I’ve been trying to put my finger on what is so troubling to me about some of the recent discussions of abortion. Aside from the distressingly obvious lack of female participants in the discussion, I think the thing that makes me twitchiest is the discussion of whether or not rape victims should be *allowed* to hear from a compassionate bishop that abortion is an acceptable course. I’ve been thinking a lot about how a bishop could provide appropriate and helpful counsel in that situation, and I have to say that I think the odds are stacked against him, even before he opens his mouth.
I have close friends who have been raped. Fortunately, none of them became pregnant as a result, so I haven’t seen anyone go through that agony. However, I *know* that for someone who has been recently raped, just being in a room alone with a man is often terrifying. To be in a room alone with a man who is telling you what a (male-imagined) God and the patriarchal Church expect you to do with your body–it’s overdramatic to say that would be like being raped again, but only a little.
Don’t forget that it hasn’t been so very long (25 years? at most) since the Church Handbook of Instructions was revised to relieve the bishop of the duty of deciding whether or not the woman was at fault for being raped. But we would be naive to think that no one who might be serving as a bishop does not still hold some of the attitudes that made that policy possible. I would hope that thinking and attitudes about rape have changed dramatically in the last few decades, but I would be scared to have to count on it. Even younger men, who didn’t grow up thinking that a woman who was raped had somehow invited it, may well have very strongly-held beliefs about abortion–several of the commenters on the abortion threads said things that would make me very afraid to go to them, if one of them were my bishop and I had been raped. I would be skeptical of their ability to receive revelation that runs counter to their strongly held political and religious beliefs. And I don’t think these views are terribly unusual in the Church. While I have great faith (knowledge, actually, because I’ve seen it happen) that the Spirit can transcend all kinds of foibles in Church leaders, it doesn’t always happen.
I can think of at least one other situation in which the mere fact of a bishop meeting alone with a woman creates a problem before he says anything, and that is in interviews, and especially confessional ones, with young women. It just isn’t OK for a grown man to be discussing a girl’s sexual behavior (or even the lack thereof) with her, alone, behind closed doors. I’ve had at least one bishop who prided himself on conducting “searching” (i.e. prurient) interviews with the youth; because I was in the YW presidency, I got to be there when he discussed the questions he would ask the youth. There is NO WAY I would have let my daughter be interviewed alone by this man (who was, btw, in all other respects that I know about, a good man and effective bishop). I’m frankly surprised that the fear of lawsuits has not changed this practice yet. While 99.5% of bishops are probably utterly trustworthy in this regard, there’s no reason to take chances–it would be perfectly possible to interview the young women with a parent or a YW leader present (for instance).
I believe that such practical problems argue strongly for an expanded leadership role for women in the church, even aside from the many doctrinal, theological, and historical reasons that can be adduced for widening the sphere of women’s participation in church leadership.