It’s hard to know the future, but I will hazard a prediction: the Ordain Women project will fail. If I understand its ambitions correctly, Ordain Women would define success as an announcement that the prophet, having followed the invitation of these faithfully agitating sisters, has gone to the Lord and has received a revelation that women are to be ordained to the priesthood. I don’t know if women will ever be ordained to the priesthood, but I would be shocked if this was to happen while any institutional breath breathed in the Ordain Women movement.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that for pragmatic reasons Church leaders do not want to change basic doctrines or practices in response to what they see as attempts to publically embarrass the Church over its basic doctrines and practices. Doing so creates an incentive for others to seek to publically embarrass the Church. I suspect that Church leaders also worry that changing basic doctrines and practices in the face of public pressure erodes the moral authority of the Church if it is seen as another institution that can be pushed about by savvy political operators.
The second reason, I believe, is far more important. I think that the members of the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency are utterly sincere in carrying out their callings. I think that they do not regard the Church as theirs. They do not feel that they are at liberty to alter core doctrines or practices. They must be convinced of new revelation before announcing such changes. However, I suspect that in most instances the phenomenology of prophetic revelation is much like the phenomenology of the revelations claimed by ordinary members. It is a matter of prayer, pondering, and an intense inward scrutiny of one’s soul for the traces of the Spirit, that interruption of the divine from beyond one’s self. I think that the prophet is genuinely concerned that he not mistake his own judgment or longings or fears for the Spirit. I suspect therefore that it is psychologically and spiritually very difficult for the prophet to accept a revelation commanding that he “give in” to pressure while the pressure is mounting. I suspect that the fear of mistaking cowardice for revelation in such situations makes it very nearly impossible for the prophet to accept a revelation in such a situation.
In support of my theory, I offer two examples. The first is Wilford Woodruff’s decision to issue the Manifesto in 1890. If you read Woodruff’s diary from this period, I think it is clear that the decision tortured him. He was forced by the direst legal necessity – the impending annihilation of the institutional Church and the loss of the temples – to act, but he worried that what he heard was his own fears not the whispering of the Spirit. Indeed, I think that the history of post-Manifesto polygamy occurred because the revelation that Woodruff received was minimalist. It was the least possible retreat from polygamy consistent with the survival of the Church. He simply couldn’t feel any authorization from the Spirit to do anything more. In part, I think that this is precisely because he was acting under such extreme duress.
The second example is David O. McKay. President McKay was troubled by the racial priesthood ban. He wanted the doctrine and practice to change, and on numerous occasions he reported to intimates going to the Lord and seeking a revelation on the matter. He reported that he was unable to feel any answer from the Spirit. To my knowledge he never provided a detailed account of his own internal dialogue in those prayers and the examination of his own soul for the traces of the Spirit that must have been involved. I suspect, however, that part of what inhibited his receiving a revelation was, ironically, his very desire that such a revelation be given. As a man sincerely convinced that it was not his Church to do with as he saw fit, I suspect that he feared above all else mistaking his desire for God’s word.
If I am right about this, I suspect it means that if a revelation on women and the priesthood was ever to come it would come – like the revelation on blacks and the priesthood – after the public Sturm und Drang has ceased. This is why I believe that the Ordain Women movement will fail. That said, I suspect that it will have a positive influence on the Church in this sense: It places pressure on Church practices around gender. I don’t think it will move the issue on priesthood ordination because I believe that practice is central and seen as non-negotiable in the absence of special revelation. On the other hand, the Ordain Women movement – if it survives for a substantial period of time – will likely cause a lot of thinking about what is central and non-negotiable and what is not. In that thinking, I suspect that we are likely to see pragmatic attempts to increase the status and participation of women in Church government in ways that can be accommodated without priesthood ordination.
I’ve no idea if there will ever be a revelation commanding the ordination of women. I will, however, hazard a bet that so long as the Ordain Women movement uses general conference to generate media events, no such revelation will be forthcoming.