I recently read Catherine Worthington’s guest post at The Exponent, and felt like I should add my voice to the conversation about female ordination. As the Mormon feminist pro-ordination movement has gained momentum, I’ve found myself feeling neutral towards it, at best; mostly, I disagree. Granted, I definitely support everyone speaking up about it, whether I agree with them or not. I’ve even shared the OrdainWomen.org link with friends and family members, encouraging them to give it some thought. My reasons for not supporting the recent movement for female ordination are similar to Worthington’s. I’ll give a disclaimer regarding my personal investment in the outcome of the pro-ordination movement: I’m not a woman. I’m also not committed to (or planning on) remaining Mormon for the rest of my life, so the outcome may never affect me very personally. I hope you’ll still take my ideas into consideration, but I can understand if you feel like my relationship with Mormonism disqualifies me from making the kind of commentary I’m about to engage in.
I consider myself a feminist. So, why don’t I support recent efforts toward female ordination in the LDS church? I’m going to borrow heavily from Worthington because she hit the nail on the head in some important ways. At the end of the day, ordination is not a right that anyone is entitled to. Equality under the law is a right; equality under church policy, practice, or doctrine is not. I personally believe that the LDS church does not treat men and women equally, but I’ll add two footnotes to that: One, my diagnosis is based on secular standards of equality. Two, I can’t confirm that the secular standards of equality that I grew up with and believe in are the same standards that God uses. The pro-ordination movement follows the argument that (a) the current church practice of ordaining only males is not egalitarian by secular standards, and that (b) the church should ordain women. The assumption there is that the church’s practices should be influenced by secular standards. I’m not saying that some of the church’s practices don’t correlate with secular principles, but I don’t have much evidence that they have an imperative to do so (in fact, the scripture that comes to mind seems to suggest the opposite). The All are Alike Unto God petition movement has adopted 2 Nephi 26:33 as a potential insight into God’s standards of equality (and I’m sure other scripture passages support their conclusion). Fundamentalist LDS polygamist groups have adopted statements by Mormon prophets and scripture passages as evidence that God’s people should practice the eternal principle of plural marriage. Are they both right? Are they both wrong? Is one right and the other wrong? With personal revelation, each individual might find out for herself or himself. But as for what practices the Mormon church establishment adopts/endorses/teaches? That depends on what the prophets and apostles receive, or believe to receive, or claim to receive, from God. These two non-hierarchical insurrections within Mormonism are examples of individuals or groups either believing that they know God’s ways/will better than the prophets and apostles do (or perhaps just before they do), or just wanting their well-thought, prayerfully-considered ideas to be adopted by the church establishment.
Pro-ordination statements that simply encourage the church establishment’s leaders to consider changing the status quo are hugely different from pro-ordination statements that call for the ordination of women outright or assert that female ordination is the only acceptable outcome. I don’t really have a problem with the former. Some personal experiences may help illustrate my feelings about the contrast between asking the establishment to prayerfully review the current practice and calling for the establishment to change. When I served a two-year LDS mission, I became very uncomfortable with the prevalence of confirmation bias in the church. Missionaries ask investigators to pray about the truthfulness of the message in order to seek knowledge from God. That part is pretty straightforward. However, because missionaries often already knew the truthfulness of the restoration of the gospel for themselves, sometimes they weren’t completely open to the variety of answers that people received. Some people prayed and got the answer that the church was not true, and others felt they received an answer that the church was good and perhaps even true, but there was no need for them to change from their own religion (and I’m sure there are other answers people have received). However, to someone who already knows that the Mormon church is God’s true church and that God wants everyone to join it, it doesn’t make sense that God would lead someone away from the Mormon church, and many missionaries treated investigators’ answers as invalid. As a result, missionaries often encouraged investigators to pray until they got a confirmation of the truthfulness of the restored gospel. To me, that was a completely different prospect than asking God for a confirmation if the restored gospel was true. I don’t think we should claim to know the answers to our (or anyone else’s) prayers before we have received that answer.
Personally, the concept of an omnipotent God has always been difficult for me to wrap my head around, but what bothered me more than the logical stumbling blocks were the ethical stumbling blocks. If God had the ability to end suffering, why would God choose not to do that? By any standard I was familiar with and held myself to, if I had the ability to alleviate someone’s suffering and I didn’t, then I would consider myself partly responsible for that suffering. In many courts of law, God would be considered an accessory or maybe even an accomplice to many crimes. It doesn’t make sense to me to believe in a criminal or malicious loving God. Eventually, I resolved that perhaps God has reasons I can’t understand, or maybe God is even bound by eternal principles that I don’t know. I totally agree that by any standard I’m familiar with, the church falls short on gender issues. But I can’t be sure that God wants the church to follow those standards, especially considering there are other secular standards God doesn’t seem to follow.
I can’t say whether all pro-ordination Mormon feminists are adopting one stance or the other, but I do feel as though the general movement performs a bit of a bait-and-switch in order to dodge criticism. I felt that something similar happened during the weeks leading up to Wear Pants to Church Day, as well. For instance, the way I understood the event (which, granted, could have been misguided), the purpose was for Mormons to attend in visible solidarity with other Mormons who recognized troubling gender issues in the LDS church. There were many critics, but what I found the most odd were some of the responses to those critics. Some critiques were of the statement of the event, either disagreeing with the statement or claiming that the nature of the statement made church an inappropriate place to make the statement. Those critics often received the response that there was no statement being made, but that people just wanted to wear pants to church. That answer did not sit well with me; I felt very strongly that the purpose of the solidarity was to make a statement acknowledging troubling gender issues in the Mormon church (although maybe the it’s-just-pants response only emerged because of some uninformed critiques regarding what types of clothing are and aren’t appropriate for women to wear). The parallel I see between this and the pro-ordination Mormon feminist efforts recently is that it seems that pro-ordination Mormon feminists have already determined what is right and acceptable for the Mormon church to do—ordain women—but are at times presenting their case and responding to critics as though they are doing nothing more than asking for the prophets and apostles to consider a change, and to take their questions to the Lord in prayer. Is this a big problem? I don’t know. I recognize that in critiquing a movement in which there is not perfect consensus, I may just be blending perspectives of individuals in a way that seems to highlight what I would consider a contradiction in the movement. I do think that pro-ordination feminists of all persuasions should be speaking up, but I also want to add my voice that I don’t support a pro-ordination movement that doesn’t acknowledge that God may have standards that are incompatible with the standards that seem just/right/ethical to us, and that at the end of the day, the prophet’s and apostle’s answer is the church establishment’s answer (not that I’m saying that individual members must agree with the church establishment), whether it makes sense to us or not.