Guest post by Michael Adam Ferguson: Michael is a post-doctoral research fellow at Cornell University’s Human Neuroscience Institute. He and his husband, J Seth Anderson, were the first same-sex couple legally married in the state of Utah. They both were confirmed as Community of Christ members on Sunday, September 21, 2015.
I take the mic seriously and cautiously, sensitive to men speaking up for feminism and then becoming the focal point of attention. That said, it’s an honor to be asked to share some of my thoughts in this forum about my and my husband’s recent confirmation in Community of Christ.
As I described in a Facebook post regarding my decision to accept membership in Community of Christ, things need not be literal to me to be meaningful. I’d describe my relationship with Christianity as a really intense role playing game where the goals are to build a peaceable commonwealth, care for the poor, and liberate the oppressed. Liberation theology animates and inspires me, and I’m happy to have a community where I can mobilize these values with like-minded friends.
Our personal identity—our individual narrative to make sense out of our life circumstances, events, and behaviors—is by its essence a story. When we take a story upon ourselves and organize our priorities, decisions, and actions based upon that story, we could say that the story is a role that we are playing in the world around us. Our individual roles in the greater world are stories we have the radical liberty to reinterpret and transform. You can be a Republican one election cycle, and a Democrat the next. Identities are plastic and malleable, although their components may not be plastic and changeable at will (for example, sexuality, conscience, or gender). The stories we tell ourselves about our circumstances are sometimes synthesized from building blocks and instructions we inherited from a religious tradition. Also, we may alternate between multiple religious traditions in different contexts or for different purposes. The same person may conceivably and practically alternate between spiritual systems to become at one with Buddhahood, and also at one with Christ consciousness. This is known as pluralism.
Community of Christ offers me non-exclusive rights of participation in its unique expression of the Josephine legacy, while also participating in—for example—Universalism, or the Brighamite traditions (LDS). In other words, there is no reason from Community of Christ’s vantage point one cannot be both LDS affiliated and Community of Christ affiliated. This explicit and implicit humility to NOT claim exclusivity on divine expression or participation immensely resonates between Community of Christ principles and those of my own. (Side note: anytime you see “The Community of Christ,” this is incorrect—Community of Christ, the church, intentionally avoids using “The” in its name, because they acknowledge many communities legitimately guided by Christ consciousness.)
With Mormonism as a primary cultural identity during early life development, it can be hard to let go of things deeply engrained into our life habits, both cognitively and behaviorally. By the time I went on my mission at 19, I’d read the Book of Mormon around twenty times. In addition to the obscene number of attentive hours spent in that book, I am also fighting a losing battle against biology by trying to extinguish the motivational constellation wired into my brain through my theological imagination. For example, I will probably always view the canon as open, and humans as ascending toward divinity through apotheosis. Mormonism was my primary cultural language. Much like your primary spoken language, good luck forgetting it! Even if you did not speak to another human in your first spoken language for the rest of your life, it would be so native to the substance and form of your mind, that you would still dream in that language. Similarly, attachments were formed by waves of neurotransmitters that washed over my brain during my religious experiences. I am physiologically bound to myths and practices that I experienced in Brigham’s church. Mormonism is quite literally written in the tissues of my body.
In time, these attachments may fade. In the meantime, what if instead of fighting the behavioral and cognitive systems I feel natively as my nature, I channel them? What if—at least for now—I reinvent my story to incorporate and use these motivations in my life? Instead of annihilating deep and habitual parts of me, can I redirect them constructively toward something healthy?
For me, Community of Christ is allowing that transformational space wherein I can ride the waves of a vast Mormon ocean contained all within my flesh.
I think Community of Christ provides excellent opportunity for those in some form of Mormon discontent or transition to stretch that which has been cramped and unleash that which has been contained. In addition to getting it right on same-sex marriage (Community of Christ added a section to their Doctrine & Covenants years ago extending the blessings of the church and revealing divine graces to all responsible marriages and unions) they also get it right when it comes to women’s ordination in the Christian legacy of Joseph Smith.
Frankly, there is also low buy in up front, and little penalty for trying. I had to only participate in the sacrament of confirmation to become a Community of Christ member. My LDS baptism was accepted as a valid sacrament, so I did not need to have a “do over” baptism.
I am certain that there are LDS women who are spiritual Picassos, patiently waiting in the wings of the LDS Church for permission to start painting in the medium of spirit using bold, bright brushstrokes of priesthood. I want these women to start being able to paint, now. Part of it is entirely selfish on my part, based both on social history and personal bias. It’s selfish in the sense I think women will change their churches and the world in vital and necessary ways, and I want to see it and experience it.
Academically, I see through my husband’s research on early 20th-century Latter-day Saint history that women outpaced the men in their priesthood performances. Unfortunately, the women’s excellence in priesthood service threatened the male ego of the church and precipitated a clamp down on women’s authority and practices. I yearn for the days when women are empowered to anoint for healing and lay on hands to bless as they were in the times of Joseph and even Brigham. I see an army of women with visionary prowess who wield spiritual power to enhance the wellbeing of other humans individually, and who have power to help heal the planet collectively. It’s lofty stuff. But this is the spiritual power I believe women will bring to the world when ordained with full privileges and rights in priesthood capacities.
In the LDS tradition, a major historical milestone in the disempowerment of women’s authority and ministry was the the then-unprecendented release of a seated President of the Relief Society (Emmeline Wells) by the male High Priest of the Church (Heber J. Grant). Up until that time, the President of the Relief Society—like the office of the High Priest over the Church—was a calling for life. Women’s history of LDS authority is a slow, sad decline from there.
As a member of Community of Christ, I can eagerly advocate giving the spiritual brushes and power tools back into the hands of women who feel the call to action to serve in priesthood capacities and still remain in harmony with the spirit governing my church. Personally, I also feel an ongoing need to help advocate ordination of women across religious denominations, including LDS and Catholic priesthood models. I see the sin of omission in not ordaining women to priesthood. There is a world of hurting, hungering, and suffering that pleads for physical and spiritual succor, and many more of those pleas could be spiritually and materially answered were priesthood bodies allowed to grow in numbers and ability by incorporating women, their abilities, and their gifts. Attending to the world in need of succor matters more than coddling the insecurities of patriarchal orders.
If you are a young Mormon feminist who feels dissonance in her spiritual path, stale discontentment or angst with LDS patriarchy, and yet a paradoxical clarion of the Divine summons you in your heart and blesses you with periodic overflow from your personal well of life, Community of Christ may have the tools to resolve those dissonances and ease those dissatisfactions. If you aren’t at a buy in point in your life where you are ready to leave the LDS tradition entirely, but still would like to explore participatory spirituality in another church experience, consider dual citizenship with Community of Christ for a time. Community of Christ is happy to engage in complementary religious citizenships with Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, or any other pluralistic framework that an individual personally harmonizes. The motives of the individual could be to change their native church or religion from within, while being supported by ministry and fellowship with an alternate community centered in Christ consciousness.
It would be lovely and transformative if, in time, there were enough dual-citizens of Community of Christ and LDS congregations that women in the LDS tradition began once again to feel the confidence and approval of heaven in their own personal ability and authority to heal and to bless. I would love to be able to have my mother, my sister, or my nieces who are LDS bless me by the laying on of hands and wield power in the priesthood here and now—not just at some hypothetical possible future time.
Because Community of Christ is a tradition with an open canon, a fully inclusive priesthood, friendliness toward non-literal thought, and democracy of prophetic participation, the field is white and ready to harvest. The canvas is wide open and waits for inspired young Mormon feminists to come paint in the medium of priesthood. Consider partaking and testing the sweetness of the path for yourself.