There?s a new Mormon urban legend making the rounds.
You may have heard it before ? even from me.
The story goes like this: an infant has been brought to be blessed and given a name in a Mormon sacrament meeting, a public rite of passage initiating the newborn into the community of the congregation, and by extension, into the Church as a whole. The father for whatever reason is unavailable to perform the ceremony, so an elderly relative, generally a grandfather, steps in. The child is brought before the congregation, the old man lays his hands upon it, and promptly ordains the child to priestly office. The blessing ritual has been bungled.
In most variants, it is the Melchizedek priesthood, usually reserved for all active adult men (and the authority by which the grandfather performed the rite in the first place) that is bestowed, which heightens the incongruity. In every variant, the child is a girl, barred from priestly office in the LDS church. That?s the first punchline.
The second follows: after various leaders express alarm, the grandfather waves him off, turns back to the child, waves his hand over it, and declares ?Undone.?
I first heard this story in 2008, told to me by a dear friend in my own congregation. It was presented as something she had witnessed shortly before I arrived. So I retold it for a couple of years as an event that had taken place in my ward. Then, I began to hear it from others ? a friend in California, my brother in law in Utah, and now, another friend in Kansas ? and am now reconsidering. It appears to be metastasizing in the way that all good urban legends do.
There are a number of aspects of this story worth interrogating ? particularly why it?s taking off at the present moment. I will suggest two, but feel free to speculate more.
First, there?s the gendered aspects of the story. The story?s plot ? and much of its appeal ? turns on the giddily transgressive act of the ordination of a girl. The stakes of female ordination here are heightened precisely because it occurs in such a typical ritual setting, thus, the story breaks the ordered cosmos and sends a congregation into the dizzy carnival of disrupted expectations.
But the story wouldn?t heft the weight it does without the second aspect: that word ?undone.? The ultimate loopiness of the narrative lies in the fact that the restoration of normal order in this story is achieved only through further disruption: the grandfather?s apparent invention of a ritual practice. What?s interesting here is that the story points to the innovation, inventiveness, and ad hoc nature that indeed characterized much of early Mormon ritual-making before the settlements of practice in the twentieth century. In the story, then, we hear echoes of an old ritual past, marshalled here to defend the conservative entrenchment of the twentieth century.