Female Priests Among Christians and Mormons, Part 3

[You can find the whole series here.]
Last time I was talking about potential for scandal among a sexually egalitarian clergy. I think that danger is overblown but it certainly exists. And if the past is a predictor of the future we might expect a conservative Mormon leadership to be as draconian about possibilities of scandal, given a few actual scandals, as they have been already. For Catholics, women in the priesthood has to mean women in the seminaries, the training ground for the Catholic priesthood. If there are female priests, won’t there be female bishops, archbishops, Cardinals, a Pope (some Anglican branches allow female bishops but no archbishops)? And of course the same goes for Mormon hierarchy. An interesting example that relates to both these groups is the Community of Christ. The CoC is in doctrine perhaps more like a mainstream Protestant faith than it is LDS. They still hold the Book of Mormon as a text useful in faith though many do not believe it to be a historical one and that is not a test of faith. The CoC has had a female clergy for many years now and while it did foment dissent when it was introduced, I don’t think there has been much scandal in the close association between men and women leaders in local congregations. Though I don’t know this as a statistical certainty.

And what about Catholic orders? Would there be some coed versions appearing? I think part of the problem in any discussion of such things is the neglected history of women in religious contexts (Cf. Josephine Butler for example). There are a lot of interesting examples there that might be useful in constructing some parameters of a modern female clergy. A celibate clergy coming to grips with half the human race: doing this in the seminary and for Mormons in the training grounds of the Aaronic order and the CES system may be the way to ease fears of sexual attraction among leaders, whatever that might end out being. The Protestant ministerial seminaries where women have moved into the ministerial track have benefited by that presence particularly in the intellectual climate, or so I have heard.

Is pluralism a possibility here? Americans seem like a driving force in the gender integration of priesthoods. In some European societies, say, among Italian women where equality movements were much slower to take off, equality in employment and work hours, pay scales, and so forth has improved but attitudes about female clergy seem less potent.[1] Perhaps this is related to the general exit of Europeans from Catholic participation. My experience in Spain for example was that almost no men participated in Mass. Ironically, it was older women who made up day by day congregations. Could it be that policy about female ordination might fragment by culture? That seems unlikely in Mormonism but who knows? Could a priesthood path be segregated not by geography but by gender? Women priesthood ministers to women, men to men? That seems fraught to me. Things have to join up somewhere.

Less important for Mormons perhaps is that Catholic ordination of women might unsettle ecumenical moves toward Orthodox branches where female ordination is far less likely. At least that is a reservation I’ve heard. On the other hand, ecumenism has never been driven by fear. It’s a leap of faith for those who have sought progress on unity. Perhaps that is relevant to the Mormon scene.


[1] Some English language sources for some recent statistics are here: https://www.thelocal.it/20180308/statistics-women-in-italy-womens-rights-gender-gap-equality. https://www.ncronline.org/news/world/italian-women-seek-freedom-marry-priests-they-love. https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/italys-first-woman-rabbi-suggests-that-married-priests-and-women-priests-could-revive-the-catholic-church-2/.


  1. “I don’t think there has been much scandal in the close association between men and women leaders in local congregations.”

    I believe there were some high profile resignations around sexual sin according to some CoC I’ve talked with. Maybe some CoC can comment here.

  2. One of the nuances in both Catholic and Anglican (the denomination I was previously ordained in) ordination is that women and men are seen as ontologically different. The genders are not just 2 variations on the same thing, they are made up of different stuff at the soul-level. The Anglican group that I was in was trying to walk a middle road on this issue – women could be ordained as priests, but churches did not have to accept them. If a particular congregation did not care for a woman priest, they would never be forced to hire or host one. But they are conservative on many other issues, including homosexuality. A common thing for people against women’s ordination to say would be, “I would take communion (Sacrament) out of the hand of a gay man before I would take it out of the hand of a righteous woman.” In their eyes, and in the eyes of most Catholic leaders, women can’t be priests because they are not made of the right stuff. Better to have a “sinful gay man” (in their view) because even if he is in sin, he is at least ontologically made of the right materials.

    Scot McKnight is a New Testament scholar and he makes the case that women in the New Testament performed all of the tasks that required of religious leaders today. If they were “allowed” to perform those tasks then, why have women lost permission to do so today. In this argument he side-steps the ontological argument against women, and makes a practical one based on gifting and ability. I like his argument, but I know that it rubs on ontological argument the wrong way. They see McKnight as reducing the priesthood to a series of tasks that can be performed by a technician.

    Also, WVS, I’ve been meaning to ask, you’ve read Stephen Webb’s, “Catholic and Mormon”? He addresses some of these issues well.

  3. Jennifer, the ontological argument appeals to Mormons in a way, that is in the Proclamation on the Family, maleness and femaleness is encoded in the souls of men and women. So that I’m guessing, though I haven’t heard this myself, that one might argue that priesthood eligibility is even encoded in the soulscape of humans. I have not read that particular Webb piece.

  4. I wonder what the strength of inspiration needs to be to overcome the fears imagined or seen. For example, the Kimball Q&A in the comments of part 2; yes, there have been instances where inappropriate behavior happened, but how much inspiration from above is needed to break through, to say that despite the issues that bubbled up, it still needs to be done? How many imagined issues settled like scum on top of the water, hardening into doctrinal certainty, did inspiration have to overcome before black African men could hold the Priesthood again?

    I wonder if the LGBT+ questions that are bubbling up will help the inspiration break through to a theology of women having as much power as men institutionally and theologically.

  5. WVS, yes the ontological piece would be the most relevant, and powerful, argument for our church. It’s the main reason I dont see much of a path toward women holding the priesthood. At least not in our lifetimes.

    I’m conflicted about this, but I also dont think it’s the end of the world. And I’ve seen what happens when women get ordained, and while it might be better for women as a whole, the consequences for individual women is often an increase in recieving sexist behavior.

  6. The Proclamation also ties that essential maleness/femaleness to role difference in much the same way as Complementarian Theologies.

  7. Frank, in the case of blacks and priesthood, it seems like miscegenation fears were still present after 1978. So I don’t think entire cosmological holdings need to be addressed prior to change. That requires time even after the equilibrium gets punctuated.

  8. I think the Mormon/LDS/Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tie into ontological concerns is different in important ways. On the one hand, by way of the Proclamation and the Mother in Heaven doctrine, and tradition, maleness/femaleness is encoded all the way into the Godhead. (I have argued this is a mistake, a dead-end that we will ultimately have to work our way out of, but that’s for another time.) This has led to somewhat persuasive arguments that “priesthood” for Mormon women will have to be a separate type. Priesthood for men, priestesshood for women, or (hopefully) better coinage. On the other hand, it is frequently pointed out that the idea of women functioning in the ordinance or sacramental functions of priesthood we passed a long time ago in our temple practices, and even very casually in the non-issue of women passing sacrament trays down the rows in a standard Sacrament Meeting. I just think the idea that “I could not take Communion from the hand of a righteous woman” would have no resonance in LDS practice. On the third hand, I believe the blatantly sexist idea that men are naturally endowed with leadership and decision-making ability and responsibility is now embedded in the culture. Partly a relic of polygamy, but more a product of the early 20th century efforts to shore up men’s involvement and commitment.

  9. WVS – I agree with you about the language in the Proclamation and complementarianism. But the LDS church is a very particular kind of complementarian church. In most comp churches, it is teaching that is prohibited. Women can do all kinds of other things, but they can’t instruct men. But in the LDS church, we regularly see women teaching men – from teenage girls giving talks in Sacrament meeting all the way up to the women who speak in General Conference. In the regular Christian world, complementarians would be horrified by that fact. In Liturgical churches its different – women can teach anyone, but they can’t do sacramental functions like bless the Eucharist (communion).

    I think it gets tempting for some who want to see women’s ordination happen to idealize the more liberal churches where women can do anything. In the last year some folks from the United Methodist (the largest, and most liberal group of Methodists) put together a video where men were reading printed statements of comments other men had made to ordained women clergy. Every comment is shocking, sexist, degrading, and shows that even though these women’s gender, “doesn’t matter” it is still front and center. (I tried to find the video, but I am traveling and have terrible internet connection today, maybe tomorrow will be better.) Those women pay a very individual price, even though their denomination can proudly say that they ordain women.

    For me, the bottom line is that its hard to be a religious woman. The dynamics change from church to church, but there are no options where women have it as easy as men in their gender roles.

  10. Frank “I wonder if the LGBT+ questions that are bubbling up will help the inspiration break through to a theology of women having as much power as men institutionally and theologically.”

    No. It won’t. If you look at the other churches who have full inclusion of LBGTQ persons, the women in those churches still pay a huge price for being female. Part of the reason why is that more conservative people view LBGTQ as a sin…but being a woman is not a sin, its just an “inferior” state. In their thinking, the gay man can repent, but the woman will always be a woman.

  11. Jennifer, I agree the Comp is different among LDS. I think I go into this somewhere in the series. That’s fascinating, horrifying, and not surprising I guess that some men would offer such things. My guess is that among LDS, this sort of thing would be crushed right away from the top?

  12. Chris Kimball – the argument that women’s involvement means the lack of men’s involvement is such an interesting one for me in part because there is so much truth in it. Is that how it should be? No. Is it a reason not to move forward on this issue? No. But it is very real and you can see examples of it in every church. Being a non-male, I wont even begin to weigh in on where change should begin with this.

  13. WVS – I hope it would be crushed, but I cant say I know for sure.

    When I was ordained Anglican clergy I got lots of comments along the lines of, “you’re such a cute little priest-ette”

  14. Jennifer – I retain hope. I was thinking more the questions coming up on our Transgender members, where the possibility of being assigned the incorrect gender (different than our spiritual gender) means than one could go through an entire life performing rituals and ordinances, spiritually as a woman in a body apparently male and still have those rituals and ordinances be acceptable to God. “God will work it all out in the end” is a stopgap, at best.

  15. Frank, that is going to be such a fine needle to thread. The possibilities of slipping into Gnosticism by misstep are terrifying.

  16. This is a fascinating discussion and series of posts. I appreciate Jennifer’s nuanced view of ordination – I support ordination, but never considered the group benefit vs. individual cost. “It’s hard to be a religious woman” rings so true. Thank you.

  17. Marian – thank you! I’m traveling in some remote areas this week without much internet, but this kind of conversation is like candy to me, so I’m trying to stay in it. I too appreciate everyone’s insight here so much.

  18. If men and women are ontologically different, and Christ, the mediator between men and God, was a man, then how can Christ’s mediation effectively benefit a woman? In other words, how can Christ save women if women are ontologically different?

  19. John, this is an interesting question, one that D&C 76 seems to address (saves all the works of his hands) though I’m not sure it really answers your question in the mature ontology of Joseph Smith—but it comes up again in the context of ordination in a later post in the series.

  20. Observer of Faith says:

    If churchly men are sexist, and will torment ordained women with it, then it is all the better for ordination to happen for the purification of the church and of Zion.

    Any dissent against female ordination because of the cost to an individual female speaks too closely to the folk “doctrine” that Heavenly Mother, a literal goddess, must be protected by the male god from the harsh human children she created. The mind boggles.

  21. I don’t know how I came across this discussion, but I can hardly imagine a series of exchanges more informative, polite, and reasonable. Roger Terry of BYU Studies recently pointed out that anciently being a priest meant that a man was authorized to perform certain rituals, period. And that if he was removed, he didn’t take his “priesthood” with him; there was nothing abstract or metaphysical about it. I would add that longstanding teachings and practice notwithstanding, there is no necessary connection between spiritual gifts such as healing and priesthood office; the wind bloweth where it listeth … so is every one that is born of the Spirit. At Winter Quarters teenagers administered to adults who were terribly sick. Apostle John A. Widtsoe argued in his book Priesthood and Church Government that priesthood is primarily about church government. I would say that in practical terms it comes down to who gets to call and release and receive and expend funds. I have no idea how Roger Terry keeps his job.

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