by Catherine Worthington
When I first began to hear rumblings that several groups were advocating for the ordination of LDS women, my immediate and somewhat surprising reaction was one of dismay. As a self-professed feminist, I realized that I needed to more closely examine that reaction. I am passionately interested in issues involving women and equality, and I have been deeply troubled by some of the cultural attitudes and practices within the Church that silence the voices and diminish the value of women. So what is it that makes me so uncomfortable with the current push for ordination?
I guess to begin with, despite my respect for many of the women (and men) involved and my genuine sympathy for their frustrations, the sinking feeling I experienced when I realized that this was a legitimate movement came from a sense that the modus operandi felt wrong. I’m concerned about the whole approach, which is decidedly secular. It doesn’t surprise me that Kate Kelly, one of the founders of Ordain Women, is a human rights law attorney. I’m sure she’s a very good one and I applaud any and all efforts to further the cause of human rights worldwide. But ordination to the priesthood is not a human right. It is not any kind of a “right.” Trying to approach an essentially spiritual issue from the perspective of secular activism is neither reasonable nor appropriate. The Church is not a political entity. It is the body of Christ, headed by Him and led on the earth by living prophets who hold the keys to revelation for the Church as a whole. This is our theology. If we really believe this, then our actions must reflect that belief. As humble disciples of Jesus Christ, shouldn’t our approach be to ask for further light and knowledge rather than to make demands?
I was initially encouraged when I read this from Kate Kelly in The Salt Lake Tribune:
“We sustain the prophet and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and ask them to prayerfully consider this change,” she said. “We believe that what we are doing demonstrates our faith in the gospel.”
This is an approach I can get behind. Yes, by all means, let’s ask our leaders to prayerfully consider possible changes.
But when I go to the official Ordain Women website (ordainwomen.org), I find a very different rhetoric.
“We call for the ordination of women and their full integration into the governance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
“. . . it is clear that Mormon women must be ordained in order to be full and equal participants in their Church.”
This is the language of the secular world. Can we really say in one breath, “We sustain the prophet,” and then in the next, “We call for the ordination of women”? Do we really presume to have the insight, the perspective, and the knowledge to proclaim that “it is clear that Mormon women must be ordained in order to be full and equal participants in their church”? This kind of peremptory rhetoric is not going to get us anywhere, and may, in fact, hurt the larger cause. Which leads me to my next concern.
A common (and very legitimate) fear among those who have earnestly sought for more equitable treatment of women for more years than some of the current agitators have been alive is that the Ordain Women movement is going to set back the cause of feminism in the Church a decade or more. Some of us have worked so hard, hoped and prayed so fervently, and waited so patiently for so many years for the very changes we are now beginning to see that it would be incredibly discouraging to watch it all come a’tumbling down. We have been heartened by the slow but steady progress that has been made in recent years (women speaking (and now praying) in General Conference, the genuine effort for more inclusion of women and greater respect for their voices in the councils of the Church at all levels, the insistent and persistent teaching that husbands and wives are equal partners in the home, the universal condemnation of unrighteous dominion and abuse of any kind, the changes in missionary age and policy, etc.). Things are happening, sisters! Attitudes are changing, views are broadening. Some may feel that it is too little, too late, but we must be level-headed and we must be wise. We must take care not to undermine any progress that has been made or trigger any kind of institutional resistance through haste, militancy, or divisiveness. We are moving in the right direction. We need to keep in mind, as Elder Holland reminds us here, that “this is a divine work in process.”
As sons and daughters of God working together for the betterment of the Kingdom here on earth, it is essential that we comport ourselves always as “hopeful disciples of our gentle Christ” (President Uchtdorf). This means that we seek God’s will and not our own, that we put away “all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour” and be “kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven [us]” (Ephesians 4: 31-32).
In addition to my misgivings about the tone and general approach of the Ordain Women movement, I’m also concerned that it focuses on the wrong question (“Why don’t women have the priesthood?) and, in so doing, actually obscures the real issue.
What is the real issue? What do women really want? President Linda K. Burton, General Relief Society President, thinks that the majority of women in the Church want “the blessings, not the authority” of the priesthood (here). It’s clear, though, from reading ordainwomen.org and similar sites that some women do want the authority as well. But according to Robert Putnam and David Campbell, authors of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, only 10% of women in the Church say they would like to be ordained to the priesthood. Another poll (here), shows that number to be 8%.
Obviously, then, the majority of LDS women are not interested in ordination. So what do we want?
We want to feel valued and empowered. But validation and empowerment isn’t going to come through ordination to the priesthood. It’s going to come through understanding the power we already have. It’s going to come through knowing who we are. This, I believe, is what most faithful Latter-Day Saint women truly want; this is what we long for in our heart of hearts–to know who we are. We want to know what it means to be a woman in God’s Kingdom and in the eternities. We want to know that we are relevant in the grand scope of things, that we matter in crucial and enduring ways beyond our ability to reproduce. We want to know where to look to see what we can become. We want to know our Mother.
We want to know our Mother.
This, I believe, is the crux of the matter. This is the core issue we should be focusing on.
The fact that we have a Mother in Heaven is a well-established (and utterly beautiful) part of our doctrine. The history of this doctrine has been thoroughly researched, documented, and written about here and elsewhere. The existence of our divine Mother has been acknowledged by leaders of the Church from the earliest days until now. This doctrine is even referenced in two official statements by the First Presidency of the Church.
In 1909: “All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity.” (“The Origin and Destiny of Man,” Improvement Era 12 (November 1909): 78.)
And in 1995: “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny.” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign 25 (November 1995): 102.)
I have realized for some time that the source of my own deepest pain with regard to my womanhood has nothing to do with not having the priesthood (which, actually, I believe I do have–but that’s an essay for another time!). What I yearn for is not ordination, but a more open and official acknowledgement of our Mother in Heaven and a clearer understanding of Her nature, for with that will come so much else–divine empowerment, a sure knowledge of Woman’s central place in the Plan, and an absolute conviction of our eternal worth and relevance. I also believe that many, if not all, of the practices and prohibitions that are most troubling to women in the Church would gradually disappear as the majesty and centrality of our Heavenly Mother are understood and embraced by men and women alike.
Why is it that we don’t more openly recognize the existence of our divine Mother? What, exactly, is so threatening about this truth? Why couldn’t the Young Women’s theme be changed so that our beautiful, strong young women throughout the Church could stand every week and proclaim: “We are daughters of a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother who love us.” Or even, “We are daughters of Heavenly Parents who love us.” Can you imagine the difference this would make in these young women and their sense of who they are and who they are destined to become? Why is this topic still so suspect?
If the family unit is so important, so crucial to God’s plan (and I believe it is!), and if families here on earth are reflections of familial relationships in heaven, then where is our Mother? As Julie M. Smith wrote in her article, “Strands of Priesthood,” posted on the Times and Seasons blog on April 1, 2013:
“Think about it this way: if you took what Mormonism teaches about Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother and mapped that onto a couple on earth, you’d get a stay-at-home dad and a mother who is–I don’t know–a medical resident or deployed to a foreign battlefield or maybe took a job in another country and so she literally never sees her children. (In fact, the kids can’t even Skype her.)”
I long for a sanctioned connection with my Heavenly Mother. I yearn for a truer understanding of who She is, because until I have that, I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand who I am as an eternal being. The ongoing dismissal of Her and the unspoken taboo of even speaking about Her creates a gnawing ache inside me, not only because it makes me feel like a motherless child, but because it causes me to doubt my own significance and relevance in the eternities. Am I to have no connection with my spiritual children? Will they never acknowledge me or speak to me? It is a devastatingly crushing prospect to contemplate.
These, then, are the questions I believe we, as modern day daughters of Zelophehad should be pleading with our leaders to prayerfully consider and seek enlightenment on: Who is our Mother in Heaven? Where is She? What is Her nature? What is Her role in the great Plan of Happiness? Why is it not appropriate for us to speak to Her?
These are the questions that will lead to the true empowerment of women, not “Can we have the priesthood?”.
I believe that we already have at least the seedlings of answers to these questions in our scriptures, in the temple ceremonies, in the words of our leaders, and in our own hearts if we but have eyes to see and ears to hear. And there is so much yet to be revealed to us, “many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God,”–glorious, ennobling truths so magnificent in scope and in brilliant in substance that our mortal minds cannot begin to conceive of them. But we must humbly and earnestly seek these things, and we must prepare ourselves in every way to be ready and worthy to receive the great outpouring of truth and knowledge that will come.
Catherine Worthington is a wife, mother, writer, and teacher. She currently serves in an auxiliary presidency. She loves running, knitting, and crime TV.