Neylan McBaine is founder and editor of the Mormon Women Project and author of Women At Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact, as well as a contributor to the recent volume, Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings.
The essay released yesterday entitled “Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple and Women,” known among the people now as “the women essay,” has been a long time in coming. I don’t just mean in the sense that we’ve had a societal expectation that official words on this subject of women were needed and hoped for. That is definitely true. But I also mean that the authors at the Church History Library have been working on this essay for a long time. And it’s easy to understand why: we are in medias res on the subject of women in the Church, deep in the heart of a lively discussion that may signify “better days,” as Joseph described them, for women, but which still leave a very long way to go.
I think it is remarkable that the authors, which included women, did as good a job as they have moving the official position forward and opening doors for continued discussion while staying grounded in this history and doctrine we currently have access to. They have done this with a careful unpacking of the definition of priesthood and the language we use to describe priesthood’s role in our worship and communal practices. For example, they rarely use the word “priesthood” without an accompanying qualifier: “priesthood office,” “priesthood authority,” “priesthood ordinances.” By delineating these various functions of priesthood, they challenge us to see only parts of priesthood as gendered – specifically priesthood offices – while being able to say, remarkably, “women exercise priesthood authority….” This is a distinction that, if understood and applied in our local levels would dramatically change the perception and practice of women in church administration. Unfortunately, the essay itself notes that women’s priesthood authority is “misunderstood or overlooked” by church members themselves, so this shift remains a large job.
Most importantly, I think, the essay challenges the notion that women’s engagement in priesthood is limited to being receptors of the blessings, rather than as active agents in doing God’s will on the earth. As Cory Crawford explains in his brilliant essay in the most recent Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought entitled “The Struggle for Female Authority,” “a key component of priesthood… is agency – the power to act: to govern, preside, direct, create, administer and so on.” When we continually assert that women’s interaction with priesthood is receiving all of the blessings and privileges of the priesthood, we negate the power of action that is inherent in a man’s experience with it. We pretend like being an agent of priesthood doesn’t matter. Yesterday’s essay confirmed that when women minister, preach, proselytize, and participate in councils, they are “exercising priesthood authority.” It also publicly wrestled with the idea that women’s priesthood authority might extend even farther within the domain of the temple, leaving open the question of whether those opportunities for action might extend elsewhere someday.
While the essay’s conclusion includes several remarkable statements that move our communal discussion forward, I felt the section’s first sentence was overly gilded: “In some respects, the relationship between Latter-day Saint women and priesthood has remained remarkably constant since Joseph Smith’s day.” First of all, the reader has read just a few pages earlier that women in the early church performed healing blessings, whose power of faith was different than power of the priesthood, but which marked a significant channel of action for women. This has not remained “remarkably constant”, and a reader can’t help but notice this discrepancy when these early practices are put side by side with the (more limited) channels of administration action available to women today. Secondly, is it a good thing that things have remained “remarkably constant”? After 150 years, should we not have embraced the extraordinary sunburst that accompanied the establishment of the Relief Society and continued to lead out in exploring ways to fold in women’s participation more completely?
While we’ve been hearing much about Pope Francis’ encyclicals, we have been tremendously blessed as a people over the past several years to have subjects like women and the priesthood publicly wrestled with, laid bare and given new vocabulary. In “Our Common Home,” Pope Francis adroitly reframed a highly politicized and polarizing issue – the health of the environment—in terms that transcended conservative and political language, appealing to his body’s sense of stewardship and love of divine creation rather than the scientific or political arguments that sometimes cause discord. I see a similar shift in language and vocabulary in yesterday’s essay. The essay is a challenge for us to reexamine priesthood as exclusively gendered. It’s a starting point for rebuilding the discussion and moving away from the “us vs them” stances that have defined too much of our rhetoric on this subject. It’s an invitation to return to our doctrinal roots, to the vision of Brother Joseph and the women he served with, and embrace a priesthood of action for all.