Female Priests Among Christians and Mormons, Part 10

We’ve been looking at some forms of ecclesiology that might be appealed to in the quest to understand female ordination in the present religious, and in particular Mormon, context. For lack of a better term I’ll call this next one Lego Ecclesiology. [You can find the whole series here.]

This is the antipode of blueprint ecclesiology. This is the idea that Christians are free to go ahead and build the church as utility directs. There is something of the Reformation here, where devotional levels, lay persons, monks, nuns, various celibate orders were wiped out. Everyone was to be equally obedient, holy, close to God. The separation of duty as in, peasants work for all, priests pray for all, nobles fight for all, was a distinction whose implied inequality in medieval times (this is really present in fact in Paul’s analogy of the body) was to be rid of across the spectrum. But female preaching was still a problem even into the 19th century.

Lego ecclesiology implies that Christ gave a commission to build a community but no blueprint. Some components, blocks were present, but not a comprehensive book of instruction. The historical consciousness that calls into question the blueprint ecclesiology may be a catalyst to move to the opposite extreme. If Jesus didn’t specify everything, even in the 1830s, and the Holy Spirit led developments in an early period and later, why couldn’t the Spirit lead in a new direction as social developments open a new possibility? If church needs may be better met by the ordination of women, why not think of it as a real immediate possibility? This sort of metanoia is perhaps what could be the thing that might make a difference in the worries of a secular age.

I mentioned the Reformation. Would younger church members, those that are still present (many drop out per Pew surveys and Jana Riess’s Next Mormons) find in a female priesthood a reason to hope that God still acts deeply in their lives?

Of the three ecclesiologies I’ve mentioned, which are likely to be more influential? While I think quasi-blueprint is more factual I think it least likely to be an engine for change. Moderation rarely seems to change the universe. Stuff like the big bang does that. On the other hand, I can see Latter-day Saints fully accepting a female priesthood at some point, in the North Atlantic world perhaps right now. How would it play in North Africa where the LDS church is growing most rapidly? I was sitting in a meeting where a panel was discussing the priesthood ban in the LDS church and one of the panelists brought up the notion that the ban was the result of racial prejudice, in particular over miscegenation. A black couple in the audience (from Africa I believe) became emotional at the suggestion that the priesthood ban of blacks was not revelation. They wanted to, did believe, that it had to be for the 1978 revelation to be truly meaningful to them, they KNEW it. At least that was my take on the experience. And I imagine that there is a significant selection of women in Mormonism (or Catholicsm, etc.) who feel something similar in terms of their priesthood “ban.” It’s the will of God because God’s regents can’t be so wrong for so long.

There is one more aspect to the discussion that is impossible to do justice to in this limited format and that is the idea of the Public Sphere. The notion of public sphere only really develops with Gutenberg’s movable type enterprise which marked a paradigm shift in the world of scholarship and the power of egalitarian expression of opinion/belief/fact—and most importantly the sharing of those opinions and their contest for supremacy. Without exaggeration, it changed virtually everything. Reliability and permanence moved away from oral traditions and agreements and the village life of the parish. Much of the ancient status of persons who stored culture through memory was wiped out by movable type in only a generation. Print culture began to dominate scholarship and allowed wide swaths of humanity to consider the same ideas and respond to them. All this created a now invisible fault line in perception. That fault line refracted the questions of culture through text, and the result was that study of culture, history, and scripture became text-based, largely ignoring the influence of the world before print except as that tradition reappeared from the press. The Public Sphere was disconnected from the before-time seats of power: political, religious, and the story-telling in the tribe. It was (not perfectly to be sure) an agency that grew rapidly and wielded competitive power. Other power bases were reluctant to listen but eventually more or less bought into the power of the Public Sphere. Religion was partly immune to these influences but an explosive development took place a few decades before the twenty-first century dawned. The Internet. The internet and the World Wide Web created a new expansive version of the Public Sphere. Conservative institutions saw it for what it was: a danger to their unsupported assertions about nearly everything. And it has had a substantial influence among policy makers, entertainment brokers, government agencies, powerful boardrooms, and yes, formerly quietly insular religious leaderships. This super-public-sphere will now help steer the world of politics, business, religion, government, and virtually every institution. The super-public-sphere will invade nearly every aspect of our lives and at the same time create a space where power from the below will need to mesh with power from above. Indeed, they will need to become one. With that, I will close out this series.

Fr. Brown made this interesting statement–I’m paraphrasing from notes. In the Gospel of John, the Evangelist tells the tale of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at a well. The disciples had gone to town to shop (not for food surely!) and were shocked to find Jesus conversing with a woman! The Evangelist tells us (Jn 4:27) that not one dared to ask what he wanted of a woman.

Has this curious failure to ask endured?

Well, general conference is coming up. Maybe there will be a surprise!


  1. Wow! A 10-part speculation on General Conference in two weeks. I’ll take the other side on that speculation, if you will.

    In a tradition of continuing revelation we can at all times imagine epochal change. On the other hand, we always have to face the question why now? Why not earlier? Why not later?

    The experience of ending polygamy and ending the priesthood and temple ban suggests big changes are responses to external forces. Certainly there are revelation before and revelation after myths, but the Church has declined to take that position formally. The Manifesto (Official Declaration 1) refers to external laws: “Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare . . .” (Some of us expected something similar following _Obergefell_; time will tell.) The Gospel Topics essay on Race and the Priesthood wisely says “Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.”

    I don’t see any external forces present or on the horizon to force ordination for women. I see you positing the internet and a super-public sphere as the external influence that will effect change. In a way that poses the question whether the roughly 15 years of the Bloggernacle has made any difference. I am skeptical. For the bear market view, I worry that significant movement on this front will take really mass movement among members, something we’ve never seen. Or a Millennial in the driver’s seat, which means somebody who is now under 40 ascending to the presidency with the idea that priesthood for all men and all women is an obvious necessity. With our current lock-step system, that will be the latter part of this century at best.

    Pretty broad range, between conference in two weeks and the end of this century.

  2. I agree. The horizon for change is probably distant. Yet it’s an interesting and for many, a desirable change. Perhaps it will be long in coming (if at all). I appreciate your contribution to this escapade.

  3. I notice that you use the argument of what might be good for the church, yet fail to consider what might be good for 51% of its membership. Obviously you are male. But I don’t hold that against you, as you seem like a reasonable male.

    In times past, men left the church far more often than women did. When I was growing up, I knew, oh maybe 1/3 of the families in the ward where the father did not attend. I knew no families where the father did attend and the mother did not. That dynamic has changed and now women are leaving in roughly the same percentages as men. As the study done by Jana Riess showed, many of those female defections are over the way women are treated. Other studies have shown that the children follow the religion of their mother 80% of the time. So, if the church starts losing the women, it also loses the next generation. In fact that may be what is happening with millennials. A greater percentage of women are unhappy, on the feminist fringes, or have left, so the children are following their mothers out of the church.

    Of course the church has long acted on the assumption that a believing father will take his wife and children to church, and the whole family follows the father. This I suspect is a male centric world view that doesn’t play out in reality. It does not follow the patter that the studies show, that in mixed faith marriages, the children follow their mother’s religion rather than the fathers.

    So, I suspect that the pressure to change things and ordain women will eventually be mass exodus of women, with their husbands and children following. The church is already seeing the problem and beginning to listen to the feminist blogs and change the endowment, allow women to pray in GC, make the women’s session equal to the men’s conference session. (they call it priesthood, but non-priesthood males can attend, so it is really the mens session of conference)

  4. Unfortunately (or not?) I’m guessing that the church will likely accept LGBT members fully before they ordain women on an equal basis with men. I’d like to hope I live to see at least one or the other.

  5. civetta @11:30am, I don’t know about “accept fully” but it has been observed (including by me) that marriage parity–recognizing same-sex civil marriage as marriage for all purposes, as forming a family–would be a very easy change requiring almost no modification of practice. (There are deep questions and issues theologically and in terms of countering things that have been said, but most people wouldn’t notice in the daily life of the Church.) By contrast, introducing women into real decision making and leadership positions in the Church will be a huge change. To be clear about that, we haven’t made it until my bishop and stake president are women, or one is a woman and the other could be.

    I’m now old enough that I don’t expect to see any of this happen.

  6. ck–Yes, the marriage parity you describe should be an easy and helpful fix. I guess I hoped that such a move would also involve a recognition/acceptance of LGBT sexuality/chastity requirements on the same basis as for heterosexuals. Perhaps too much of a leap. And you are right, that the situation re women has such a long history and the wheels of change grind so slowly that it is unlikely we will see a Bishop Trudy in our lifetimes.

  7. They already claim to treat chastity the same for gays as straight. See pres Nelson at BYU. But something has to change to end the assertion that God opposes gay marriage, without any evidence.
    A lot depends on the leaders vision for the future. If there is to be growth in first world countries, women will have to be treated equally, as we expect them to be in the rest of their life. It would be interesting to know how many first world women are joining the church?

  8. Geoff-Aus, by rejecting “the world’s” definition of marriage, President Nelson effectively locks gay people out of any kind of sanctioned sex. If sex is for marriage only, and the Church doesn’t recognize gay marriage as having any moral authority, then chastity=celibacy for gay people is still the only approved path. That’s how I understood the devotional.

  9. A BYUI Student says:

    I’m taking a course at BYUI where I had to watch the documentary “Demographic Winter” (it’s on YouTube for those poor souls willing to watch it). The movie’s main thesis is that populations will start shrinking by 2050 and that overpopulation isn’t a problem. It largely blames women for this issue focusing much of the time citing women’s access to birth control and the women’s movement for this problem.
    The movie also freaks out about how there will be fewer white European babies and American babies than brown babies. All of this is coming from a class at BYUI. So no, women gaining any type of actual authority at this point in time isn’t happening, our culture is too enmeshed with certain strains of conservative thought that are truly problematic for that to occur.

  10. Christian, Within 10 years I would expect Holland or Uchtdorf to be the first presidency, we might get some change once Oaks and Nelson are no longer there. So I’m hoping less than 10byears for both women and gays to have equality. Otherwise the church outside Utah is going to be going backwards. Social media will make bigotry unacceptable.

  11. Thank you for this series. I have enjoyed your thoughts as well as the thoughts of all commenters.

  12. Geoff Aus
    Gay marriage is not sustainable now or in the eternities if you are supporting it, you will reap the consequences.

  13. “Social media will make bigotry unacceptable.”

    This is the complete opposite of my (and apparently most everyone else’s) experience with social media…and I would add most commenters on these blogs. When was the last time you changed your opinion based on something your read on Facebook or one of these blogs?

    Bigotry (noun): obstinate or intolerant devotion to one’s own opinions and prejudices.

    “Violence attributed to online hate speech has increased worldwide….As more and more people have moved online, experts say, individuals inclined toward racism, misogyny, or homophobia have found niches that can reinforce their views and goad them to violence.” -Council on Foreign Relations (https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/hate-speech-social-media-global-comparisons)

    Not that it matters, though. You’ll read this comment and decide whether you believe it or not based on your predetermined ideas about the world.

  14. WVS – Thank you so much for this series; and thank everyone else for their comments. I have learned much. You might be amused to know that during this whole time I have been traveling in the Caribbean which means internet connection was spotty. More than once I found myself in some small town trying to ask locals where I could access the internet….or standing on the very top level of some boat trying to grab a signal…just so that I could read along with your posts. I have thoroughly enjoyed the engagement so thank you for your efforts.

  15. Geoff-Aus,

    What do you think “the Church outside of Utah” looks like? Most of it is Mexico, Brazil (and much of the rest of South America), the Philippines, Ghana, etc. In other words, it’s places that still have a strong “traditional” influence.

  16. Dsc – this is absolutely the tension in every denomination right now. It was only a few months ago that the United Methodists – a very liberal denomination – voted to oppose same-sex marriage and clergy. If you look at the United Methodists in the US, you will find very progressive and liberal congregations at every turn. But they are a global denomination. And their members in the Southern Cone and Africa far outnumber their members in the US. So when the issue finally got put to a vote, the US members were outnumbered 3 to 1 and the denomination chose to go the way of traditional values.

  17. WVS, I wonder if it makes sense to consider separately the different roles we’ve assigned to priesthood. The priest-as-proxy argument is an argument about the authority to perform liturgy. But the various ecclesiology arguments seem to be primarily about the authority to make decisions in the church. I wonder if women’s ordination to an administrative role (or even just full inclusion in the leadership hierarchy without ordination) is more conceivable women’s ordination to a liturgical role. Or vice versa. It seems to me that the arguments against women’s ordination muddle the two, reflecting the way we’ve muddled the two in male ordination.

  18. I think that as the influence of the Global South takes hold on the LDS Church the likelihood of female ordination and recognizing SSM gets less likely. See the situation with the Methodists or Anglicans for example.


    Here in our Texas Stake the local HC and Stake presidency members from the global south are fare more theologically conservative then their counterparts in leadership that are from Pioneer stock. Our English speaking youth have been offended multiple times by straight talking PH leaders from Mexico and Latin America talking about Gender roles and SSM. They say things that pioneer stock members would have said 20 years ago but no longer will say out of fear of offending the Millennials and younger crowd who are being marinated in western liberalism at school and on social media.

  19. John Mansfield says:

    There has been pondering by some of what the church’s priesthood may look like decades from now, probably after many of us are dead. Extrapolating from the data points of 1986 and 2018, the future I envision is “Two down, one to go.”

    Thirty-three years ago it was revealed that there should not be Seventies quorums throughout the stakes leading the proclamation of the gospel to the unbaptized living within organized stakes. A couple quorums of Seventies administering central committees was all that was needed from that priesthood office. Last year we learned that we have far too many serving in the office of high priest. A couple dozen in each stake manning the bishoprics and high council are all there should be, and those released from those callings are no longer members of a high priests’ quorum. (As with the shift from “general authority emeritus” to “former general authority,” former high councilors and bishops’ counselors may eventually also be considered former high priests.) With increasing equivalence of the Relief Society and Elders’ Quorum, it may in a future decade be found that there is no reason for the men to be ordained to service that the women also perform without ordination. In those future wards the only priest most latter-day saints will encounter most months will be their bishop, who will be male.

  20. Jared Cook: In effect we discussed this in one of the earlier segments. My view is that the liturgical aspect is a major hurdle for some traditions but *not* for the Brighamite branch of the Restoration because of our temple practices and history of women involved in blessings. Notwithstanding 20c efforts to magnify men’s roles and diminish women’s roles, there’s enough history and practice to make women directly participating in sacramental functions an easy move. Not easy in working out all the theological details, but easy in the sense that if announced I think acceptance would be quick and widespread. (Opinion, of course.) So yes I think separating is valuable, and the ecclesiology of women in leadership, decision making, and judgment roles is the critical path for The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Distinct from some other churches we sometimes compare with or learn from.

    Not incidentally, this is the reason I shifted my (ordain women related) rhetorical stance some years ago to saying “I don’t care what you call it, I want my next bishop to be a woman.” (In real life I usually say “black woman” because I’m picturing someone I know and she would be wonderful.) When I say that, I usually get a “YES, that’s what we’re talking about” from women. And often enough to be interesting I get a “no way, never” from men who otherwise were willing to engage in a conversation about ordaining women.

  21. Jared, I suppose a breakout of admin and liturgical roles is possible. I believe however, that there is an inherently strong tie between ritual powers and supervision.

  22. Thanks Jennifer. You offer a unique perspective.

  23. WVS, can you explain what you mean by inherent? I mean, I agree that they’re not separate, but is that inherent in the concept of priesthood, or just inherent in the way that it has practically operated in the restoration? The reason I raise it is because I think it’s important to tease out what it is that really bothers people about the idea of female priests: women exercising administrative authority, or women exercising liturgical authority? It’s weird because the priest-as-proxy-for-a-male-Christ seems to me to be the most compelling argument against women’s ordination (though I don’t think it’s all that compelling), but in my observation, it seems like the real anxiety is usually about administrative power. As Christian pointed out, there is LDS precedent for women exercising liturgical authority–though even then I suppose you could also point out that they only do so for the liturgy given to other women, and that similarly, Women can exercise administrative authority in the church, but only over other women (RS presidencies, Sister Training leaders), with the exception, maybe, of a Primary President that has one or more male primary teachers. Maybe trying to separate them is a unfruitful endeavor, but I feel like it’s important to understand what the real objection is.

  24. Jared, I guess the Mormon shorthand here would be “keys.” Supervision of priesthood ritual/acts=keys. This is what I meant by inherent. I don’t see a way to divorce keys from global (across populations/gender, etc.) supervision, at least in the current mental states associated with those ideas. This even gets invoked in, say, the presiding bishopric work in buying selling property.

  25. Ah, yeah, that does make sense.

  26. To church just announced a witness change to ordinances

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