A few months ago in Relief Society, our lesson was on the sacrament. My nine months pregnant body was uncomfortably wedged in a green padded chair, and I felt hungry and cantankerous. The teacher had us look at a picture of a family receiving the sacrament bread from a Deacon. We were instructed to list what we saw, what we thought, and what we wondered about the people and the event depicted.
During the silence of the “I wonder” exercise, I thought, I wonder how different this picture would look if a young woman was serving this family instead of a young man.
I wonder if women or young women will ever again be granted opportunities to participate in preparing, administering, or performing this ordinance.
I wonder if women will ever hold the priesthood.
And then, as the teacher asked us to share, I thought, I wonder what would happen if I raised my hand and said what I was just thinking.
And you know, I almost did it. In a “non-threatening way,” of course, probably prefaced with a “now, don’t anybody freak out–this is rhetorical!” But apparently my nine months pregnant self still had some inhibitions left because I sat quietly for the rest of the lesson. Facilitating an open discussion about gender inequities in the church or even raising hypothetical questions just isn’t done. It’s taboo. I took up a large amount of space in my chair that day, but I felt small.
At the beginning of the lesson, we listened to an anecdote about Howard W. Hunter. His father was not a member of the church and would not allow him to be baptized. When Howard turned 12, the age when all the other boys received the priesthood, he was devastated that he couldn’t do the same. He was uncomfortable during the sacrament because he so wanted to serve. Eventually, his father granted permission, and Howard was happily baptized, ordained, and able to participate in administering the sacrament.
It was a nice anecdote (though tone deaf in light of the church’s new policy which prohibits until age 18 the baptisms/ordinations of the children of gay couples), but it made me reflect on the contrast between 12 year-old-boys and girls in the church. I remember turning 12. I remember my male peers getting ordained and passing the sacrament. I remember feeling confused and sad and a bit angry that I couldn’t have the same privilege. But a part of me knew, even then, that those were feelings I couldn’t talk about. They were feelings I wasn’t supposed to have. It was fine and right for young Howard to feel this grief: he was a boy. For me, a girl, it was not.
I recently read a beautifully written article commemorating the end of the priesthood/temple ban for black people in 1978. It talked about how the prophet at the time, Spencer Kimball, had spent months pondering, fasting, and praying because he wanted to know if this policy (considered doctrine at the time) should change.
From the article: “As congregations of believers grew in Ghana and Nigeria…President Spencer W. Kimball witnessed their faithfulness and became increasingly preoccupied with how to help them grow in the faith….By early 1978, President Kimball was regularly praying in the temple for revelation about extending priesthood ordination and temple blessings to black members of the Church. He spoke at length with his counselors in the First Presidency and with members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on the subject and invited them to make it a matter of study and prayer.
“On June 1, 1978, President Kimball met with the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the temple. He asked once again for their thoughts and counsel concerning the restriction and then prayed for revelation.” 
President Kimball and the apostles present received a strong and clear answer. A week later, a letter went out to all the congregations of the church announcing the lifting of the ban.
He later said of this experience, “I had a great deal to fight, of course, myself largely, because I had grown up with this thought that Negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life till my death and fight for it and defend it as it was. But this revelation and assurance came to me so clearly that there was no question about it.” (Deseret News, 1/7/1979)
When I read this, it filled me with a deep longing. The wish of my heart is for the current leadership of the church to focus as single-mindedly on expanding women’s roles and opportunities in the church as the former leadership did for black members in 1978. It is possible that this is happening even as I write. Indeed, over the past few years there have been a few changes–some very small, some more significant–that suggest that the church is slowly moving toward more equitable practices.
Despite these few changes, I remain very discouraged. We are still a long, long way off, and for every encouraging change, there has been an equally troubling one. Recent actions suggest the church is in a period of retrenchment, not one of making the tent bigger, more inclusive, or more egalitarian. There is an abundance of changes–large and small–in policy and practice (not necessarily doctrine) that the church could very easily implement that would expand opportunities for women’s service and participation, but they do not happen. Church headquarters is silent, and orthodox members in the pews are too uncomfortable or unwilling to recognize or discuss the need for reform.
I think I could handle these challenges with much less off-and-on angst if there were either reform from the top or support at the bottom. If we could have discussions in the pews or in our classes where we could all share our experiences openly without fear of being shamed, shunned, corrected, or released from callings. If we could truly listen and learn from each other and seek to understand, despite differing viewpoints.
I love President Kimball’s humility in the quote above: he was prepared to fight for the rest of his life defending the priesthood/temple ban because it was what he’d always believed to be the will of God, but he opened himself to the possibility that maybe he’d been wrong, that maybe there was a better way, that maybe God had more in store for the church than he could imagine with his current understanding.
I don’t think God generally smacks any of us–church leaders included–over the head with revelation we’re not ready to receive. Far be it from me to mandate what that revelation should or could or might be, but I will continue to speak up where I can, to sit out this period of retrenchment as patiently as I can, and to wait as hopefully as I can for God’s full will for His/Their daughters to be revealed.
ElleK is a writer, a reader, a teacher at heart, and a former and future professional who is, at present, mothering at home. She listens to NPR in the car, sings in the shower, and crusades from her couch. Women’s issues in the church are not a pebble in her shoe; they are a boulder on her chest.