What Do You Do With a Problem Like the Priesthood?

We’ve been forced by the Ordain Women story to talk about the Mormon Church as if it represents the world at large. What a coup for a Church that, although it shares the modern world’s basic premises, remains somewhat fringe. For example, Mormonism shares with Christianity the concept of male priesthood. However, this comparison is complicated by the fact that some Christian denominations ordain women. It’s also complicated by the fact that Mormon priesthood is extreme by any standards.

A few facts about Mormon priesthood:

In the Mormon church, the priesthood is not a vocation. It is a natural result of being male. Boys become deacons at twelve but theoretically even younger boys outrank their own mothers.

Generally, priesthood is like a male trade organization with the purpose of controlling something that men don’t rightfully own—female fertility. This is doubly true of Mormonism. At its worst, it operates on the assumption that there is just not enough room in the female role for two genders and one of the genders has to go. Hence we see lip service for mothers combined with policies and attitudes that neuter women even as they carry out their duties.

My list of gripes about Ordain Women:

1. Mormon Bishops are appointed and then they choose their councilors. So even if women were ordained they could easily be denied higher offices. We know this happens because it’s already taking place in denominations that ordain women. How is this different from feminist strategy in the corporate world where women struggle to advance, and where even those who attain high positions are paid much less than men with the same title?

2. Women who succeed in the corporate world don’t naturally implement policies that help women. This problem is likely to be compounded in the Mormon Church where women are devoted to its doctrine and its leadership. Further, I predict that if the brethren were forced to appoint women as bishops, they would choose alpha-females—successful women who have no problem with anything they see or experience in the church.

3. Non-Mormons may not be aware that bishops are not paid! Nor are they trained to fill such a responsible position. In addition, they can be ‘released’ at any time. Because bishops carry out their duties while holding down regular jobs, they don’t normally object to being released. And because Mormon priesthood has nothing in common with a fight for income or advancement, no aspect of labor law could address it. Given this reality, what do you think would happen to a female bishop if she were willing to go against church policy?

4. A large majority of Mormon women don’t want the priesthood. Also, they tend to trust those who are in authority. Ordain Women carries out its tactics in spite of this. In the process they give us the worst of both worlds. Their tactics acknowledge church authority, allowing it to publicly demonstrate its power, while ignoring the real injustices perpetrated on those they claim to love.

Here is an example of the church’s contortions of femaleness as they play out among its female membership.

There was a girl in our ward (I’ll call her ‘A’) who used to babysit our kids. She loved to babysit and she loved our kids. She was an open, kind person. A’s sister (I’ll call her ‘B’) worked for a prestigious organization. She didn’t live in our town but she used to visit her family there. Some of the young women admired B and liked to sit by her in church. One day one of these women told her, “A just wants to get married and have kids.”

B answered, “She might as well; that’s all she’s good for.”

You’d think that if a safe haven exists in this world for a woman who just wants to get married and have kids, it would be in the Mormon Church, but it doesn’t work that way. These young women were in the minority, but I’m still amazed that they remained in the church even though they rejected the ideal of motherhood. More to the point, they betrayed something that should be acknowledged as basic in any religious tradition: the kindness, humility, and good will of A.

The majority of women I knew wanted the ideal, and part of the ideal is the male priesthood. So here I am arguing for the ideal of a tradition that I’m no longer a part of. What I’m really arguing for is the value of a woman’s noble ownership of the ideal and her efforts to achieve it. I think it’s possible to pursue this ideal in a noble way, even though it’s imbedded in a troubling environment. It’s when the ideal is used to entrap and coerce that it becomes a problem. On the surface, female ordination seems to offer a solution, but for the reasons I’ve stated above, it’s no solution at all.

There comes a time when one’s spiritual convictions must prevail. I don’t see that happening with Ordain Women. Perhaps we should assume this movement is not the result of spiritual convictions, but an example of feminist strategy transplanted into a realm that feminists don’t fully understand.

Toward a Solution

Any effort to help women must begin by discovering and restoring to the female gender the role of motherhood with all the authority it implies. Male priesthoods would like you to believe they have done this by promoting large families and a mother’s willingness to submit to male authority. They even have the audacity to call it righteousness. But anthropologically speaking, these things are a manifestation of the age-old reproductive strategy of the male of the species.