Thursday, June 19, 2014

Brief Thoughts on Ordain Women

A good LDS friend recently sent me a message inquiring for some of my thoughts on the Ordain Women movement, and in light of the recent furor surrounding the prospect of disciplinary action for the movement's leader Kate Kelly (as well as for John Dehlin of the Mormon Stories podcast and for Alan Rock Waterman of the Pure Mormonism blog), I figure this is as good a time as any to put forth some of my (fairly scatterbrained) thoughts on the subject.  (For the record, I have no real sympathy for Dehlin and am astonished that he didn't get excommunicated earlier; and I'm not familiar enough with Waterman to speak to the issue.  So far as I am aware, leadership of the Ordain Women movement is the only factor involved in the apostasy charges being pursuted against Kate Kelly, and that does not seem to meet a reasonable standard of what constitutes "apostasy".)  For what I'm sure is a more comprehensive and fair picture of the issues at play, my blogrolls contain a variety of LDS-related blogs that have produced an assortment of posts relating to the Ordain Women movement - some favorable, others unfavorable.

My friend's inquiry particularly concerned the comparisons being drawn by supporters of Ordain Women between (1) the current and longstanding ban on bestowing the LDS priesthood upon women and (2) the pre-1978 ban on bestowing the LDS priesthood upon people of certain ethnic backgrounds.  My friend notes some differences he sees between the two issues: first, on the grounds of the basis of the restriction; and second, on the grounds of the methods employed by opponents of each ban.

I think that the precise nature of the comparisons being made, and the point to their use, is pivotal to addressing this issue.  What is it about the pre-1978 priesthood ban that either offers precedent or else provides other factors of relevance to those who oppose the other priesthood ban that remains in effect to this day?  From what I have read so far by supporters of the Ordain Women movement, appeal to this comparison often enters as a defeater to an assortment of objections that their movement faces, whether these objections are expressly articulated or simply anticipated.

For instance, some dismiss Ordain Women simply because the group is critical of the current doctrine/policy regarding the sex-based priesthood ban.  However, there were faithful Latter-day Saints prior to 1978 who opposed the then-current doctrine/policy regarding the race-based priesthood ban - including members of the upper echelon of church leadership, such as First Presidency member Hugh B. Brown.  Furthermore, so far as can be discerned based on current discussion, the LDS Church has formally disavowed all previous teachings regarding the grounds for the race-based priesthood ban, leaving no conclusion but that, in spite of past defenses of that priesthood ban, it was ultimately groundless - and thus opposing it would have been the proper course at any stage.

Incidentally, I think this point is relevant for my friend's comments on a difference between the bans when it comes to the 'nature' or 'grounds' for the bans.  What the race-based priesthood ban, and the shifting theological perspectives surrounding it, show us today is this: although various theological justifications for the ban were once articulated at all levels of the LDS Church, these justifications have now been dismissed as faulty.  Thus, members of the Ordain Women movement may plausibly argue, there is precedent upon which they may rationally believe that, even in spite of theological justifications for the sex-based priesthood ban being currently articulated at all levels of the LDS Church, those justifications may one day be institutionally dismissed as having always been merely speculative.  Of course, the current state of affairs warrants that they interact with those justifications upon their merits in the present - but members of the Ordain Women movement, and their allies, do precisely that.

Really, I think that this point of comparison is what undercuts virtually every principle-based objection I've heard to the actions of the Ordain Women movement: that is, we live in an era in which there exists a precedent showing that a doctrine/policy of the Church that restricts the priesthood, no matter how universally held, no matter how great a length it has been enforced, no matter how it has been theologically justified, and no matter even if past church leaders have claimed it to be a matter of divine revelation, can nevertheless be overturned and be viewed retrospectively as unjustified.  (After all, even President Hinckley said in 1997 that it was possible that the sex-based priesthood ban would one day be overturned, though he thought that this would require a specific revelation - which had not been sought, merely because "there's no agitation for that".)  This creates theological space for dissent.

If a case against Ordain Women is to be made in terms of the position for which they advocate, then that case must be made by advancing positive reasons why women cannot and should not hold the priesthood - reasons that are more plausible than analogous reasons in support of the now-defunct race-based priesthood ban.  Interaction must be made with the rebuttals offered by Ordain Women and their allies.  The current prevailing strategy of institutionally marginalizing Ordain Women is not a strategy that will accomplish this, whether or not it might succeed in simply making disagreement (temporarily) go away. 

Moreover, Ordain Women's persistent request, as I understand it (at least, according to their own accounts), has been simply for the LDS leadership to devote considerable prayer to the issue, consulting the Lord for revelation, and get back to them with the specific outcome.  Contrary to some of the rhetoric by their opponents, this has been one of the significant tangible requests that they have been making - other than admittance into some of the same church meetings that I, as a non-LDS man, would be admitted.  Well, if a portion of the membership would like the Church's leadership to pray about something, why not pray about it and report the results, if the church in question is built upon the notion that we can receive fresh revelation for our day and age?

As for methods, it seems to me that Ordain Women has been relatively tame.  Given that the 'priesthood session' of General Conference is open to non-LDS men to attend, and given that the contents are now streamed online like the rest of the General Conference sessions, I fail to see any possible justification whatsoever from blocking them access.  (And, from a mere public relations perspective, one blogger presented a far more effective way that that event could have been handled by Ordain Women's institutional opponents.)  Other than simply being known to the LDS and non-LDS world - and I suspect that the media coverage of the disciplinary actions has given them a considerable publicity bump - what, precisely, have they done that is methodologically problematic?  There may well be something; I have no vested interest in saying that Ordain Women has handled the matter well.  (Indeed, any diverse and controversial movement is virtually guaranteed to make some methodological missteps, to say the least.)  But seldom have I seen critics of Ordain Women actually attempt to carefully document the alleged methodological oversteps in a convincing way.  Even more infrequently have critics of Ordain Women's methods offered alternative effective ways to seek to advocate for the changes they hope church leaders and members will make.

I can understand why some Latter-day Saints, even many Latter-day Saints, would not be sympathetic to Ordain Women's hopes.  I can understand why even some sympathetic Latter-day Saints would be less than comfortable with the methods (actual or perceived) employed by Ordain Women, or with the controversies that have ensued due to the apparent impasse.  For my own part, my sympathies do lie with the cause advocated by Ordain Women - even though, in many respects other than this particular issue, I'm likely to feel more kinship with Ordain Women's male and female LDS critics.  I'd like to see the LDS Church drop the restriction of priesthood to only the worthy male members.  Then again, I'm an Evangelical; there's plenty I'd like to see change in the LDS Church.  But even setting aside the question of the sex-based priesthood ban itself, setting aside anything that would require adjustments to LDS theology, there are still some matters where greater equity could be established between men and women within LDS culture. 

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