Often appearing to be caught between pronounced sacramentalist tendencies (ordinances effect real change that goes beyond their symbolic import) and an underdeveloped theology regarding the significance of our so-called â€œnon-essentialâ€? ordinances (no transubstantiation for us!), we seem at a loss to explain clearly the difference between a non-priesthood holder reciting the blessing over the bread and water of which people then contemplatively partake, and the same situation when a priesthood holder pronounces it.
Implicit in Kiskilili’s question, it seems to me, that the presence or the absence of the priesthood must make sense in some way other than symbolic import because symbols are inherently conventional and there is no reason that we couldn’t simply rearrange the symbols differently and have the same meaning. Hence, the reference to transubstantiation, which presumably provides a powerful way of understanding the sacrament in other than symbolic terms.
Let us imagine, however, that we lived in Kiskilili’s proposed world. Anyone can recite the blessings, we eat, and then we contemplate. The question arises, of course, of why we say these particular prayers, why we eat and drink, and why we contemplate. In other words, we have a certain given order — the current method of administering the sacrament in the Church — and then we simply subtract an element — the priesthood. The question is why do we keep the elements that remain.
There are a couple of possible answers. One might be that we simply like the sacrament. The prayers and the ritual are aesthetically or emotionally satisfying. The contemplation seems to contribute to our sense of psychological well being. In short, we prefer to do this than something else. The problem with this approach, however, is that it reduces the ritual to a matter of preference. However, to the extent that what we hope for is what the words say — that the bread and water will be sanctified unto our souls — it seems clear that preference is too thin a basis for what we wish for. For something to be holy or sanctified is for it to partake of the divine. Hence, our preferences standing alone cannot sanctify or make holy unless we identify them with the divine. One could, of course, make this leap — and on some readings of Mormon theology it might not even be much of a leap — but the complete subjectification of the divine required for preference to be sanctifying seems one leap too far. To say that something is holy because we will it to be holy seems, to me, to deny God.
Another answer might be history and community. One adopts the prayers, bread, water, and contemplation because the ritual emerges from a history and a community that one identifies with. I suspect that something like this sort of an assumption lurks behind Kiskilili’s hypothetical. We accept the given order of the community and the history, subject to the prior constraints of justice. The allocation of priesthood authority is unjust, and accordingly we abandon those parts of the given order that claim the necessity of this injustice. This approach gets around the problems of preference. It can make sense of the giveness of the ritual. The question becomes whether or not history and community have the power to sanctify. Here I think that we are on much stronger ground. At the very least, history and community represent an interruption in our subjectivity. To have a history or to be part of a community is always to be part of an order that exceeds ones own preferences or choices. It is less clear whether or not partaking of the transcendent of history and community is the same as partaking of the transcendent of the divine.
A third answer is that our attachment to the giveness of the ritual lies in the identity of the giver. We adopt the prayers, bread, water, and contemplation because this is a ritual given to us by God. The bread and the water partake of the divine (are sanctified unto our souls) not because of a metaphysical transformation but because we experience the bread and water as sacred emblems of Christ in virtue of the fact that God gave us the ritual. It is holy — it partakes of divinity — because it was given by God, and to follow the strictures of the ritual is to participate in an order given by Him. This seems to provide us with a good account of how the ritual is sanctified or holy, but it makes the jettisoning of priesthood problematic. The sanctification and holiness involved in the ritual comes in its giveness from God. To the extent that we re-author the ritual, it ceases to be given. It is something that we have created. Which brings us back to the question of justice.
On the historical view of the sacraments, justice was invoked as a principle that justified the jettisoning of certain elements of the ritual. In this sense it was a political rather than an interpretive decision. Perhaps we can still invoke justice, but this time as a hermeneutic principle. We reject the necessity of priesthood because we don’t think that was actually part of the order given by God. God, after all, is just and would not give an unjust order. Hence, the requirement of priesthood must be a non-divine interpolation into the giveness of the ritual. In other words, it is an example of human rather than divine authorship. I tend to be a Quinian about our beliefs and interpretations. I think that virtually any particular statement can be rationally maintained so long as we make adjustments elsewhere in our beliefs. In this sense, there is nothing incoherent per se about affirming the “efficacy” of a sacrament prayer said without the benefit of the priesthood. I would want to see, however, what adjustments must be made to accommodate this belief.
If we are to maintain priesthood as part of the sacrament, however, it seems to me that we must take it as part of the giveness of the ritual. This, of course, will require adjustments in our other beliefs. It seems to me that we will need to do one of three things. First, find an understanding of male priesthood that does not violate contemporary ideas of justice and gender. I suspect that this is not possible, as a key concept of in those ideas of justice is, I take it, that no person can be excluded from a position of value on the basis of gender. It seems to me that the only strategy available here is to deny that holding the priesthood is a position of value, which I don’t find particularly plausible. Second, we can simply abandon or modify our sense of justice. This looks a bit more promising. For example, we might modify it to mean something like “no one can be excluded on the basis of gender from a position of governmental or business or educational value on the basis of gender,” or “no one can be excluded on the basis of gender from a position of value in an institution that they do not voluntarily participate in.” Still, this will create some problems. Third, we can simply deny that injustice is evidence of the absence of divinity. It may be that God is simply not all that concerned with gender justice in this context. This is a scary answer, as we would like to think that God is always concerned with justice. I suspect, however, that we are wrong about this.