Book Review: Women At Church

Theric Jepson is a long-time friend of BCC, although it’s been some time since his last guest post. You can find out more about him here.

Neylan McBaine‘s name seems to be a bit like Joseph Smith’s—known for good and evil (though without the same kind of among-all-people reach). It’s fascinating how to some she is Moses come off the mountain and to others she’s Uncle Tom. I think she’s sensible enough to reject both those labels, but if those were the only two options, I would choose the former. But if she is Moses, she’s more of a Greek Moses, not with anything written in stone, but with a wandering series of questions and reasonable answers and followup questions that lead to a seemingly inevitable conclusion.

Here I jump in and wonder if audience bias plays a role in how things “seem.” Do I, Theric, find McBain convincing because I already assume that part of the Restoration is ever greater equality of the sexes and surely excerpts from the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book will be added to the D&C any Conference now? If I were one of those Twitter Stake trolls who make fun of the women giving talks during #ldsconf, would this book help me see past my sociopathy? Or, more importantly, if I were a well meaning bishop to whom it’s simply never occurred to ask a woman for feedback on my Mother’s Day plans, could this book increase empathy and lead to openings in my ward’s spiritual growth? Or would I nod wisely and wink at my counselors and just keep on keepin’ on? Buy one for your local chicken patriarch and let me know.

Regardless, this is a valuable book—and I think most people desire to see the Church grow in the direction of inclusion. Wily as she is, McBaine has grounded her discussion in what is currently allowed by the Handbook of Instructions, those blue and red books leadership is obliged to follow. Her strict adherence to these rules—even though they are merely temporarily immutable—makes her ideas both immediately implementable and, presumably, less horrifying to the conservative.

That she is swearing by the book as currently constituted brings her credibility that gives her ideas weight they can gain in no other way. Thus, when she screws up her following-of-the-book, she risks damaging her credibility. Here’s an “unimportant” example—indeed, the only one I noticed:

…a ward council meeting officially includes ten men: the bishop, his two counselors, the executive secretary, ward clerk, high priests group leader, elders quorum president, ward mission leader, Young Men’s president, and the Sunday School president. Three women are included: the presidents of the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary. Priesthood executive council (PEC) consists of all ten men from the ward council, with a potential invitation to the Relief Society president. The Young Men president is a permanent member of the priesthood executive committee, but the Young Women president is not even on the list of potential invitees.… the presence of twenty male voices in the two meetings is counterbalanced by the voice of three female voices (maybe four if the Relief Society president attends PEC). [43-44]

McBaine’s point is that men have far more representation in ward-level councils than women. It’s an important point that deserves discussion. And so she does. Here’s my problem with what she’s said (and note I already know I’m being persnickety): Aaaactually, the Sunday School president isn’t invited to PEC either. Not according to the Handbook. So it’s reeeeally 19:3.

That doesn’t change the nature of the problem at all. Not at all. The problem is that if someone’s reading this book under duress and looking for reasons to dismiss McBaine’s arguments, this sort of petty mistake can lead to all sorts of uncharity.

Another mistake that threw me out was the story of a young Primary girl who wants to sing about the Armies of Shelaman. It’s a charming story about a young Provo girl who was sick of being just a girl in a room overwhelmed with stories of boys and who carved herself a place. She’s just a kid but she feels neglected, and the story is powerful proof that we need to lengthen our cords.

My problem this time? That story didn’t happen in Provo. It happened right here in good old Berkeley.

Now look: I believe these were simple, editorial oversights. And they’re the only two such errors I noticed. But the fact I found any makes me wonder how many I missed and any errors—but especially Handbook errors—damage McBaine’s grounded-in-the-Handbook ethos. In fact, someone more cynical than me could think of reasons why those errors might be intentional (19:3 might be bad but 20:3 is worse and everything must sound as awful as possible) (this story works better in Provo—admit it was Berkeley and most saints will reject it as hippy nonsense), and the fight against any perception that she’s manipulating facts is absolutely vital to the book’s success.

But enough about that. Let’s speak of the book’s successes.

The first and greatest success, I think, is simply the massive collection of stories. We learn from each other, and if a woman would like to participate in her child’s name and blessing but has never seen a mother do so before, how will she know she can ask? who to ask? what to ask for? Women at Church shares several different ways women have already participated in this event. Suddenly we have options.

The same can be said of past successes at getting women’s voices heard in councils, finding equal(er) footing among their priesthood leaders, supporting women in their stewardships, empowering women to use their strengths within the body of Christ, etc. The book is loaded with useful tales. And some cautionary ones as well.

Stories are vital for building empathy, and empathy is the only way out of this rut we’re in. Only by loving our neighbor as ourselves can all of us become one. Jesus didn’t teach with stories by accident, you know.

I don’t want to get into the (in my opinion) frustrating history of the Relief Society, nor do I want to debate the ultimate value of Correlation—even though both these stories are fascinating and vital—but I do think it worth mentioning that McBaine touches on both. She’s not controversial—she more relays the facts than comments upon them—but, even without moralizing, that history helps us understand that our latter-day trajectory is sending us towards women with authority and power, rib-cracking hiccups notwithstanding. I can only believe that Women at Church is best understood as a helpful reminder of where we’re headed and a kindly suggestion of where to step next.

This might be the historical “moment when [we] have gone to the edge of the light” and must step “into the darkness [only] to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two.” Our wards and stakes might be stumbling forward at different paces, but we can all make sure that the direction is, in fact, forward. And this little book can help.

Comments

  1. “Aaaactually, the Sunday School president isn’t invited to PEC either.”
    What?! I coulda slept in all those Sundays!

  2. eponymous says:

    Read your Handbook Ben. ;)

    Someone said that if you want to have a secret well kept, put it in a handbook.

    https://www.lds.org/broadcasts/article/worldwide-leadership-training/2010/11/panel-discussion?lang=eng

  3. .

    Yeah, you got suckered, Ben.

  4. .

    And thanks for that link, eponymous. I couldn’t find it last night.

    Elder Ballard’s words on the subject are well ahead of the Handbook’s. Though the Handbook does have some openings. For instance, every Sunday could be Ward Council Sunday. Why not?

  5. By the way, as a woman Neylan wouldn’t have had legitimate access to much of the Handbook, so if she had gotten it exactly right, people would be quibbling about her having sneaked around to read it. Being a Mormon feminist is a never-ending series of double-binds.

  6. Not to be nitpicky (you said it first) in The Armies of Shelaman story he said he served as primary chorister in both Berkley and Provo and does not make it clear where exactly any of his stories happened, so it could have been Provo. Also, Kristine, I have handbook 2 on my Gospel Library App and that is the handbook which tells who is to attend both Ward council and PEC. I thought it was available at lds.org, also, but that may have been because I was in the RS Pres. I’m too lazy to go check now that I’m not.

  7. Ann, yes–I realize that particular section is available; I’m just making the general point–it matters for other things that need some feminist reform, like disciplinary councils, bishops’ interviews with youth, etc.

  8. .

    All good points. Good points pointing to the value of this book. Tell your friends.

  9. In my YSA Ward, every Sunday is Ward Council Sunday. And the council members include: Bishopric, Clerk, Exec Sec, EQ Pres, RS Pres, Sunday School Pres, Ward Mission Leader, and a co-chair (male or female, as decided between them each week) from Activities, FHE, Temple & Family History, Communications (me), and Munch & Mingle committees. Also the Institute president (currently a female), a regional YSA committee representative (currently male) and up to 2 high councilmen. The best possible ratio, assuming every seat is filled, is 11:7.

    (I like the frequency and size of our ward council, but obviously more women being involved would be nice ).

  10. .

    It seems to me that councils are where change will happen. Peopling councils with that in mind thus is vital. I didn’t intend to start a conversation on that particular point, but I also don’t think it can be discussed enough. At least, not until we achieve something closer to equity.