My Wife’s Exercise of the Priesthood in Our Home
(or Response to Alison part III)
Here a people of godly race are born for heaven;
the Spirit gives them life in the fertile waters.
The Church-Mother, in these waves, bears her children
like virginal fruit she has conceived by the Holy Spirit.
I love this inscription. For me, it makes of baptism the center of a multi-axes union of male and female, convert and community, earth and heaven – reminiscent of our earlier discussions, and a perfect preamble to this one.
(Actually, the preamble’s going to on for a while – impatient folk are welcome to skip down to the numbered list below.)
The reality is, there’s so much to discuss in the original issues raised in Alison’s “Serving on the Sidelines” post that I’ll never get around to saying all I’d like to (here’s part I and part II). But I need to at least get through part III – the practical stuff. Alas, I don’t think I’ll ever get to part IV. In part II I discussed ways in which my wife and I united together (granted, asymmetrically) in both the conception and the birth of our children. Part III is meant to compliment that discussion – ways in which we have or plan to unite together in carrying out priesthood ordinances.
First preface: much of the discussion we’ve been having is a subset of the question concerning the intertangled issues of women, priesthood, and authority in the Church. We generally do a very poor job articulating the reasons for the structural distinctions we make. Everyone seems to have their own thoughts, but there’s almost nothing we can point to on an authoritative level. In part this is surely because if anything “makes reason stare,” it’s the current, unjustified distinctions between the way men and women operate in both the institutional and theological system of Mormonism (unjustified in the literal sense – we don’t have a rational set of justifications). This fact is becoming more and more conspicuous in our contemporary cultural context. It really bothers some of us, while others of us find our overall experience in the church so compelling and exalting that the in-egalitarian aspects of the Church don’t bother us, perhaps because of an implicit faith that however things appear, they’re as they should be (and then there’s all the rest of us in the middle somewhere). Often, this leads to a polarized debate between the women-ought-to-be-ordained camp vs. the those-calling-for-female-ordination-lack-faith-or-are-apostate camp. The dichotomy’s an unfortunate one and the discussions manifest a serious lack of theological creativity – which is, perhaps one of the reasons why as a people, we need prophetic revelation on the matter. All of this is the concise version of part IV – the part I’m fairly well convinced I’ll never get to. So for now it’s just a preface.
Second preface: I have a fundamental faith in the Church – above and beyond my faith in the gospel. Part of this is a nuanced optimism in the Church’s ability to transcend itself and progress, all the while fulfilling the basic measure of its creation. I’m not opposed to discussion about how we think the Church as an institution can improve. But in all of my conversation I want, at the end of the day, to have had a faithful response to the challenges faced in life, and this includes challenges I’ve faced in the church. This colors my approach in the present post: I want it to be a faithful one, a discussion of concrete things we can do now to improve the situation without allowing that discussion to be tainted by bitterness, cynicism, or demands that outstrip our lay positions. I’ll do my best here in the OP and hope you’ll all do your best in the comments to follow.
Third preface: Kristine said earlier,
One thing [that] makes these discussions [frustrating] is that we fail to make the distinction between the practical and the ethical discussions that are bound up in this. At the practical level, many (most) Mormon women offer meaningful service and feel good about it. Most Mormon leaders respect women and treat them well in day-to-day practice. But there’s still an ethical problem–the fact that women (and men) find ways to work around and through an institution and set of rules that are fundamentally sexist and unjust does not ameliorate the injustice at the level of institutional ethics.
I think this comment is insightful. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that there’s also a significant level of practical dissatisfaction. Likewise, I’m convinced that one of the most effective and faithful things we can do to positively address and influence the institutional structure (and hence the ethical level of the problem) is to recognize and make the most of the practical freedom and room for creativity that exists within the church – and specifically within our own families. So far in these posts we’ve had a number of helpful suggestions, mostly concerning how men (and women!) can change their demeanor and attitudes concerning women, women’s roles, women’s service, and particularly how we can pay better attention to the meaning and implication of our rhetoric. This is something we can all gain from, and there’s more to be said on the matter.
Nonetheless, often times we either fail to realize the creativity that is not only allowed in the church, but is an essential merging of our agency with the Lord’s in order to work out our own salvation and build the kingdom of God. The Relief Society was not a program begun by “the church,” or carried out originally under its direction. Rather, it was started by women seeking to be anxiously engaged in a good cause – one that inspired the prophet Joseph concerning how the women could be organized in order to assist the church in bringing about the fullness of the priesthood. So, once again, I’m going to focus my discussion here on practical suggestions that I think all of us can do within our present context that will more fully incorporate our Mormon cosmic ideal: men and women, united together in how they administer the gospel (including priesthood ordinances) within their homes in order to raise up our children in righteousness. The following list contains practices that have already been a blessing in our family, or thoughts we’ve had on how we might do things differently in the future. I suspect that at least some of these practices are shared by many of you, and I’m very interested in additional practices that have united your families together in sacred Mormon ritual.
1. Dedicating the home: This Mormon ritual, around since the early days of the church, is one that has continued to be performed by both men and women. Like the dedication of a grave, the dedication of a home can be performed by either sex – albeit women do so without invoking the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood. In addition to various traditions for preparing the home, our family gathers together to discuss what kind of home we want to have and what kind of blessing we want from the heavens. We then have the children offer prayers, culminating in Erin’s dedication of the home. Following her dedication, I invoke the Melchizedek Priesthood upon the dedication that has been offered.
Many feel that blessings in general are and ought to be spontaneous forms of communicated revelation – something that in its pure form occurs ex nihilo. I’m not opposed to this. But I’ve also been inspired by Joseph Smith on the matter. The dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple was an extended, collaborative process. If this kind of pre-meditated, revelatory process sufficed for the dedication of the world’s first (known) temple in 1766 years, we decided it was a process that would work for our own home as well.
2. Baby blessings: I know that this has been a sore spot for many women in the church. Having carried an infant for nine months, and often during the most intimate part of post-partum, babies are taken before the congregation and given a name and a blessing – entirely without the mother, who is not even allowed to stand in the all-male circle (I even know of bishops who have refused a specific request to allow the mother to hold the baby or even the microphone during the blessing – though I don’t know that there is anything official there). I think that there are ways to envision this ritual as a significant, social complimentarity – birth into the family and blessing within the community. Nonetheless, it is easy to see why many women feel their exclusion from this communal, founding ordinance an injustice.
Naming’s a big deal for Erin & I. Long before we (or at least, before she) considered marriage, we started having conversations about what to name our children. I’ve very much enjoyed the way we go through and try out names, and also been perfectly content to give my wife the final say (though we’ve operated on the basis of something close to mutual veto privileges). I think this is fairly common. But we don’t stop there in our joint preparations for the ordinance of naming and blessing.
Once again, Erin and I sit down together, discussing our new infant, our hopes, our intuitions, past blessings, and why we’ve chosen that specific name. We seek after the spirit of the Lord and together compose a blessing – or the outline of one. I then get up before the congregation and with the other men in my family name and bless our infant. It’s a little like Joseph telling Emma from Carthage to write out the blessing she wanted, and that he would sign it, making it so. Only our process is more collaborative.
Another fairly common practice is for women to knit or otherwise sew the blessing gown or blanket. For some, this wouldn’t be a meaningful form of service, but for others I know it can be deeply meaningful and an act of love. It reminds me of women baking sacrament bread – another Mormon tradition wherein men and women unite in the carrying out of holy ritual, and one with a significant history.
3. Blessings of healing and comfort: Women have a long and ennobling tradition of laying on hands in order to wash, anoint, bless, heal, and comfort the afflicted. For any who have not yet had the opportunity, I recommend reading Jonathan Stapley and Kris Wright’s article in the Winter 2011 Journal of Mormon History entitled “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism.” Perhaps the most recent example of divinely sanctioned female participation that I know of is found in Ed Kimball’s diary and concerns a blessing given to his father, President Spencer W. Kimball:
Dad had just been given some codeine for headache; he had not said much according to the nurse, but he had asked for a blessing. . . . Pres. Benson was taking a treatment at the Deseret Gym and could not come right away, so the security man had called Elders McConkie and Hanks; Mother was glad. Elder Hanks anointed Dad and Elder Mc- Conkie sealed the anointing as I joined them. At Elder McConkie’s sug- gestion Mother also placed her hands on Dad’s head. That was unusual; it seemed right to me, but I would not have felt free to suggest it on my own because of an ingrained sense that the ordinance is a priesthood ordinance (though I recalled Joseph Smith’s talking of mothers bless- ing their children). After the administration Mother wept almost un- controllably for some minutes, gradually calming down.
Whatever the current guidance (or lack thereof) concerning women offering or taking part in blessings of healing and comfort, women’s direct participation in this manner undeniably contradicts our current cultural norms and is apt to make many feel very uncomfortable. This obviously defeats the purpose of giving such blessings.
I have often had the privilege of giving blessings to our children – usually at the request of either my children or my wife. During such times our children always sit in their mother’s lap, enfolded in her arms. Consequently, it is from within a familial embrace that my children hear whatever communication from the heavens I am able to give voice to. This asymmetric union has felt for me most closely akin to our likewise asymmetric partnering when we welcome our children into the world.
Not long ago, during an extremely stressful point in my life, I went to the home of some dear friends in order to seek a priesthood blessing. Prior to my receiving that blessing, the wife said a prayer, both invoking the spirit to be with us during that holy ritual and beseeching the heavens on my behalf. I was deeply moved, and the spirit in the room was undeniably altered. The blessing that followed was electric. I know that her prayer was as important to the efficacious nature of the blessing that I received as anything else that took place that night. The blessing I received was not separable from what she did, but in fact began with the prayer she uttered. Perhaps most importantly, it was an example of how a husband and wife can work in unison when giving blessings, and it has become another enriching tradition in our own family.
4. Baptism & Gift of Holy Ghost: My first ward mission leader and his wife, Pat & Gay Hayes, asked my companion and I to give the discussions to their soon-to-be eight year old son over the course of several months leading up to his baptism. This was holy time for me, where I basked in the wonderful spirit of their home and caught glimpses of how a celestial household operated, of how I wanted my own home to be. Leading up to our own son’s baptism my wife and I partnered in teaching Gaebriel about the covenants he was entering into and the Gift he was about to receive. This too was holy time – mini family home evenings with our son. This was his didache – imparted by both his parents.
One aspect of our own family’s didache was to talk to Gaebriel about activities surrounding his baptism that were important to him. Food and sometimes a gathering at the baptized’s home are common Mormon traditions and something that Gaebriel was excited for. A holy meal with the covenant community was an important part of early Christian baptisms as well – it was the first Eucharist for the initiated, often incorporating the symbolic elements of milk and honey. The origin of the agape feast is actually the first Eucharist of the newly baptized. Inspired by these traditions, my wife and our son worked together to create a highly symbolic meal for those who attended the baptism. The event that occurred with my son and I in the water gathered the community, and my wife and son worked to unite that community and meaningfully commemorate his baptism.
I’m not sure that those in attendance grasped the significance of the meal, even though our son was excited to tell them all about it. I think most of us are already well aware of the service that is both culturally expected and which women perform willingly in preparing food for our various gatherings and ritual practices. Unfortunately, I think we too often recognize its significance in an analogous manner to how we recognize those who set up the chairs or provide rides. Within your families and when you attend or participate in food preparation, you might also recognize the way that this act unites us to our Judeo-Christian roots, and elevate what is already a common practice to the greater significance it once had in ancestors’ ritual lives. The meal can indeed be a sacred corollary to the ordinance.
Also, while we do not have mothers stand as the official witnesses to a baptism, I think it crucial that we all recognize the mother as centrally playing this role – that she who gave her child a first birth and then helped to raise her child to be prepared to undergo a second birth is already an integral participant. It would be nice if we developed a tradition of placing a seat of honor from which the mother can witness her child’s rebirth.
Again, sewing baptismal clothing is another way for a mother to participate with her children in the water.
Finally, we’re all familiar with the language of the bestowal of the Gift of the Holy Ghost – the injunction to receive the Holy Ghost. The ordinance is sacred, a holy ritual that once again embeds the individual within the community. But as to lifelong efficacy, I’m reminded of Joseph’s well known quote that we “might as well baptize a bag of sand as a man if not done in view of the remission of sins and getting of the Holy Ghost.” We might as well bestow this Gift of the Holy Ghost on a bag of sand as our children if we do not then further help them to develop that Gift. Here is an area where both parents can work together, complimenting one another’s efforts to raise their children up in the spirit. “By learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus.” Like raising a child generally, raising them up to learn the Spirit of God is ideally performed as a lifelong task of both parents.
We’ve not yet had a son ordained to the priesthood or a child go through the temple (where others and not just our own family will be involved). I’m not yet sure how we’ll approach these events, but I know we’ll work together as husband and wife to once again envelop our children in our joint efforts to impart these holy ordinances. If I had time I might speculate here. This list, however, is certainly sufficient to get the conversation started. Let me end by repeating: I don’t see these practices as a way for liberal Mormons to push the envelope or performatively lobby for women’s ordination to the priesthood – all of which is an entirely different discussion. Rather, I see it as husbands and wives actively sharing in the rituals and establishment of covenants, a way of working out together our ultimate goals in complimentary fashion. Among our greatest and most cherished beliefs is our own particular Mormon understanding of what it means that “Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.” Creatively and faithfully working out how to make our ritual practices reflect that belief has been among the most beautiful and meaningful aspects of our worship – quite explicitly our attempt to live up to every covenant we’ve made in the House of the Lord
I very much look forward to hearing the ways that the men and women in your family have united in ritual practice or your additional suggestions for how we might concretely do so.
[Note: I really am interested in your suggestions; I really am not interested in your criticism of my family’s pearls that I’ve placed here – so I will charitably thank you up front for any such concerns you may have for my eternal salvation, but ask that you leave it out of the comments].
 On the baptistery of the Lateran Basilica, inscription of Sixtus III, 432-440.
 Think Emma’s efforts leading to the revelation on the Word of Wisdom – but writ large. Joseph’s first two addresses to the Relief Society are very revealing on this note.
 I’ve already crammed too many prefaces and caveats up front, so I’m relegating this one to a footnote: Obviously I believe in the importance of families working together and seeking revelation in order to do things in a way that will be of greatest blessing to their families. What follows are suggestions – food for thought and discussion. It’s not a personal agenda that I’m trying to convince others to adopt. Rather, I’m hopeful that these concrete suggestions can facilitate generalizations that will be useful for your own thinking, discussing, praying, and working out a more perfect union in your own families.
 Kris Wright wrote a moving sermon on this that you can read in the Fall 2011 issue of Dialogue.
 Edward L. Kimball diary, September 7, 1979; quoted in “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism.” Another Kimball – Stanley, Ed’s cousin, who I met on my mission – told about giving a blessing to his long ill wife together with an RLDS Priestess (I don’t recall her actual office) who was a dear family friend. He anointed and she sealed. I can’t help but wonder if he and his wife were influenced by the experience of Pres. Kimball, who was a father figure in Stanley’s life.
 See Maxwell E. Johnson, Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation.
 Joseph Smith, 9 July 1843.
 Joseph Smith, instructions to the Twelve, 27 June 1839.