanctioned today. Is gender inequality more an issue of policy than doctrine?
Changing narratives doesn’t seem to be much of a change in direction. Are we giving women a voice? Are we providing them not just with a voice, but with a language to speak about their issues? Or are we just creating narrative to set their concerns aside? Do I tell my daughter that she simply doesn’t understanding her role yet in the gospel – and that she should look for opportunities to express herself within the framework that the church provides? That she should let the men do the thinking for her? Or do I tell her what I really think: That the gospel plan isn’t perfectly implemented in the church, and that I expect at some point for there to be more fundamental changes that alter the discourse about equality between men and women? Do I recommend that she accept her role, or do I encourage her to advocate for change? The church has systematically taken away their voice (not just over priesthood issues – but in many other ways). That voice has to be returned to them so that as a church church we can hear more of their needs from them – using an appropriate language.
Perhaps a weightier issue for me was something that the presentation was silent about. One absolutely critical idea that really needs to be explored and talked about within our community is how does a woman relate to a male God figure? Women are judged by men in the church. They confess only to men. They have male advocates. This issue is often very hard for women in the church to discuss. Again, I think part of the reason for this is that we have managed to suppress a great deal of the language of feminism in the church. How do we address the gender issue in that relationship to God? From the presentation:
I love this bishop’s thought process: first, he has identified for himself as the leader of a congregation the need to have equally meaningful relationships with both the boys and the girls in his ward. He has also identified the need for the girls in his ward to have a more visible role in preparing for their future service in God’s kingdom, noting that there is a discrepancy in the ways our girls and boys are trained for service leadership. Lastly, he has identified barriers that make it difficult for him to engage the girls in the same way he does the boys, and he has committed to finding innovative solutions that are still within the purview outlined in the Church Handbook.
Both the presenter and the bishop have badly misunderstood the dynamic in my opinion – and this is part of the problem – a cultural aspect of it, if you will. The Bishop is the representative of God. And so he asks how he can have equally meaningful relationships with both the boys and the girls. And in agreeing with him, the presenter is also in a way suggesting that this is also a problem for God – how can God have just as meaningful a relationship with the women as he already does with the men. It is a harmful perspective. What we really want to know is how the girls in the ward can have as meaningful a relationship with their bishop (and with God) as the boys can. There is a difference in the ways our children are trained for service leadership precisely because there is a difference in that future service leadership. And looming over this is the Church Handbook. So, God creates a barrier (the CHI), and we need to find ways to work around it? This isn’t the beginning of the right discussion on these issues.
The Maxine quote continued with this comment: “The equality is embedded, inherent in Mormon theology, history, texts, structures.” Do we have a resistance to empowering women that stems from policy and not from doctrine? Neylan tells us:
What kinds of initiatives could we take as church members to excavate this gender equality that we currently not doing? Harvard professor Clayton Christiansen, known for his work on disruptive innovation, often speaks to LDS Harvard students about how many of the standard Church programs—seminary, Family Home Evening, for example—started from the initiative of a small group of church members who saw a need and innovated ways to address that need that didn’t compromise doctrine or divinely mandated ecclesiastical practices in any way. How can we apply this same innovative spirit to the arena of women’s responsibilities at church? How can we put into practice our desires to see this cooperative community become more of our practiced reality? In essence, while we are reigning in our external claims, we need simultaneously to be broadening the practice of egalitarian ideals in our behavior so that with these opposite pulls we can have both internal and external meet harmoniously in the middle. I ask each man and woman in the audience today: What are you doing to excavate the power of the women in your ward and make their contributions more visible?
Note the “divinely mandated ecclesiastical practices” in the comments. It is here that the pressure needs to be exerted because most of what we view as divinely mandated practices isn’t anything more than tradition and custom backed by history. But now we are walking on the land mines (not just looking at them). It is hard to separate doctrine found in scripture from policy found in the Church Handbook without being labeled as a dissenter. This separation came up this past Sunday as well. My son was invited to help pass the sacrament by the Deacon’s quorum president (he hadn’t been ordained yet – that was to come later in the day). When it was noticed, one of the leaders as inconspicuously as possible (it wasn’t) took the tray from him and continued with the passing of the sacrament for him. We discussed it afterwards. His rationale was that the Deacons were officiating and so needed to hold the priesthood. That view (probably not uncommon) was shot down a century ago when Deacons first started to pass the sacrament (back then it was over the applicability of D&C 20:58). It was then decided that administering the sacrament only referred to blessing it. In fact, there was nothing doctrinally wrong with his passing the sacrament any more than my daughter passing the tray to me (allowed, as the Handbook says, for convenience). What are we doing to look at our collections of policies and traditions that we cling to? Can we distinguish between what is really potentially “divinely mandated” and what is largely non-doctrinal, but yet has the stamp of tradition and time? Do we have room to really excavate gender equality? Not as long as we try to maintain a safe distance from the land mines.
The conclusion aims me in a different direction than perhaps what was intended:
[Women] were symbols of the extent to which the Savior was willing to challenge the conventions of his culture and usher in a new social ideal. Compared to the way women were treated in the Savior’s own time and place, His treatment of them was radical. By involving not just his mother and female friends in his ministry, but by embracing the fallen woman, the daughter of a Gentile, the sick woman, the Samaritan woman, Jesus, through his example, challenged us as His followers to engage all women, trust them, lead with them, and lean on their spiritual power. Let us meet that challenge.
I think this is good advice. Our society as a whole is still not a society of gender equality. Compared to the way women are treated in our time and place, we should be ushering in a new social ideal. Out treatment should be radical (not just by our own standards – but also by those of our society). We cannot simply say, “Here, there is so much more you can do beneath the glass ceiling” – the church needs to help women break through that glass ceiling. Will being invited to PEC as frequently as possible ever really change the notion that it is not a woman’s place? That the woman is just a guest at the men’s table?
Creating narratives to harmonize our doctrines and our policies is not in my mind a solution. Fostering dialogue about inequality – finding the conflicts between policy and theology – working to introduce language that better describes the problems of inequality so that we can have frank and open discussions with our children – those are steps in the right direction. Different but equal is never equal.