Sheri Dew’s recently released Women and the Priesthood: What One Mormon Woman Believes (Deseret 2013) comes on the heels of an eventful year for liberal Mormon women. The day(s) of Pants, the petitions for women to pray in conference, and the launching of Ordain Women’s official site, among other events, have provoked widespread discussion on the well-worn but still dimly understood topic of women and the priesthood.
Women and the Priesthood, despite the title, isn’t so much an attempt to answer questions about women’s lack of priesthood authority (ordination), the nature of the priesthood, or the relationship between gender and the priesthood, so much as it is an attempt to discuss women’s general status and participation in the Church. This is important to note, since readers approaching the book with the former questions in mind will most likely be disappointed. Dew dedicates only one chapter to the topic of women and the priesthood, packed between seven other “contextual” or “foundation-laying” chapters, which highlight ways women should understand their eternal role, identity, and relationship to God and the Church.
It is clear early on that Dew’s imagined audience is split between those who think women have no significance in the Church (i.e. uninformed outsiders or members who are missing the picture) and those wishing to defend women’s current position in LDS belief and practice. As a result of this polarization, a considerable population is excluded: active, faithful members who are uneasy with or puzzled about the relationships between women, gender, and the priesthood, as currently practiced or discussed by the Church.
A primary reason this population is left out is because Dew doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that active, faithful members could question or doubt the status quo. To Dew, the lines between secular organizations and the ever-inspired Church are simple and clear-cut: “The structure, purpose, and rules of governance won’t ever be the same [as secular organizations] because man-made organizations are led by men, whereas the Church is led by God” (78). The polarization, in other words, is the result of a key conflation, taken for granted by Dew, of God’s will and the existing state of affairs in the Church. That conflation, however, is precisely the point of contention with many questioning members.
This conflation emerges most saliently in chapter four, entitled “God is Perfect and So Is His Son,” which could be summarized with Dew’s sweeping statement: “Because this Church belongs to the Lord, everything in it belongs to Him as well—the organizational structure, governance, ordinances, covenants, commandments, power, and authority. Everything. It is all His” (77). The work this oft-used domino rhetoric does, however, is double-edged: while it could, perhaps, subdue the “stunning arrogance” of “anyone who believes that he or she knows better than the Lord how He should organize His Church” (79)(if this straw man does, in fact, exist), it also removes the wiggle room that Dew herself calls for in the next chapter when explaining some of the inarguably human elements of Church history (90-91). Upholding this dichotomous schema is an interesting move for Dew to make, in light of recent developments on lds.org and in the Church History department to provide more nuanced accounts of Church history and leaders.
Another effect of this polarization and conflation is to eliminate the field of legitimate questions—which is also puzzling considering the results to Deseret Book’s recent survey, which, she states, found that “many women feel there is no ‘safe place’ to share their concerns or even ask pointed questions” (8). Yet it is difficult to find space for such questions among the stark lines, straw men, and calls to faith (or “tests” of faith) that Dew continually invokes in her book. There is only the choice between being a “faithful” woman or an “absurdly arrogant” one; between accepting and celebrating the state of affairs as God’s will, or one-upping God’s wisdom; and so on.
On the other hand, the emphatic attention to the positive elements of LDS theology (the valued role of Eve) and history towards women (early suffrage, encouragement of learning and medical professionalization, the founding of the Relief Society, etc.), the active roles women play in the Church (teaching, leading, etc.) and the opportunities they have to engage with or approach God directly (revelation, ordinances, motherhood, etc.) may provide a reassuring repository of evidence to those wondering whether women have been wholly ignored in LDS practice and belief.
Chapter six, the only one to explicitly treat women and the priesthood, seems addressed to this group. Dew chooses to frame the discussion with the question: “If Mormon men are the only ones eligible for the high privilege of priesthood ordination, what do Mormon women get?” (102). Framing it this way, Dew avoids the more particular question of why Mormon women get, or do not get, certain responsibilities or privileges in the Church. She instead addresses the more general theme of women’s complementary cooperation in LDS soteriology and institutional roles.
Perhaps as a result, this chapter stays on a largely general level and neglects some of the more relevant issues of women and priesthood, like women performing ordinances in the temple (this receives a passing mention as an “exception” to men’s stewardship over priesthood ordinances), women receiving the title of future “queens and priestesses” in temple rituals, women wearing “garments of the holy priesthood,” and the various recorded statements or patriarchal blessings from the early church involving women and the priesthood. The issue of women healing in the early church is dealt with by several possibilities, none of which promote the idea that women were engaging in proto/actual priesthood ordinances.
This chapter, along with other passages throughout the book, does, however, illuminate issues in Mormon theology and practice that have yet to be worked out (Dew herself doesn’t dispute the many unknowns). For all the technical distinctions between priesthood keys, power, and authority, for example, their application to women results in many blurred lines. In one passage, for example, Dew cites Pres. Joseph Fielding Smith as saying that “the sisters have not been given the Priesthood” (118), while also citing Elder Ballard’s recent address (August 2013) that women, along with men, are “endowed with….priesthood power” in the temple (105). What exactly does this mean? What is the difference between being endowed with priesthood power, and being given the Priesthood? Similarly, Dew asserts that as a single woman without a “priesthood holder,” she still has “access to priesthood power in [her] home” (121). In what sense, then, do women have, or not “have,” the priesthood?
In the discussion of keys, Dew cites a personal example of experiencing the “utter futility of attempting to serve without the power of a presiding authority,” finding herself presenting at a Church meeting without divine aid (122). What then, is the purpose of the Holy Ghost, if not to inspire, guide, and empower? Indeed, Parley P. Pratt’s description of the Holy Ghost that Dew cites earlier on (61) and Dew’s description of priesthood power are difficult to distinguish. What is the difference between priesthood power and the Holy Ghost, as well as related issues like healings of faith and healings of the priesthood?
Dew also affirms Elder Oak’s assertion that the priesthood is not equivalent to men, yet also cites Harold B. Lee’s teaching that “pure womanhood plus priesthood means exaltation,” and “womanhood without priesthood, or priesthood without womanhood, doesn’t spell exaltation” (131). How are members to separate the notion of priesthood from maleness, if they are continually evoked as equivalents? What do Mormons believe about men’s relationship to the priesthood; is it eternal? Temporary?
This matter also becomes complicated in Dew’s discussion of the complementary nature of men and women in God’s plan and the relationship between motherhood and priesthood. In one passage by John A. Widstoe, “Motherhood is an eternal part of Priesthood” (143), yet in another, Dew explains motherhood as a separate, foreordained endowment meant to parallel men’s foreordination to holding the priesthood (142). In what way will motherhood (and fatherhood) be eternal? What is fatherhood’s relationship to the priesthood? If motherhood is the defining essence of a woman’s identity, is priesthood a man’s, or would it be fatherhood? How does the role of fatherhood fit into discussions where the parallel between motherhood and priesthood is maintained? Will that change at all with the increasingly egalitarian, shared nature of parenting?
And will Church attitudes towards feminism shift with the more expansive, less militant nature of third-wave feminism? If Dew firmly states that she is “not a feminist” within the first two pages of the book, yet abstains from defining the term, what are members (especially those who self-identify as feminist) to understand about the relationship between Mormonism and feminism?
These issues, among dozens of other questions that came to mind while reading Dew’s book, are useful markers to track the discussion of women and the priesthood in LDS culture. If we are to use Dew’s book as an indication of the opinions of the mainstream, or of the upper echelons of Church hierarchy, then it is evident that questions about women and the priesthood are not questions that can be treated on their own terms, yet. They serve primarily as indicators of devotion and orthodoxy; and questioning members, it seems, are left to navigate that difficult line on their own.
A follow-up companion review will be coming shortly from Andrea Radke-Moss