A great deal of the discussion on women in the priesthood that I see happening right now concerns our efforts to control and propagate various narratives. Personally, I find our current default narratives even more upsetting than our current practices.
Based on my experience in the church and discussion with others about this issue, here are four familiar ways in which we try to reconcile (and console) ourselves concerning our current practice of denying ordination to all of our members:
- We blame God. God wants it this way and is the ultimate cause for why it is this way.
- We blame reality. This option is often used to prop up #1 (sometimes as a means to exculpate God). We offer various vague metaphysical speculations concerning the nature of women and men and the priesthood: like the fact of uncreated intelligence, it simply is and must be this way.
- We blame ourselves. We’re not yet ready for it. Or we (i.e., women) don’t want it. We haven’t yet sufficiently sought after this blessing. We haven’t matured or become sanctified to the point that we can receive this blessing. We look forward to the day that it can come.
- We blame our predecessors. Joseph Smith tried to institute an egalitarian priesthood, but chained in the shackles of a deeply sexist 19th century culture our predecessors couldn’t accept it. Declaring to God that we had enough, God responded by gradually allowing even those priesthood privileges that women in the church enjoyed in former times to wither.
Whichever of these is right (or even if they are all wrong together), the narrative that we choose reveals a great deal about us.
More than anything I want to simply point out that what we choose IS a choice. We can’t avoid the personal moral wounds our current practices inflict on us. We have no official explanation. And so we’re left to self-medicate by choosing our narrative.
I think that some combination of choices 1 and 2 are our default position. That is, I believe these are the choices that it is easiest to get away with in our present culture and the ones that we most often hear in our public discourse. If this is right, then the choice that we have collectively made and support strikes me as more problematic than our policies banning women from both priesthood and the ruling councils of the church. It manifests not only a fantastic lack of creativity, but also a deeply ugly vision of God and the universe. They are also an abnegation our own agency and responsibility in a way that #3 & 4 are not.
Choice on this matter doesn’t have to be merely self-medication. We fought a war in heaven over choice. Choice can and should be exalting. Choice can facilitate or serve as an impediment to faith. Why on earth would we want our default to be one that cosmologically constrains men and women, forcing them to simply cope with injustice? We need to use our agency to inspire rather than undermine faith.
One more default that I want to draw attention to. Particularly in the current climate where conversations about women and the priesthood are common, we struggle over the narrative for why women might want the priesthood. I think that once again we have a revealing default: that women are “aspiring” in the pejorative sense of that term. They are un-virtuously ambitious and disciples of Uzzah, trying to steady the ark.
But we have another powerful and ennobling narrative that ought to have at least as much purchase in our culture for explaining this situation. We can champion the narrative of Abraham. Namely, that “there [is] greater happiness and peace and rest for [us],” that we all can seek for our Sisters to obtain “the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto [they] should be ordained to administer the same,” for our Sisters to “bec[o]me . . . rightful heir[s] . . . High Priest[esses], holding the right belonging to the fathers.” Women who seek after the priesthood are as Abraham, they are “follower[s] of righteousness, desiring also to be [those] who possess great knowledge, and to be . . . greater follower[s] of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and to be . . . [mothers] of many nations.” This narrative exalts women and places their righteous desires after greater blessings in the context of inheriting their divine birthright. It is the more, not the less righteous option available to them, an inspired desire to seek after greater privileges, greater opportunities to serve, greater opportunities to unite the human family in the exalting covenants of God.
As far as we know, the priesthood is such that one day, our daughters will be able to nobly rise up and seek after the privilege of their Mothers.
The reality is, our current denial of priesthood to women is a form of violence. While this claim obviously says something about my personal feelings on the matter, it is meant here simply as a description. I think everyone in my Elders Quorum two weeks ago poignantly felt the uncomfortable weight of this burden when one of our newer members naively asked about whether we can be sealed to a second spouse when the first has died. The way in which we squirmed together highlights the fact that the violence being done here is not simply violence against women.
I find the most (though certainly not the only) problematic aspect of the way in which the priesthood currently operates is its intertwining with church governance. That’s where the most conspicuous violence comes in. Rather than functioning merely as a means to conduct authorized and transcendently efficacious rituals, we talk about priesthood as being the means by which God and God’s elect govern God’s Kingdom. What’s more, we place tremendous stock in Mormonism as a way of life, as the animating cultural force of a contemporary, globalized people. We then deny almost two thirds of our population even potential full enfranchisement in the church hierarchy—at the local, regional, and general levels. Not only do we deny them full participation in our community and it’s trajectory, we also deny ourselves the ability to give full credence and consideration to those issues for which women are more acute observers. We continue to do this long after the social context in which the church is inevitably imbedded has recognized the pernicious nature of gendered apartheid. Additionally, it flies in the face of many of our cherished doctrines and personal practices. Our exclusions of women are something that deeply and inescapably affects us all in a morally violent way.
Just as significantly, we all flounder on the doldrums created by our bedrock belief in contemporary revelation and the vertiginous disorientation that comes in the complete absence of any official statement, scripture, or doctrine that can shed the light of understanding on our current practices. Consequently, we’re all left to struggle on our own to try and reconcile or meaningfully grasp why things are as they are.
Whichever way things ultimately go in official church practice, I hope that as a people we change and elect the noble rather than the damnable defaults.
 And I see it everywhere – not just the bloggernacle, but General Conference, my EQ meetings, discussions with family and friends, news media. Someone from church specifically solicited my opinion on the matter just this morning. This post is lifted from that conversation.
 Obviously there are more possibilities than these. In particular, this moral violence is irreconcilable for many who leave our ranks.
 That said, I’m far less convinced that #1 & 2 are actually believed by a majority of us.
 I don’t mean to imply that the burden is symmetrically shared.
 Obviously societies the world over – including our egalitarian democracies – continue to struggle with serious women’s issues. The ascendant value systems, however, have long since condemned blatant, gendered discrimination.
 This is true even (perhaps especially) for those who use the church to justify and revel in their sexist attitudes; facilitating self-destructive attitudes is still a form of violence.