Dear New York Times

Guess who made headlines in the New York Times…


I mean, not me specifically, but Mormon women did. I happen to be one of those, so of course I had to read these articles published back to back last week. Missions signal a Growing Role for Mormon Women and this one Mormon Women Flood of Requests.

The problem with writing about a religion is that if you are a practitioner of a particular faith it’s hard to report without bias or to be seen as credible even at your most unbiased. On the other hand, if you’re an outsider to a religion you’re reporting on a culture you’re not a part of, using a language you don’t speak. Every religion has it’s own language, but Mormonism’s is particularly hard to understand because we use a lot of familiar terms but define them differently than other Christian faiths. (Hence the cry of “you’re not Christian” you just heard from some Christians who may stumble upon this little blog).

For the most part the co-writers of both these articles did a fairly good job of speaking our language, they got some things wrong. Usually that doesn’t bug me, but since their articles devolved from an interesting discussion about how the rise in women missionaries is changing the face of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, into a story about a small contingent among millions of Mormons who would like to see women ordained to the priesthood, I feel like a little interpretation is in order.  (To be clear, my interpretation = my interpretation and understanding of Church doctrine through years of study and prayer on this topic. It is in no way official).

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not being critical of the woman who are calling for ordination. I’m frustrated by the way their fight for what they see as greater power and authority diminishes the power and authority women already have. But while I don’t support their cause, I fully support them in their right to ask, even demand, what they see as a necessary step toward equality within the Church. My understanding of the priesthood doesn’t make me think they will be successful in their fight for ordination, but I empathize with their need to fight for it nonetheless. They are bringing to light changes that can, and should, be made so that men and women more fully realize the power in the priesthood as they use it together.

But back to the articles themselves and some problems with them. Let’s start with this quote:
To revise female roles in the church threatens what many see as the very foundations of the faith, which dictate that men are ordained as priests at the tender age of 18, taking the title “Elder,” while women, who can never progress beyond “Sister,” are considered holiest and most fulfilled as wives and mothers.

The “foundations of the faith” they’re referring to, I suppose, are our beliefs and practices regarding the Priesthood. To be clear, however, our faith and church has one foundation: Jesus Christ. That’s it. Everything we do goes back to our belief in His atonement and resurrection.

Of course, since Christ not only holds the Priesthood, but is the priesthood, it is an essential part of our foundation. Here’s where things get tricky, though. Our definition of priesthood may closely match that of Catholics and Protestants, but our inferred meaning does not, and neither does our application of the Priesthood. The Priesthood can never be a career path for either a Mormon woman or man. No eighteen year old boy ordained an elder can choose to serve in certain positions that may move him up the ranks to President some day. The purpose of the priesthood is simply to bless the lives of others. While only men within the Mormon church are ordained to administer the priesthood, it is through the priesthood that both men and women do as Christ did: bless the lives of others.

Boys are ordained priests at the age of 16, not 18, while they still hold only the Aaronic, or lower, priesthood. Their responsibilities are pretty limited but do include the authority to bless the sacrament each Sunday and perform baptisms if asked to do so. They must be ordained as Elders before participating in the highest temple rituals (we call them ordinances), but are only called Elder while serving missions or if they are called (askED to serve–this is different from askING to serve) in the Quorum of Seventy or as an Apostle.

Do there seem to be some inequities here? On the surface, yes. But you know who can enter the temple and officiate in the same ordinances as men without being ordained to the priesthood? Women. So are there inequities in that also? Not when you stop defining equality as sameness (2 + 2 and 3 +1 both equal the same thing even though they look different, right?).

In a church whose doctrines include those of eternal progression–meaning we continue to learn and grow forever–and agency–meaning we choose how much we learn and grow– the idea that women “can never progress beyond ‘Sister'” doesn’t really work. Our progress is neither dependent upon another person, nor upon any titles given. Our progress is only dependent upon ourselves and the choices we make. To progress in the Church does not mean moving up the ladder like it does in the business world. Since our clergy is a lay clergy and callings (positions we’re ASKED to fill) are often based more on inspiration than ability, a secular view of progress doesn’t fit the Mormon definition, whether it’s applied to women or men. There’s no ladder to climb in Christ’s church, nor should there be.

But for those who place importance in titles, there is another one women can be known by. I am currently serving as the Young Women President in my congregation. This means I am called to be the women’s leader over girls age 12-18 and, as such, I am referred to as President by my bishop (pastor of our congregation) and his two counselors, as are my female counterparts in the women’s and children’s organizations and my male counterpart in the young men’s organization. The young women themselves, however, call me Sister, just as the young men call my counterpart, Brother. The title of president is only important to me in that it sends the message to my young women that  my responsibility to them is equal to that of the Young Men President over the boys (this is a rare instance where  sameness does translate to equality).

As for the charge that women are “considered holiest and most fulfilled as wives and mothers,” consider this statement by President Harold B. Lee given in 1974 and quoted by President Howard W. Hunter twenty years later in General Priesthood Meeting which only men attend: “The most important of the Lord’s work you and I will ever do will be within the walls of our own homes.” Did they mean Mormon men should have home-based businesses? That they should find careers they advance in within their homes? No.

Our theology teaches that families are eternal, God is, literally, our Heavenly Father, and we lived with him before coming to earth. Since God is giving mothers and fathers responsibility for His children and we will have to report back to Him about how we fulfilled this responsibility, is there anything more holy or more fulfilling (or frustrating) for a man or woman than marriage and children? I have never heard any Church leader ever say that a man will be more fulfilled by remaining single and pursuing worldly success rather than getting married and becoming a father.

See how reporters can miss all the context behind the syntax when they report on a culture they’re not part of in a language that sounds like their own but isn’t? I try to remember this every time I read about another religion.

Here’s another example, and it’s a biggie:

But when asked how they felt about women joining the priesthood, which would allow them to assume religious decision-making authority, Ms. Ensign and Ms. Scott shook their heads and let out nervous giggles. “I already have way too much responsibility,” Ms. Ensign said.

First of all, it’s Sister Ensign and Sister Scott. If you’re going to make a big deal about women only being able to hold one title in my church, you probably ought to use that one title. While I rarely call my fellow sisters, Sister, the female missionaries are always referred to as Sister. It is a title of respect that is the equivalent of Elder when referring to male missionaries. To give them a secular title like Ms. is to diminish the importance of the work they are doing for our church, which is what you’re article started out about.

Secondly, let me put some context behind this often misunderstood statement, “I already have too much responsibility.” And this one “I don’t want to go to any more meetings.” And all the other ways Mormon women say “I don’t want the Priesthood” that make me crazy because they are so easily misinterpreted as statements of submissiveness.

Do you know what women can do? Everything. Do you know what Mormon women actually do? EVERYTHING. Seriously. Look around. The Mormon woman you know is the one running the PTA, or the classroom, or the book fair or whatever else at your kid’s school. She’s the one you work with who also puts in a lot of unpaid time at her church. She’s the one who just signed the sheet that went around asking for volunteers for whatever it is. She’s the one bringing you dinner tonight. She’s the one you can count on to follow through when she says she’ll do something.

And do you know why?

Because she knows that what she does matters, even if it’s something small and unworthy of recognition. She knows that her power comes, not from someone ordaining her, but from her innate ability to influence the world for good.

Let me give you some examples of how we use that influence and how it works in conjunction with an ordained male’s responsibility to administer the Priesthood.

It starts with our belief in Adam and Eve and our understanding of who Eve was; an understanding that is increased as men and women officiate in temple ordinances. In our theology, Eve is not the weaker sex who gave into temptation and thus is to blame for the world of sin every person is born into. Rather, Eve is the women who thoughtfully partook of the fruit that allows all of mankind the blessing of mortal life. She made the decision to leave the Garden of Eden in order to have children, knowing she and they would face hardships, trials, and temptations, but also knowing we need these things to progress and live with God our Heavenly Father again. She used her influence to help Adam see that eating the fruit was not only necessary, but also part of God’s plan.

Original sin? We don’t have that in our doctrine (check out our Article of Faith #2). Which means we also don’t share a basic belief of other Christian faiths. A belief that scores of religious men have used for centuries to justify the mistreatment or subjugation of women.

Here’s a more personal example of how a woman’s power to influence is as important as an ordained man’s responsibility to administer. When I was fourteen I attended a special youth meeting that centered around the standards of morality the Church teaches. I sat next to a friend of my mom’s, Christine Funk, as the priesthood leader assigned the topic of chastity gave the infamous “a white rose touched turns brown” talk. He ended by recounting how when he got married he sent his wife’s former young women leader a dozen white roses to thank her for teaching his wife this very important lesson.

I sat through that talk convinced I was that brown wilted rose because I had kissed a boy when I was twelve. I had denied my future husband the privilege of sending any of my young women leaders a dozen white roses. Even worse, I had committed a grievous sin from which there was no return because I had kissed a boy on the lips on a dare. And since it was too late, what was the point of even living the standards being taught? What kind of man would want to marry me anyway?

I can’t tell you the hopelessness I felt before Chris leaned over and said to me, “I can’t believe he just said that. That does not take into account the Atonement or repentance.”

With those two sentences a woman who had no official “authority” over me changed the course of my life. She taught me correct doctrine by following a feeling  to say something she had no idea how much I needed to hear. Her influence had more power than the priesthood authority of Brother So and So who was fulfilling an administrative assignment in an earnest, though woefully misguided, way.

My husband has administered priesthood blessings to a number of my friends whose own husbands were either out of town when the need arose or were unworthy to do so because they’d chosen not to live up to the standards required to administer. (Meaning, just because they were ordained doesn’t mean they had the authority to use their priesthood office). On one occasion he went to my friend’s house to help our bishop give her and her children blessings of comfort during a very difficult time caused by the choices of her husband and their father. Within minutes he called me to come over and help. They were so distraught he had no idea what to do.

After my husband and our bishop gave the blessings, I held my friend and her children. I shared my feelings about Christ’s atonement and forgiveness while they, my husband, and my bishop listened. My words and my husband’s blessings couldn’t fix the problems caused by another husband and father’s poor choices, but they did bring comfort. Together we used the power of the priesthood to administer, to influence, to love and to bless the lives of others.

We’ve had other experiences like this where he has used his power to administer in conjunction with my power to influence and nurture to bless the lives of others. These opportunities have taught us the importance of not only fulfilling our separate responsibilities, but also working together to do so in order to more fully realize the power in the priesthood. If I were ordained to administer priesthood blessings, my friends would have asked me to lay my hands on their heads instead of my husband. But then how would he have served them? When would he have learned how indispensable husbands and fathers are without the opportunity to step in when other men couldn’t or wouldn’t live up to their responsibilities?

I could give you a hundred other examples of women using their influence to bless the lives of others without being ordained to do so. Like the first counselor in my Young Women presidency who is a vice president at an international company. She has used her power to influence for good both in the workplace and the church by changing people’s perceptions of childbirth from something to fear to something to embrace. She has used her pregnancy to teach our young women to see the connection between the agony and suffering women go through to give mortal life to God’s children and the agony and suffering Christ endured to provide eternal life to God’s children.

Or my young women who had the courage to report the disparaging and inappropriate remarks about women a popular teacher at their high school was making, leading to his dismissal. I can give you the examples of my mother, my grandmother, my aunts, my friends, and my sisters who have had as great an influence in my life as any man ordained to the priesthood.

Women can do everything. That doesn’t mean they should.

So, Ms. Reporters, when you quote a Mormon woman saying she doesn’t “want the responsibility” of the Priesthood, this is the context behind it. It’s not that we don’t want it, it’s that we already have it. It just looks different from what you, or even Mormon women themselves, think it should.

If women want to use their influence to stand in a line for a meeting, no harm can come from that. They need to be heard. Women need to be heard. More importantly, they need to embrace their power and use it.

So while I won’t be standing in any lines, here’s how I will embrace my power and use my influence. I will fight to change outdated conversations about chastity so that no young women who doesn’t have a Chris Funk sitting next to her will feel worthless. I’ll fight to change conversations about modesty so the words “modest is hottest” are never used and reverence, love and respect for our bodies is emphasized. I’ll teach girls the need for education and careers along with the divinity of marriage and motherhood. I’ll do whatever it takes for women to recognize and be recognized for the miracles we perform every single day just by being women.

And if some day our living prophet receives a revelation that women should be ordained, I’ll step up and do what’s asked of me. Just please don’t call me to be the financial clerk. I watched my husband muddle his way through that calling for three and half years and. . .

 I really don’t want that responsibility.

22 thoughts on “Dear New York Times

  1. Kaylee Baldwin says:

    Great, well-thought out points. I totally agree that it's hard to understand context when you're not exposed to the church all the time. Your girls are lucky to have such an informed leader! (ps… I stumbled over here from Melanie's FB page and realized that I met you at the Storymaker conference last year while waiting to pitch!) Keep on with the good work.


  2. adi :) says:

    Very thoughtful and well written. Thank you. I am Chris's sister and a lifelong (short as it was) friend of your Aunt Lovell. I listened to the women reporters from the Times articles on Radio West a couple of days ago, and I thought that one of them understood better than the other. I have never commented on a blog before so I hope I do this correctly. I am old and not very tech savvy.


  3. M says:

    I appreciate your respectful approach and kind disagreement (rather than the angry judgment I see tossed at Mormon feminists in so many Internet forums).A few things. Women don't officiate in the temple in the same way men do. I'll try to be direct while respecting sensitivity some people have about sharing *anything* about the temple. Women do officiate in some ordinances. In the endowment, though, they really don't. Who does the talking? The calling? The placing under covenant? No women do this.Also, it frustrates me when people say “my husband and I use the priesthood together.” No. You don't. He uses the priesthood, you can work in ways that model it, but you do not hold priesthoo authority. Same goes for me and my husband.Lastly, sure men are told their most important work is in their home. They are also validated for out-of-the-home work. This has only recently (VERY recently) begun to shift in terms of how women are addressed….their out-of-the home paid work is most often resented as a “by necessity only” scenario, which is neither right, fair, nor takes into account the individual needs (outside of financial ones that the church has long accepted) of individual women that might make them want to work outside the home.


  4. Adam says:

    An interesting argument. But did you know that the sealing of children to their parents is similarly “skewed”?It isn't widely known, or taught explicitly, that when “born in the covenant,” the New and Everlasting Covenant is given to the children through the mother. So put explicitly, the children are sealed directly to their mother and only indirectly to their father.This becomes evident in a common, if unfortunate, situation of spousal death and subsequent remarriage. As a quick side note, this is my family situation. Say a man and woman are sealed in the temple, have some children, after which the husband dies. The widow, being young and with several children to raise, desires companionship and a father to help raise her children. So she remarries. Now, unless she desires to break her sealing to get deceased husband, she would not be sealed to her new husband. Now, before you cry foul, the same would be true in the reverse situation.This newly married widow then has a child with her new husband. Interestingly, this child is considered to be “born in the covenant” even though they were born to a couple who are not sealed to each other. This is because the covenant is passed through the mother. This is the way The Father has always worked. This can be seen in how, biblically, the children of Jews are determined to be Jewish or not. The fathers heritage matters very little. If the mother is Jewish, the children are then Jewish.So then, we come back to the author's consideration that, although not the same, the covenants received in the temple are equal.


  5. Brittany Larsen says:

    Thank you for all your comments. Kaylee and Nancy, I remember you both and appreciate your kind words.Empowering – I was thinking more of the initiatory. I believe I said the same ordinances, not the same endowment. That being said, I have noticed the language of the endowment that you have pointed out. I've had questions about it and have spent years pondering, praying, and studying to get answers. Through that process I've come to see Eve, and myself, in the role of Christ. I personally don't believe that our Heavenly Father is greater than Christ, even though instructions come from Him first. I don't have all the answers to the things that trouble you and other women, but I understand your argument. I'm sorry if you feel hurt by what I've said.What I do know is that every time I go to the temple I learn something. I've learned something about priesthood authority by attending the same sessions as my bishop and stake president and seeing that they are not given a place of honor or special privileges because of their church callings. I've learned that a hierarchical model doesn't work within the church or the gospel. If “all truth is circumscribed into one great whole” then a top down or bottom up structure doesn't work and power and authority have different meaning. For that reason, I respectfully disagree with your assertion “we cannot keep using the temple to bolster arguments that men and women receive equitable access to God's power and blessings in the temple.”M – thank you for your sensitivity in not oversharing what happens in the temple. I think my answers to Empowering's comments apply to yours also. I will add that 30 years ago my mom chose to work in part to be intellectually fulfilled and never felt criticized or judged for doing so (this was in small town Mormon Idaho)That's not to say Mormons aren't always supportive of women working outside the home, only to say she chose not to feel that criticism or question what she'd chosen to do. Adam – thanks for explaining something I have wondered about.


  6. Brittany Larsen says:

    Thank you, Empowering. You have brought up a lot of things for me to think about as I attend the temple. Honestly, I think we both want the same thing for women, which is empowerment, we just see two different courses to that end. I really appreciate your thoughtful and respectful response. I think the first step to empowerment for women inside and outside the church is to stop belittling each other when we see things differently and respect each other for those differences.That being said, I'm taking down your first response. Not because I think it's disrespectful in anyway, but rather because we have different levels of comfort when it comes to sharing what happens inside the temple outside of it. To be very clear though, I don't think you have violated any temple covenants, only shared more than what I am willing to on my blog. Thanks for your understanding. Again, I appreciate both of your thought provoking comments and wish you the best in your journey of personal understanding.


  7. Britt Kelly says:

    Interesting discussion! I'm a fairly conservative gal who tends to experience the temple ala Empowering. sigh. When I went through the temple before a mission I struggled with what my place was as a single sister. I do struggle with someone between me and God. The idea of sealing being passed through the woman is interesting.I really value open discourse and understand and respecting differences, which I am really enjoying in these comments. I think the way we view Eve is powerful.


  8. Mary Summerhays says:

    What happens in the temple and also in the organizational structure of the church is the puniest part of the priesthood- since the priesthood as defined in the abrahamic covenant is synonymous with having seed:”and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood) and in thy seed (that is, thy Priesthood), for I give unto thee a promise that this right shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed,”Since men and women relate to having seed differently, it is no surprise that priesthood interplays in and through them differently. Priesthood – or the ability to have seed- is biologically inherent in women. Whenever a baby is born, the mother is gauranteed to be there. But the father's relationship is much more tenuous. Ironically when we say that men and women are interchangeable objects, we have created a world where every child has a mother, but few children have fathers. For men, Priesthood is an external power that is ordained upon them in order to help restore successful and binding family relationships. The pain caused by corrupted fathering was a subject Abraham knew well. Men exercise what Abraham called “the rights of the fathers” in order to heal the human family from the wounds of fatherlessness. Whether it is administering sealing ordinances in the temple, or mentoring their sons and brothers on how to treat women with respect, and fidelity. The purpose of this power is to restore Abrahams “seed” or family, since God promised that his family would be lost and restored. As prophesied, his children have been scattered into every nation. The point of the priesthood that men carry is to gather Abraham's seed from every nation, teach them who they are, and then seal them together in the temple until all the nations of the earth are blessed with this family thread. God cares about building the human family through loving constructive relationships. And although he certainly has concern for our financial and temporal needs, It is a far lower priority, as seen by the fact that he didn't make inter-generational biblical promises about them, and build entire social orders around welding them together with eternally binding ordinances. All this to say, yes she does hold the priesthood with him, in a way that is much more powerful than any woman or man officiating in the temple. Because the purpose of the temple is to make sure that there are no more orphans, that none of us are fatherless, or motherless- That we like Adam and Eve are sealed to our Eternal Father. The officiating (biological, and sociological) we receive from our mothers and fathers in the home is vastly more powerful than the limited officiating we run into at church and temple, where it is just a placeholder symbolizing what we had (or missed) at home.


  9. Brittany Larsen says:

    Thanks, Britt for your comments. I've often wondered how my view of the temple would be different were I single. I've loved everyone's comments and have learned so much. While I deleted one of Empowering's responses, I've kept it in my private email to read and ponder.Mary, I've had to re-read what you wrote over and over. There is so much information and truth in that short comment. Thank you so much for sharing because I've learned from it. The words we often hear about making our homes temples have greater meaning now.


  10. DeNae / SHP says:

    I wish I could *like* Mary Summerhays's comment. Wow. Spot on! And guess what, girlfriend: I think this is going viral. I've seen it linked on FB. You are a star, and not just because facebook says you are! (ps–I would be very interested in reading those deleted comments.)


  11. Darrin Simpson says:

    Brittany, that was sweeeet I loved the NYT article and was stunned by those who did not. I like how you showed the need for context. Thanks for this great post 🙂 Hope all is well with you and yours. I will say hi to Matt and Rebecca for you 🙂


  12. Karen M. Peterson says:

    Thank you for this post. You've put into words thoughts that have been floating around in my head and that I have not had time to sit down and think through. This is very insightful, well-written, and deserves to be read by EVERYONE.


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