I think that women should receive the priesthood. I don’t find the reasons that have been given as to why the priesthood is limited to males very compelling. I don’t think that motherhood is a good analog to priesthood, or rather I think that motherhood is a kind of priesthood (an exercise of godly power by human beings) but its analog is fatherhood, not the Melchizedek priesthood. I think that the feminization of religion is an important issue, one that feminist critics dismiss rather too breezily. I suspect that the all-male priesthood probably mitigates this problem somewhat in Mormonism, but I suspect that we could come up with other ways of dealing with it. At the end of the day, I simply don’t have any objection to women performing ordinances or holding positions of ecclesiastical leadership. Indeed, I think that there are a lot administrative and pastoral issues that could be handled more effectively were women ordained.
I do, however, think that giving women the priesthood would create enormous problems for Mormonism. This is because male identity within the church is structured around the idea of priesthood. If the priesthood were extended to women, it would no longer be a nexus of male identity. This would force on us a choice. We could either look elsewhere for some basis of male identity, perhaps in ideas of fatherhood or non-priesthood brotherhood on the model of the Relief Society. It’s not clear exactly what this male identity would look like. To take a banal issue but one that would have huge cultural implications, if women received the priesthood, would they now attend priesthood quorum meetings? Would the Relief Society continue to function? Notice, that if we admitted women to quorum meetings, we could continue to hold Relief Society meetings as a nexus for female identity and community. We would need, however, something new, something other than priesthood meetings to create a similar nexus for men. This is hardly an insurmountable issue. Numerous Protestant denominations, for example, have men’s groups without linking those groups to anything that looks like the Mormon priesthood. My point is simply that extending the priesthood to women would leave male Mormon identity unmoored from its traditional sources, namely the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods. (This is one of the reasons why analogies to other denominations aren’t always helpful in the Mormon context. Being a vicar simply isn’t central to male Anglican identity in the same way that being a priesthood holder is central to being a male Mormon. Likewise, male Catholics don’t really mediate what it means to be a good Catholic man through the idea of priesthood. Mormon men do.)
The other alternative would be to simply jettison the idea of gendered Mormon identities. We could eliminate the distinction between Young Men’s programs and Young Women’s programs. We could eliminate the Relief Society. We would be left with distinctions between youth and adults, a distinction that would presumably be marked by ordination to the Melchizedek Priesthood. There is a real tension here in most of the feminist Mormonism that I have seen. On one hand, feminists employ powerful analogies from the Civil Rights Movement about the impossibility of equality in a world of segregation. At the same time, many of those same feminists rightly treasure the tradition and experience of Mormon sisterhood. The tension lies in the fact that the sisterhood — which is in a sense simply one half of the gendered life of Mormonism — depends upon difference. The rhetoric of equality insists that gender does not matter, while the rhetoric of sisterhood (and brotherhood) insists that it does. It is not as though, of course, this tension exists only for Mormon feminists or only in an imagined world in which women are ordained. It exists in a different form in Mormonism as it is now constituted. My point is simply that ordaining women will not eliminate this tension. We will still need mechanisms for negotiating gendered identities within Mormonism.
Within a liberal democracy — which is the institutional model of justice on which most of the calls for female ordination rest — this tension is negotiated by bifurcating our selves between our civic identity and our private identity. In our civic identity we are, ideally, without gender: free and equal citizens in the eyes of the law and the public with no distinctions. To be sure, this ideal of civic genderlessness frequently bumps up against the realities of social roles and biology, but it navigates these treacherous shoals with care, always trying to insure that in the end the goods of civic society are allocated justly to all citizens. Justice in allocation includes, crucially, the principle that the allocation not rest on suspect criteria based on identity like gender. In our private lives, however, we dispense with the civic conceit of genderlessness. We are wives and husbands, boyfriends and girlfriends, bros and “just friends.” We luxuriate (or stew) in the very difference that we deny in our civic identities, engaging in a constant, running argument with ourselves about what gender should mean, always assuming, however, that whatever it is, it is not irrelevant. And of course, we grapple with liminal spaces — the workplace being the prime example — where we can’t quite decide if we are supposed to be using our civic or private identities.
Is such a solution available to Mormonism? Can we create a single “civic” Mormon identity and simply privatize gender? To be sure there are many things that Mormonism privatizes and there are things that have moved into that category in the past. Birth control comes to mind as an issue that once occupied a place in the “public” space of the church and is now firmly in the “private” space of Mormonism. Of course, part of the attraction of ordaining women for many is precisely that they imagine it as a privatization of gender within Mormonism. Given the occasionally cringe worthy things that are said about gender within Mormonism, I can understand the attraction this might have for some. I can’t, however, bring myself to identify with it. I don’t WANT gender to be privatized. I want to be preached at as a man, to have my Mormonism inform my idea of gender. This doesn’t mean that I am comfortable with every thing that is said about gender within the church. Far from it. I do, however, want gender to be an object of religious concern, precisely because I think it is a fundamental object of human concern and I think religion has the obligation to speak to fundamental human concerns.. We are fellow citizens as saints, but we are also part of the household of God and within that household I want the richer, fuller identity of “private” space rather than the more anemic identity of civic space. I don’t want membership in the kingdom reduced to the thin identity of citizenship, with priesthood conceptualized as another liberal right.
So where does this leave me? I would like a world in which women performed ordinances and participated fully in church government. I would also like a world in which there are thick and meaningful religious identities organized around gender. It’s not that I think that gender should be one’s primary way of mediating religious identity, but gender is such an important part of what it means for me to be a human being and, more importantly, to be the particular human being that I am, that it would seem a great loss if this was the sort of thing that my religion placed in a “private” sphere to be passed over in sensitive silence. I am a better and happier person for having sat through many Priesthood Sessions in General Conference in which I have been harangued on what it means to be a righteous man of God. Finally, given the way in which male identity in particular within Mormonism is tied up with priesthood, I am not convinced that we really even know what it would mean to ordain women either in terms of the lived experience of Mormonism or its doctrines.
What are the implications of these convictions for me? I suspect that the answer is probably “Not much.” I am happy to express my opinions to any who might be interested in them, although I do not preach them, particularly in church. This is partly because I don’t think people are that interested but mainly because for me there is something precious about progressive preaching that I find annoying in others and I figure that I already have sufficient self-loathing to deal with. More importantly, however, I don’t think that I have been called either by the spirit or the laying on of hands to such preaching, and to me that matters. To preach is to claim a kind of authority, and I do not have authority on this matter. Finally, I respect the authorities of the church and try to interpret their actions with as much charity as possible. I do not regard their current stance as doctrinally mistaken, malicious, or even, in the cosmic scheme of things, misguided. I am happy to live and serve in the church, and do not regard myself as morally compromised for doing so. There is so much goodness and truth in it that I want my son and daughter raised as a faithful Latter-day Saint, regardless of what the Lord and the Brethren do on this matter. I am content to have my beliefs, keep my covenants, and trust in God.