Last weekend, I attended Counterpoint 2013, a Mormon feminist conference hosted by the Mormon Women’s Forum. I’m sure others have and will continue to post about their insights throughout the bloggernacle, but I just want to record and share one small experience from the day and vent a little about some thoughts surrounding it.
As many of my own personal spiritual experiences do, it happened to me while I was singing with people. Vickie Eastman Flake was the recipient of the Eve Award, an honor given to one woman each year who has contributed to Mormon feminist scholarship, activism, and community, and as part of her acceptance lecture she had the audience sing God of Power, God of Right. She asked us, particularly the women present, to imagine while we sing the hymn that we have just been ordained, to feel that endowment of power and authority.
I began to sing the first verse with some trepidation- perhaps it’s that my YSA wards at BYU have simply avoided these more obscure hymns, or maybe it’s part of a broader church-wide trend, but I honestly could not remember ever having sung this hymn before. Vickie had played the first verse for us before we sang to familiarize us with the tune, but I still found myself stumbling all over the scale as I tried to fit the words to a harmony I could barely make out.
God of power, God of right,
Guide us with thy priesthood’s might.
Forge our souls in living fire;
Shape them to thy great desire.
As I mumbled the last line of that first verse, I remember reluctantly shrugging my shoulders a little as I thought, “Well- I can’t make it sound pretty, but I can at least do that thought exercise thing.” So as I took a deep breath in between verses, I focused solely on imagining that I had just been ordained to the priesthood in my church.
God of wisdom, God of truth,
Take us in our eager youth;
Lift us step by step to thee
Thru an endless ministry.
With my mind engaged in the emotion and thoughts of ordination, I sang the first two lines exactly in tune with the melody; and then abruptly stopped. I particularly remember how my voice seemed to flow effortlessly and without instruction in the flutter of notes set to “Take us in our eager youth.” I stopped singing because it was as if I was merely leaning into the faith in which I was raised. I imagined how I probably heard and sang this song various times growing up in the church, how singing the hymns in praise of God is second nature to me, how the rituals and rhetoric and emotions woven throughout Mormonism are an undeniable part of me. Without having been told or taught how to sing that song, it just came to me. “This is my language, these are my people,” I remember thinking.
In that moment of realizing how familiar and personal those words felt to me, I couldn’t help but cry out within myself that this, women being ordained in the LDS faith, is not bizarre. It is not an absurd potential abnormality to be dismissed.
I was born into this church. I have attended almost every Sunday of my life, I have paid tithing, and I have given many hours in various callings. I have fasted, prayed, read my scriptures, attended the temple, shared my testimony, and given out Book of Mormons. I came home from school every day growing up to the framed Family Proclamation nailed to the green wall in the front hallway, to my mother playing the hymns on our Yamaha piano which I myself would one day play over and over and over. When I went away to boarding school at 15, I taped up the Family Proclamation to the corkboard on my desk in my dorm room so that I could still have it with me, and I read it often while I continued my personal scripture study even when I couldn’t get a ride to early morning seminary, from which I still graduated. I spent my Young Women’s years playing ward basketball on Saturdays at the Stake Center cultural hall, planning New Beginnings and Young Women in Excellence and countless Mutual activities, and playing the hymns for all the opening exercises and twice on the organ for sacrament meeting. I lived and breathed for Girls Camp, attending seven total in tents, cabins, and adirondacks, and I openly admit that the only calling I have or will ever aspire to hold in this church is Stake Camp Director. I never played with friends or went shopping on Sundays, I turned down my mother’s offer of herbal tea once because I thought it was against the Word of Wisdom, I never wore shorts or skirts that came above my knees, I never watched R rated movies except for the one time my parents accidentally rented and watched Air Force One with us without realizing it was rated R, and my friends growing up would instinctively censor their profanity around me, without me ever asking them to, simply because they picked up on my own avoidance of it. When I was 12 years old, I came home from a Sunday School lesson reminding us that when we get to heaven, our best non-Mormon friends will turn to us and ask us why we didn’t share the gospel with them- I lay on my bed facing the ceiling and realized I was living a double life, that I had a church life on Sundays and then a school life the rest of the week where I wasn’t really living my faith. I resolved that day to try to keep the Spirit with my always, not just on Sundays when I felt so good and close to God.
Is the thought of me participating more fully in the church really that absurd? Is it so strange to think that after two decades of hearing the sacrament prayers every week, that uttering them myself would be some cataclysmic event? Is the fact that I already pass the sacrament to those on either side of me and have again done so for most of my two decades of life really so removed from the potential for me to stand and pass the sacrament to more than those in my immediate vicinity? Why is it so hard to imagine me placing my hands on another’s head when I have had others hands on my head hundreds of times in my life? Is it really bizarre that I could stand at the front of a congregation, in the same physical location as I can already stand to expound on doctrine and share my spiritual insights, and merely announce the speakers and musical numbers on the program as I conduct a meeting? Is the act of watching over a group of people and attending to their physical and spiritual needs really such an exclusively male act that a female person like myself accepting that calling would spoil some vast eternal plan?
Women being ordained is not obscene, unheard of, or shockingly different. Regardless of how you feel about ordination or Ordain Women or my own advocacy, surely you cannot deny that women being ordained is hardly the absurdist imagination exercise many have characterized it to be. Just as I lifted my voice instinctively in that hymn at Counterpoint, Mormon women the world over would answer the call for greater participation, and you can bet they would spread the gospel of Jesus Christ one hundred fold beyond our current capacities where we only allow half the population to fully participate.
On October 5th, non-Mormon and ex-Mormon men attended the Priesthood session. Currently attending, active, faithful, dedicated Mormon women were excluded solely on the basis of their gender. Many estimates and surveys show that Mormon women of my age range are leaving the church in large numbers; it does not matter if you believe me- our leaders are well aware. I don’t know how many of my peers will decide to stay, or for how much longer they will try, but I do know that being treated like an outsider in my own faith is an excruciating pain that will not begin to be remedied for LDS women until the full blessings and opportunities to participate in the kingdom of God are open unto us.
The next day on October 6th, Elder Neil L. Andersen gave a talk in which he stated,
“A man may open the drapes so the warm sunlight comes into the room, but the man does not own the sun or the light or the warmth it brings.”
But Mormon women have to sit in the dark until a man can come to pull open those drapes. Like the ability to exercise the power and authority of God, the ability to open drapes is not dependent on the individual’s sex. I am every bit as capable of opening those drapes and helping anyone in that room to feel the warm sunlight. I don’t know why or for how much longer I will be institutionally denied the opportunity to do so, but it is no more absurd to imagine me being ordained than to imagine me pulling back those drapes.