What can we gather from last week’s decision from Salt Lake? The content of the Priesthood session will be made accessible in real time to anybody who wants to view it online, but the live venue will be available to men only — even, presumably, non-Priesthood-holding or -worthy men. Priesthood session, in its primary form, will remain a male-only social space. It appears that the purpose of the formerly-restricted Priesthood session was not chiefly to withhold information from women, although that was the effect, but rather to preserve a single-sex social and spiritual space.
Does this suggest anything about the nature of priesthood as an institution, beyond the logistical specifics of the conference? What happens if we map the logic of this particular decision onto the larger question of women’s ordination, which is, after all, the real meaning of the Priesthood session controversy?
Based on nothing more than amateur extrapolation, I think it unlikely that a uni-sex priesthood is in our future, with boys and girls ordained to the Aaronic priesthood as coed deacons at age twelve and men and women serving together in the Melchizedek priesthood. Gender partition and single-sex spaces are deeply entrenched in LDS history and practice. If the logic of the Priesthood session decision serves — a proposition which is nothing more than inference, I freely acknowledge — the purpose of a male-only priesthood is not chiefly to exclude women from authority, though that is of course its effect, but rather to preserve the fraternal dynamic of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods.
This doesn’t disturb me. I see value in single-sex spaces, for women and girls as well as for men and boys. Indeed, I am affirmatively grateful that the Church provides such a space for my kids: since my older daughter quit Girl Scouts last year, she doesn’t have any other girl-only activities, in or out of school. I believe that there is important learning and relating that happens best in a single-sex environment — provided, of course, that the curriculum, teachers and peers are good. I also see enormous value in gender-integrated activities, but those are plentiful for my public-schooled kids.
Yet I hate that my daughter may feel irrelevant to the church for the next decade of her life, until she becomes a missionary or a mother and identifies with the net-positive church discourse on motherhood. (Net positive in my view only, obviously, and contingent on her being fortunate to become a mother, which is not guaranteed.) For a twelve-year-old girl, there are very few ways in which she makes a necessary contribution to the church. She relates to the ward primarily as a “consumer” of instruction — not as a provider of service, teaching, or sacred ordinances. I recognize that the new youth curriculum integrates more peer teaching in an attempt to redress this problem, but in our experience that change has mostly resulted in lower quality discussions and not much more real investment.
So is there a way to preserve the fraternal character of existing priesthood quorums, and their motivating centrality to the workings of the church, while also involving women and girls in church governance, both to reinforce their connection to the institution and to raise the effectiveness of that governance at the ward level?
That question is not mine to answer, I fully recognize, and I believe that it is being prayerfully discussed by the highest leadership. What follows is a thought experiment only, an imagined alternative future, not a proposal or a demand. Take it for any inherent interest it might stimulate, but nothing more.
So here goes. What if we organized a fourth, all-female priesthood order. We currently have three orders of priesthood, Aaronic, Melchizedek and temple or patriarchal priesthoods, with different pools of ordinants and distinct functions. Each order was revealed and organized at a different stage of church history. An additional order for women and teenage girls, revealed and organized in the present day for the present needs of the church, is conceivably within the realm of possibility.
It could be called, say, the Deboric priesthood, after the Old Testament judge Deborah, just as the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods take their names from OT originators. Sure, it sounds silly and forced now, but over time the name would become naturalized into our discourse just like Aaronic and Melchizedek, which are no more inherently strange.
Logistically, this fourth priesthood order would share the duties currently performed by the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods. One can imagine a number of ways to divide the duties, but one possibility would be distinct-but-interrelated roles for each quorum: that is, there would still be identifiable realms of “women’s work” and “men’s work” in church governance, with particular callings belonging exclusively to particular quorums, but male and female leadership would collaborate to coordinate the efforts of the quorums. This sort of division would provide continuity between past and present, as well as preserve the value of single-sex spaces and roles in the church — while simultaneously fully engaging women’s abilities in the work of running a ward.
For example, we could provisionally divide church governance into two kinds of service: pastoral/sacerdotal and administrative. Pastoral and sacerdotal duties, including performing ordinances, counseling, church discipline, would be performed by Aaronic and Melchizedek quorums; administrative duties, including issuing callings, overseeing curriculum, programming meetings, and budget and tithing accounting, by the Deboric order. (I’m partial to putting teenage girls entirely in charge of sacrament meeting music — something that could be done even without any kind of female priesthood, and even has doctrinal support in D&C 25. It works as a lovely complement to the boys doing the sacrament.) There are some callings that don’t obviously fall into one category, and those could be assigned arbitrarily to a particular quorum, or could form a uni-sex zone of church service, where either men or women are eligible, much as missionary service, Sunday School and Primary teaching currently function.
While I have been emphasizing continuity with the past, it is true that this particular division of duties represents a bit of a departure from history, since early LDS women are known to have performed blessings, falling firmly into the pastoral/sacerdotal category. It would make sense to revive that tradition for a female LDS order.
But I can imagine both pragmatic and spiritual rationales for assigning administrative rather than sacerdotal duties to female quorums. Conceptually, the family and the church become complementary institutions, rather than macro-microcosmic twins that they currently (and problematically!) represent. In the home, we practice one set of gender roles: women taking the lead on nurturing, men taking the lead on providing. But on the basis that Christ manifested both typically male and typically female qualities, we also need to develop other abilities as we stretch and grow to be more Christlike. Thus in the church, the male priesthood gives men opportunities to develop nurturing and cooperative skills, while the female priesthood gives women opportunities to develop administrative and leadership skills.
In one sense, of course, this sort of thought experiment makes no sense at all under typical Mormon assumptions. Priesthoods are restored and conferred by heavenly messengers, not organized by church bureaucracy. The origin narrative of a Deboric priesthood would probably be quite different from the Aaronic and Melchizedek narratives. It’s also not at all clear whether and how this could scale up to the highest quorums of leadership. Would the current Relief Society infrastructure work, if it were elevated with real administrative authority? I’m not sure. The Presiding Bishopric is the presiding authority of the Aaronic priesthood, but it doesn’t exercise much moral leadership in the church — certainly not equal to the Quorum of the Twelve. Without integrating the Twelve, can women be brought into genuine collaboration at the highest levels? I’m not sure.
Certainly this imagined future will not satisfy some feminist critics, who believe that “separate but equal” is a pernicious fantasy. Still others will object to the particulars of the division of duties between male and female quorums I propose above — and there is indeed a risk that under any particular partition, “women’s work” would be devalued over time if it is kept separate. I think there is value in these criticisms. Nevertheless, I think single-sex priesthood orders are an intriguing way of imagining a path forward that is both true to our heritage and also capable of bringing women into church governance.