A favorite topic of speculation (and angst) among many Mormons and Mormon-watchers is whether or not women will get the priesthood. It is an interesting topic, but I think that most of the discussions of it are pretty uninteresting. The reason for this, I think, is that they are in the thrall of a single, rather simple model of what it means to â€œgetâ€? the priesthood.
The simple model is based on the experience of women getting the priesthood in the Episcopalian or RLDS (now Community of Christ) church, or of blacks getting the priesthood in 1978. The imagined event gets conceptualized as a single dramatic moment in which previously all male institutions (presumably the Melchizedek and Aaronic Priesthoods) become degendered and open to both men and women. Those who worry about such things stand poised for the big announcement in general conference and as often as not are perpetually disappointed when it never comes.
I wonder, however, if there might be another way of thinking about this. One very expansive definition of priesthood sees it as simply the power of God delegated to humanity. Under this definition, the Melchizedek Priesthood is but one of the priesthoods that God has delegated. However, other sorts of divine power can also be thought of as priesthoods. For example, motherhood could be defined as a sort of priesthood. Indeed, I think that Jeffrey R. Holland more or less explicitly argued that sex was a form of priesthood in his sermon â€œOf Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments,â€? where he refers to sexual intercourse as a â€œrare and special moment with God himself and all the powers by which he gives life in this wide universe of ours.â€?
The Doctrine and Covenants also suggests that charity is a kind of priesthood (divine power):
Let thy bowels also be full of charity toward all men, and to the household of faith . . . then shall thy confidence was strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distill upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever. (D&C 121:45-46)
It doesnâ€™t seem to me that there is any reason that one needs to think of the scepter and dominion promised in these verses solely in terms of the Melchizedek Priesthood or even in necessarily gendered terms.
Now none of these sorts of moves are likely to make a critic of the current priesthood structure happy. First, the examples of alternative forms of priesthood are likely to raise more hackles than they calm. Motherhood, sex, and charity are all charged issues in the construction-of-gender debates. Furthermore, most of the criticisms of the Church are largely about institutional power. The idea is that there are levers, gears, knobs, and buttons of control within the institution and female hands are never on them. This is a problem either because as good children of philosophical liberalism, we believe in free and equal citizens and that power should be open to all. Alternatively, some darker theological message is imputed to the distribution of administrative control. Control is good, it is denied to women but given to men, therefore women are not as good as men. This message is bad and can only be eliminated, so the argument goes, through institutional change.
Now there is force to these criticisms, but what is interesting to me is that they donâ€™t think very deeply about what priesthood is. The Melchizedek Priesthood is simply seen as undifferentiated power and the possibility that it could be justly distributed in ways that violate norms of liberal equality is simply out of the question. However, it is not clear to me that we want to think of the Melchizedek Priesthood in this way. Rather, it seems more productive to think of it as being a single example of larger category. It is that category that I think we should focus on.
Why does it seem more productive to me? Because, I think it is a good thing that part of the time men and women meet in different meetings. I think that there is a kind of solidarity, a brotherhood and sisterhood, available in such gatherings that is powerful and important. Now, any kind words for gender solidarity will no doubt open me up to charges of repressed sexual insecurity, support for implicit gendered hierarchies and the rest. Perhaps some real erudite soul will quote Foucault at me. Fine. Have fun with the ad hominems.
However, it seems to me that â€œthe problemâ€? is not simply about institutional control. Indeed, the discussion I would like to see is ultimately non-responsive to that issue. Rather, I am interested in finding a theology that acknowledges that gatherings of women in the Church are not forums for jello recipes and doilies. They are meetings of Saints infused with the power of God. They are full of priesthood. It seems to me that simply ordaining the Relief Society as elders would miss that point, and implicitly deny the power that is there. Thus, the theology I am talking about is more than simply a change in the gender make-up of the org chart. It requires a whole mythology that acknowledges, celebrates, and extends the power of God exercised by women.