I credit any awareness I have of gender issues in the church to the challenging, patient, and frank discussions that take place within the bloggernacle. Reading the first-hand experiences shared by many sincere sisters here has forced me to reconsider the paradigm I was comfortable in — the one where men and women have separate but equally valuable roles in God’s plan. Now I’m more inclined to view these strongly typed gender roles as reflective of the church’s situation in a specific time and culture.
This week I went with the missionaries to visit a less-active member in our ward. She is an amazing sister who has started attending church again recently. She is working through a lot of family drama, but has found strength in the Lord and in her faith. Since she is not deeply familiar with church doctrines, the missionaries have started visiting her weekly to study together from the Gospel Principles manual.
The lesson this week was on the sacrament. The lesson moved into a discussion on ordinances and the priesthood. This sister has not had the chance to enter the temple, so she asked several questions about the ordinances performed there. We talked a little about temple work, and the role of the priesthood in officiating in the ordinances. She asked, “You mean the men?” I said that was so. She asked if the women played a role in the temple ordinances. I replied that women and men each perform their separate duties. She told me that was all she needed to know.
Later in the lesson she asked how a man receives the priesthood. She’s single, but hopes to get married, so she wanted to know if she met a man and he was baptized, how does that work? We assured her that, if he’s active and worthy, he would have a hard time not getting the priesthood. Then she asked, “The priesthood means giving blessings, right?” So we explained that blessings are part of the priesthood, but that it also involves performing other ordinances, as well as serving in church leadership. The leadership part seemed to concern her, and she asked, “And what do the women do?”
This was the point where I realized that I could take this discussion in several different directions, about gender roles, church history, and the relative strengths of doctrines. However, I realized that I was in her home as a representative of the church, and so I chose to respond to her question in accordance with my understanding of current church doctrine. The best I could come up with to say was, “The church teaches that the divine role of women is motherhood.” As the words left my mouth, I could instantly feel how condescending they sounded. This sister is a mother of two grown children, and she understands (far better than I ever will) what it means to be a mother. But now that her children have moved out, what does the church offer her as a woman? I caught myself and talked about the roles women play in Relief Society, Primary, and Young Women’s. She got excited about the possibility of working with children in the Primary, and the conversation moved happily on from there.
Perhaps I’m making a bigger deal of this conversation than is warranted. The topic ended up being a non-issue in the lesson. Still, it was the disappointment in her countenance upon learning that the only men officiate in the church and its ordinances that stung me. And her question, “What do the women do?”, with it’s unspoken follow-up, “We’re important too, right?” I did the best I could to answer her question honestly and authoritatively, but I’m not satisfied with my answer to her. How would you respond?