not in Primary anymore

no sisters

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After the emotional events of June, I was fortunate enough to escape on vacation with my husband. He has been waiting a long time to visit the beautiful rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and the remains of the Axumite Empire in northern Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church rose out of this empire creating one of the first nation-states that accepted Christianity. Given that Ethiopia is geographically isolated from the European Christian churches that arose, it’s not a surprise that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a unique brand of Christianity, one that includes a call to prayer in the morning and a history describing themselves as descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Three times in only two days I was surprised to discover I was the only woman in a group of men. The first time I was immediately ushered out. Lalibela, Ethiopia was built as a replacement for Jerusalem by King Lalibela. His body is laid to rest in one of the amazing rock-hewn churches he commissioned. Women are not allowed in the room where his corpse is to protect him from temptations. Well, there was no sign or warning…I just walked in. The priest inside was not excited to see me and sent me out right away. I felt a little bewildered and awkward. I was a visitor to sacred sites from another religion. The last thing I wanted to do was infringe on their beliefs.

Shortly after this incident, we became friends with a group of Ethiopian college graduates who were celebrating with a trip to worship at the rock-hewn churches. They invited us back to their accommodations to eat rice and bread with them. They were on an organized trip sort of like a youth conference and they were staying in a church-owned building and fed by their church leaders. The women slept on one side of the building and the men on the other. Being less social than my husband, I stuck beside him and sat on the side with the men. When lunch was brought around, no one directed me to sit with the women. It wasn’t until after I had finished eating that one of men sitting with us commented about how it was very awkward for me to be there.

My third mistake came early the next morning. We went to see the amazing Church of St. George during the early morning worship services. There were people, men and women, everywhere. The church is dug down into the rock, so people worship on the surrounding rock face, listening to a projected sermon. People worship along every step of the descent into the courtyard around the Church. Once around the church, we could barely move for all the people. As we had done the day before, and even only ten minutes before with one of the other churches, we wanted to go inside. There was a priest at the door touching women with an elaborate cross and letting people by him to go inside. He did not look twice at me going in. I was certain he would stop me if I was not supposed to enter. So it took me by surprise to realize that only men were present and that the longer I stood there, the angrier some of the men looked. Truthfully, most of them did not seem to notice or care but just those few that did made all the difference. I left and listened to the rest of the service outside.

Two hours later we were on a little prop plane destined for Axum, the capital of the modern Ethiopian Orthodox Church and (surprise!) the location of the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark itself is located in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. It’s a small church that is solely devoted to maintaining this artifact. Only one person, a man, is allowed to see the Ark. Next to this little church is a large cathedral called the New Church of St. Mary.
The church grounds situated around these churches is overlaid within a neighborhood. A holy building acts as an alternative entrance to the courtyard directly around the old church. During our first approach to the grounds a woman stopped me and told me “no sisters.”

While I was waiting for my husband to go explore on his own, I took pictures from the outside. During the next five minutes two more people, both men, approached me and informed me (who was now nowhere near the entrance) that I was not allowed inside. I appreciated the warning this time around, but bristled a little.

Only one part of the church grounds is off limits to women, the courtyard around the little church with the Ark in it. In fact, the large church was built in the nineteen fifties so women (and men together) would have a beautiful place to worship. Just not too close to the Ark.

What I learned the hard way: gender roles are as firmly entrenched in this old version of Christianity as they are in Mormonism. But I was surprised that while the gender roles of both the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Mormonism look similar, the gender roles in their everyday life as compared to Mormons could not look more different.

Axum is on its way to becoming a real tourist destination. All morning and late afternoon you see a sizable number of the populace sitting on the roads leading up to their ancient sites, a large field of beautiful obelisks, tinkering with rocks, shaping roads, and building a new archaeology museum. But women are there as well as men and older children. The babies and toddlers were watched by their only slightly older siblings while everyone who could was working.

In Mormonism, women are constantly being told they are the nurturers and that is why women don’t serve in the hierarchical structure or hold the priesthood. But in Ethiopia, gender roles are a religious privilege. Even when I ate with the men when I wasn’t supposed to, the man explained to me that they were accustomed to eating with women in any setting not related to church.

I want the general authorities to just admit that the male priesthood and dominantly male leadership responsibilities are not because of biology but because of tradition.  Why the excuses?  Why enforce social norms?  Just say it “we do not allow women to be prominent in Mormonism because it goes against the tide of tradition.”  At least that would be honest.

 

Nyla lives with her husband and toddler in California where she is working her way through a PhD program in biology.

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17 Responses to “no sisters”

  1. Spatty

    I visited the same places over mother’s day weekend this year and had the same frustrating experiences. I finally asked my guide why women weren’t allowed in these places- they’re holy.

    Similarly, in the Middle East I had a conversation with women about prayer- essentially if a woman is on her period she cannot pray(ritualistically) to god. When I asked why the women looked at me like it was the most obvious thing in the world- they are unclean. In general men shouldn’t touch women because they are unclean.

    The internalized misogyny that I heard in these places help me understand and see more clearly the misogyny in my own culture. I find the culture and traditions beautiful, but I cannot help but see how damaging they are to women. It is frustrating but so enlightening.

    Excellent post!

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    A few statements that I want to comment on:

    1. “In Mormonism, women are constantly being told they are the nurturers and that is why women don’t serve in the hierarchical structure or hold the priesthood.”

    The fact that ONE primary role women can play is that of a nurturer is not the reason women don’t serve in “the hierarchical structure or hold the priesthood”. The reason for that is the following:

    “The Lord has directed that only men will be ordained to offices in the priesthood.”

    This statement was copied verbatim from the conference talk given by Elder Oaks during General Conference in April 2014. That is the reason women don’t “hold” the priesthood. (Additional insight into that discussion can be found in his entire talk at https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/04/the-keys-and-authority-of-the-priesthood?lang=eng). If an individual discussing this topic gives additional reasons beyond this most simple reason they should qualify that they are providing their own opinion as to why the Lord has directed that and make it clear they are not speaking for the Lord nor for his Prophet.

    2. “I want the general authorities to just admit that the male priesthood and dominantly male leadership responsibilities are not because of biology but because of tradition.”

    I guess i just don’t know what you mean with this statement. Male-only priesthood ordination is not based on tradition. It is based on revealed direction from the Lord, at least that is what Elder Oaks says. (For those not familiar with Elder Oaks he is a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and is one of the fifteen priesthood leaders within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who is a “prophet, seer, and revelator.” )

    Reply
    • nyla

      In the first argument, I was indicating the motherhood = priesthood excuse for women not having the priesthood. I hear that in church all the time.

      For the second argument, Joseph Smith and prophets and apostles after him did allow women to give priesthood blessings but over time (1920s – 1930s) the general authorities stopped endorsing these actions and they gradually got phased it out. No one ever said that they received a revelation that God did not want women utilizing the priesthood. Now it’s just tradition that women don’t have the priesthood.

      Reply
      • Nancy

        Unfortunately you are incorrect. Women were not given the priesthood in the early church. They did put their hands upon heads while praying for others. However, these were blessings by faith, not by those ordained to the priesthood.

      • Anonymous

        Nyla,

        Come on, are you for real? Here is my comment to your comment. First, to quote you again:

        1. In Mormonism, women are constantly being told they are the nurturers and THAT IS WHY women don’t serve in the hierarchical structure or hold the priesthood.

        1. I was indicating the motherhood = priesthood excuse for women not having the priesthood. I hear that in church all the time.

        When you say, “in Mormonism”, I think you give the impression that you are relaying what the church teaches or its doctrine. That is clearly different from “I hear that in church all the time”. Most people will tell you they hear crazy things in church all the time. That does not mean they represent the truth. And why would you blog about “what you hear in church all the time.” If that is the problem then spend the time in your post to teach the truth. Teach that the Lord has directed that males be ordained to the priesthood. He has not directed that women be ordained. That is the reason. Not because women can be mothers, nurturers, etc. It is because the Lord has not directed it. No more, no less.

        Secondly, I would love for you to share your sources that document the claim that Joseph Smith and prophets and apostles allowed women to give priesthood blessings. I think a close examination of those sources would be enlightening. While I cannot say I have heard of this before my next question to you would be to which office in the priesthood were these women ordained (since they would need to have been ordained prior to being able to give a priesthood blessing)? My comments spoke of the Lord’s directive that men be ordained to the priesthood not what a church leader at one time allowed someone to do. The Lord has not directed that women be ordained to the priesthood. Furthermore, when one chooses to follow the Lord he or she does the things the Lord directs them to do. They don’t say well the Lord did not say we couldn’t do it so we should do it until we hear otherwise.

        Additionally, after claiming that Joseph Smith and prophets and apostles “allowed” women to give priesthood blessings but then later leaders “phased it out” you say that no one ever received a revelation from the Lord that these women should not be utilizing the priesthood. Again I would ask you to show the revelation or heavenly direction that “allows” women to give priesthood blessings. If that had occurred then your question would be relevant. Even if what you say is true, and some church leaders “allowed” women to give blessings it would be consistent to conclude that they were in error and so the practice was stopped unless the Lord had specifically directed it to be so. I would welcome evidence of such specific direction.

        I would also challenge your use of the notion that leaders of the church did not want women utilizing the priesthood. The priesthood is the power of God that is delegated to men on earth to act in his stead. In essence, to be his hands to carry out the physical act of saying words in a blessing or the physical act of baptizing or performing an ordinance. Every member of the church is encouraged to utilize the priesthood to receive these ordinances or blessings. Each member can do so in the same way, by having someone ordained to that priesthood perform an ordinance on their behalf. Men and women alike utilize the priesthood power to bless their lives. Elder Oaks even addresses this idea in a different way. In his conference talk he stated:

        “We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be? When a woman—young or old—is set apart to preach the gospel as a full-time missionary, she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function. The same is true when a woman is set apart to function as an officer or teacher in a Church organization under the direction of one who holds the keys of the priesthood. Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.”

        If you want to comment on the fact that we are not accustomed to speaking of women having priesthood authority you would have an ally in Elder Oaks. Please do not misrepresent what the church teaches as doctrine and attempt to confuse it with “something I hear in church all the time”. That is unfair and is really a disservice to the many readers of this blog who are not members of the church and don’t know any better.

  3. nyla

    Nancy, I understand that women were not ordained (particularly in the way that men are today, there is some discussion on the subject of early relief society leaders being ‘ordained’ to specific callings). But these faith blessings are now only allowed by priesthood holders so I am putting them in the same category.

    Reply
    • Anonymous

      I know I just posted something quite lengthy, but I can’t help it. For anyone who is not a member of the church, there is no such thing as a faith blessing that priesthood holders are “allowed” to do. Priesthood holders give priesthood blessings, there is no such thing as a faith blessing that is unique to the priesthood. During a priesthood blessing for example the person who is performing the blessing places his hands on the head of the person receiving the blessing (or other part of the body if the head is not accessible) and offers a blessing with the authority of holy priesthood. This is how priesthood blessings are to be done. All other actions (blessings before a meal, before a trip, etc.) would fall under the category of a prayer and can be said by any person regardless of priesthood holder status where they can ask the Lord to bless the person for whom they are praying. To say that a “faith blessing” is an example of something that women were “allowed” to do before and now only “priesthood holders” can do now is a misrepresentation of the truth.

      Reply
      • nyla

        Anonymous,

        I think you bring up a fair point. Does “the church” teach members that men have priesthood and women have motherhood and that makes them equal or is that something members have picked up somewhere else? Boyd K. Packer wrote

        “While fathers and sons bear the burden of the priesthood, it was declared in the very beginning that it was not good for man to be alone. A companion, or “helpmeet,” was given him. The word meet means equal…

        “The separate natures of man and woman were designed by the Father of us all to fulfill the purposes of the gospel plan.

        “Never can two of the same gender fulfill the commandment to multiply and replenish the earth. No two men or any number added to them, no matter how much priesthood they may think they possess, can do it. Only a woman can bestow upon man that supernal title of father.

        “She in turn becomes a mother. Can anyone dispute that her part is different from and more demanding than his? The mother must endure limitations while nature performs the miracle of creation.

        “The limitation of priesthood responsibilities to men is a tribute to the incomparable place of women in the plan of salvation.”

        You can find the full talk on lds. org https://www.lds.org/ensign/1989/07/a-tribute-to-women?lang=eng

        There is also a great essay by Sonja Farnsworth that discusses this topic in further depth. You can find it at http://signaturebookslibrary.org/?p=975. I’ll admit, I interpreted that as women can’t have the priesthood because they have the potential to be mothers. What I wrote is just my own perspective and opinions.

        As for my sources for the women giving blessings,

        “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism”
        http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1754069

        “A Gift Given A Gift Taken
        Washing, Anointing, and Blessing the Sick Among Mormon Women”
        https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/029-16-25.pdf

        “The Historical Relationship of Mormon Women and the Priesthood”
        http://signaturebookslibrary.org/?p=1262

        Unsurprisingly, there are no official church statements. You’ll have to decide for yourself if these are trustworthy sources.

        Considering you had never heard of women giving healing blessings, I’m surprised you can so adamantly tell people they did not happen or did not exist and make such firm statements as you did in your extensive commentary. But I am grateful you brought it up so we could have a discussion about little known church history. I really did like Elder Oaks talk, I think his perspective lines up with the sources I mentioned above. But that’s just my opinion.

    • Nancy

      But you can’t just “put them together”. That’s the point. Holding te priesthood is one thing. Praying over someone while relying on your faith, regardless of where your hands are placed, is entirely another. You cannot make the leap to assume that the position of the hands equal female entitlement to te priesthood.

      Reply
  4. Anonymous

    Nyla,

    I never said at all (let alone adamantly) that “faith blessings”, as you initially called them, did not happen. What I was adamant about was my disagreement with your assertion that a “faith blessing” was something that women used to be able to do and is now a blessing that can only be given by someone ordained to the priesthood (a male). I am adamant about that. There is no such ordinance as a “faith blessing” in the priesthood. I stand by the comment 100%. As i said before there are priesthood blessings (father’s blessings, baby blessings all fall under the category of priesthood blessings) and any other “blessing” would fall under the category of a prayer and can be performed by any person regardless of gender or membership in the church for that matter. If you mean to categorize these “faith blessings” as “priesthood blessings” I would have to disagree and I would wonder to what office of the priesthood these women were ordained because that would be required for them to give priesthood blessings. Perhaps these women did lay hands on the heads of people and gave blessings, I really have no reason to doubt they did nor do I really think that is a big deal. It would be a big deal if they did it while stating that they were performing a priesthood ordinance and were claiming to have been ordained to the priesthood. This would not be consistent with the way the Lord has delegated his priesthood authoriy.

    I do appreciate you supplying sources, I will get to them at my earliest convenience.

    Reply
    • Anonymous

      Just letting you know I reviewed your sources, interesting opinions.

      Reply
  5. Ziff

    Really interesting post, Nyla. I think you make an excellent point in your conclusion that it would make more sense for Church leaders to just own up to the discrimination against women and say “That’s the way God wants it.” It’s kind of bizarre for them to maintain the discriminatory practices while at the same time mouthing support for egalitarian ideas, and pretending that the two can somehow be reconciled.

    A term one of my sisters coined for this mouthing egalitarianism while practicing discrimination is “chicken patriarchy.”

    http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2007/11/30/the-trouble-with-chicken-patriarchy/

    Reply
  6. Stacy

    All three members of the Godhead are men. All of the prophets (that is those who have led God’s people, not just everyone with the gift of prophecy) have been men. Every angel sent to carry divine messages, restore keys, whatever, has been male. All twelve of the original apostles and all twelve Nephite apostles were men. We’ve had an apostle announce that it is God’s will that only men hold the priesthood.
    But God really wants women to be ordained and it’s just a foolish tradition that is keeping them from it?

    Reply
    • Nancy

      Well those convenient facts wouldn’t match the liberals politics, would they. Besides, in her Guardian op-ed Kate Kelly referred to Heavenly Father as “she”.

      Reply

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