Today’s post begins with a summary of roughly 1/3 of the digital ink spilled in the bloggernacle[fn1]. “Preside” doesn’t mean preside, except when it does, but it usually doesn’t. So your marriage should be egalitarian, but someone should lead and it should be the husband/priesthood bearer, but you should be equal partners in leading, except the husband/priesthood bearer should get the deciding vote (mostly regarding who should bless the food, but not only that), except that decisions should be made mutually. Marriage isn’t like the church, nor is it like a board meeting, but all the analogies that we can provide make it seem like the church or a corporate board meeting, except ones where everything is done in unity, by which we mean nothing is done until everyone agrees with the guy (always a guy) in charge, but it’s important to get everyone’s opinion, even though only one opinion is decisive, except that it shouldn’t be and usually isn’t until it is.
I recently heard of a stake president, somewhere in the western US, who stated to the members of his stake that “Men do not preside. In our stake, husbands and wives are equal.” This seems to be where the Brethren want the church to go, and yet they still seem to like that word, “preside.” For example, as recently as the 2014 conference, Elder Oaks explained:
As stated in the family proclamation, the father presides in the family and he and the mother have separate responsibilities, but they are “obligated to help one another as equal partners.” Some years before the family proclamation, President Spencer W. Kimball gave this inspired explanation: “When we speak of marriage as a partnership, let us speak of marriage as a full partnership. We do not want our LDS women to be silent partners or limited partners in that eternal assignment! Please be a contributing and full partner.”
In the eyes of God, whether in the Church or in the family, women and men are equal, with different responsibilities.
I have friends who are a husband and wife who run a business together. When I asked them what an equal partnership in their business was like, they responded:
“There is no one in charge over the other. We make decisions jointly: hiring, firing, marketing, purchases, how to respond to problems. We value each other’s input, we respect each other’s opinions and expertise. It would be a disaster for one of us to preside. The other one would instantly have the ability to divest, to disown decisions with which we disagreed, to criticize the other person’s actions. Inequality would infiltrate our decision-making process like a poison.”
Admittedly, business is a poor analogy to family life, but is “presiding” really any less poisonous to family relationships?
It is as if the Brethren realize that the supposed gender dynamics of the 50s were actually bad for women, but, at the same time, they think it is a matter of occasional bad apples. If all men everywhere were cool dudes, who only put their foot down on the really important stuff (like which child teaches the lesson in FHE), then women would have no trouble with men presiding. So, the goal of the church should be the transformation of men from Neanderthals[fn2] into cool dudes. Which, when you think about it, is probably about 90% of what the church does.[fn3] A great deal of what women are taught in the official manuals of the church is how to support their husband, their priesthood leaders, and so forth. We’re all taught to bear one another’s burdens and to serve the destitute, but an awful lot of what women are taught regards how they should comport themselves and alter their environment so that the men in the household and church have an easier time of it.
Which isn’t to say that men get off lightly in this understanding of “preside.” If it doesn’t mean “be in charge,” which it apparently doesn’t (usually), then the next most frequently attached arbitrary definition of it that you find floating around is “be responsible for.” Perhaps the Brethren feel like men need to “preside” because otherwise men won’t feel like they have a stake in their own families. Making everyone in the family unit dependent on the senior priesthood holder might cause some men to be more attached to their families out of feelings of honor, loyalty, or shame. If the whole family is entirely dependent on the decisions (or the priesthood?) of one member, then that member has the responsibility and the culpability for everything that goes wrong (and that goes right). I admit that the male ego is a powerful thing, but is it really the most appropriate thing upon which to hang the strength of a family (or church)?
To sum up, the general vibe coming from Salt Lake seems to be that they don’t like the hierarchical connotation of “preside,” but they love the term “preside” for some other obscure reason (either that or they are in a whole heap of denial). It strikes me that this is a lot of the problem. All the Sturm and Drang regarding “preside” comes from various attempts to redefine it into something not terrible for women (or children), but all of that is only necessary because of a desire to keep the damn word. Why not just do as that wise stake president suggests and jettison the word? And if we can’t jettison it, could we get an explanation of why we have to keep it around, especially as we don’t want it to mean what it means?
I want to emphasize something at the end of this post. There is nothing original here. I’m not saying anything that other people haven’t said, many of whom are more qualified to say something on this topic than I am.[fn4] But my cup of irritation ran over this past week and now I’m pouring it out all over the internet. It was my decision, ya know?
[fn1] The other two thirds are a combination of crafts for primary activities, race, and homosexuality.
[fn2] Probably an undeserved insult to Neanderthals.
[fn3] Other 10%: Vacuuming up bits of goldfish in the nursery room.
[fn4] See, for instance, this, this, or this.