“Did you hear that!” asked Brother Smith, his face flushed with indignation. “I cannot believe that woman would talk that way about the Brethren.” We were gathered at a Washington, DC Sunstone symposium in the early 1990s and had just listened to Carol Lynn Pearson present “A Walk in Pink Moccasins” where she speaks to an imaginary audience of young men as if she is “one of the Presiding Sisters.” The talk attempts to simulate for men the type of discourse young women (and presumably all women) hear regularly from priesthood leaders. Neither my wife nor I were really surprised by Brother Smith’s outrage at Sister Pearson’s talk. After all, he was an institute teacher and one of the main bastions of Wasatch-front LDS orthodoxy in our Maryland area. Attending a Sunstone presentation was a major stretch for him.

It wasn’t five minutes after Brother Smith had moved on to mingle with other Sunstone attendees that his wife approached us.

“Did you hear that! That was the most amazing talk I have ever heard,” Sister Smith said somewhat conspiratorially. Her excitement could hardly be contained even as she looked over her shoulder to make sure her husband was out of earshot. Sister Smith was a changed woman, a woman on fire.

When a few years later Brother and Sister Smith were divorced, neither my wife nor I were really surprised. From just this one experience, we assumed there were some real communication problems in their marriage. What amazed me, however, beyond the huge difference in the Smiths’ responses to Pearson’s “Walk,” and Brother Smith’s cluelessness about his own wife’s opinions, was that Brother Smith could be so defensive when a woman expressed frustration about her role in the Church. It was then that I realized how oblivious men could be to their own sense of privilege. Pearson wistfully imagines that, after hearing her address, “the men nod their heads and say, ‘I see,’ and they are never quite the same again.” However, Brother Smith was not nodding his head in agreement. Not only didn’t he  understand the perspective Pearson was trying to share, he got defensive about a perceived attack on priesthood authority and remained ignorant to the legitimate concerns Pearson raised.

So, fourteen years after publishing “The Priesthood: Men’s Last, Best Hope” in the pages of Sunstone, I look back on the essay and ask myself, “what might I have been defensive or in denial about?” The essay still represents my own feelings and experiences as a Mormon man; I continue to believe priesthood provokes men to nurture and service and makes them better people than they would be without it; and I have had many people tell me that it helped them make sense of an exclusively male priesthood. But now I come away from reading the essay with this little voice in my head saying “yes, but what about women in the Church?” I’m left with a lingering sense that women’s needs are not being met in the Church and that the Church is diminished by not having more of their input. How we, as a community, remedy this situation is something, I believe, we must consider.

In the wake of last fall’s discussions about women’s issues in the political sphere where men’s voices sounded so tone deaf and crass, where one U.S. Senate candidate even spoke of “legitimate rape” as if there were such a thing as “illegitimate rape,” I hesitate to enter a discussion about the role of women in the Church. In fact, I am beginning to wonder whether men should even talk about women’s issues, let alone legislate them. Nevertheless, I feel some kind of response to my previous essay is necessary after fourteen years; I feel like that essay no longer represents the full range of my now more complicated feelings about the subject.

The recent BYU Religious Studies Center publication, Shield of Faith reports that among LDS youth, young women have lower feelings of self-esteem than young men (170–71), are more sexually active than young men (8-9), are more likely to confuse sexuality with “affection, acceptance, and belonging” than young men (212), and are more likely to have lower church attendance than young men (33). My own life experience, however, has most shaped my current perspective. As I have watched my own daughter grow to adulthood, I’ve noticed how the Church devotes fewer resources to young women than young men. I’ve witnessed my daughter’s sense of disappointment as the Church community has celebrated the achievements of young men while essentially ignoring the achievements of young women. And I’ve seen how well the priesthood organization fosters in young men a sense of a belonging and commitment to the Church, with specific rites of passage and increasing responsibilities as they progress from Deacons through Priests quorum, while there are few corresponding rites and responsibilities for young women. Furthermore, as I have taught bright young women at both BYU and UVU, they’ve often expressed frustration that Mormon culture limits their life choices, that Mormon men have discounted their feelings and experiences, and that sexist language and assumptions and even jokes are perpetrated by bearers of the priesthood.

I have spoken with many colleagues and friends who have expressed similar frustrations, some who have already left the Church, many more who desperately hang on despite their anger and pain. I have also lived with a brilliant wife whose talents seem to be ignored at Church—for example, she has seldom been called to work with the young women, likely, I assume, because she doesn’t fit the men’s ideas of the proper role model for a young Mormon woman. I’ve heard stories of her male college students acting like they understand the gospel better than she does, as if conferral of the priesthood also bestowed on them wisdom and knowledge. And, as I’ve lived with her over almost thirty years, I’ve come to listen to talks, read scripture, and sing hymns through her perspective and have gained a glimpse of how our rhetoric excludes women. I am reminded of Neylan McBaine’s recent speech at a FAIR conference, where she said, “There is a tremendous amount of pain among our women regarding how they can or cannot contribute to the governance of our ecclesiastical organization and we need to pay attention to that pain.” I would only add that there is also a tremendous amount of pain regarding the way women’s concerns go unnoticed in the Church.

Recently, my service as Ward Clerk forced me to confront some difficult questions about the role of women in the institutional Church. The men I served with were, without exception, kind, inclusive, and dedicated. I never saw any bad behavior or heard any inappropriate comments. Both of the bishops I served with were diligent in keeping in contact with the Primary and Relief Society leadership, clearing callings, listening to needs and concerns, asking for input, treating the female auxiliary leaders with nothing but respect in their interactions with them. But I did see times when the bishopric would get something wrong that could easily have been done right if we’d had input from women at the bishopric meetings. And I also saw times when Primary or Relief Society leaders were upset about a decision made by the Bishop where, I’m confident, they would have better understood and accepted the men’s decision had the women been allowed to be present at the meetings. What surprised me is that there was rarely anything discussed in exclusively male-attended meetings that was any more sensitive in nature than what was discussed in Welfare meetings where women were present. And the women were just as careful with confidentiality as were the men, perhaps more so. I saw no justification for the exclusivity in pastoral care for ward members.

The biggest concern I had while serving as Clerk was when we conducted disciplinary councils. In all cases during my term of service, the councils we conducted were for women; I assume councils for men who got in trouble—most of whom would have been Melchizedek priesthood holders—were conducted at a Stake level. And all of these cases we handled concerned sexual transgressions. I found it very uncomfortable to be one of four men in a room, even as a simple note taker, while listening to women recount details of sexual sins. I must stress that I never saw or heard anything out of line—no prurient requests for extra details, no inappropriate comments, no over-sharing. These councils were all conducted with decorum, uprightness, and charity, kindness. Still, I saw the potential, if things weren’t handled just right, for some serious problems and even potential lawsuits. It seemed to me a simple way to solve this problem would be to have the Relief Society President attend any disciplinary council, if only as a witness.

In fact, I believe many of the practices we reserve for priesthood are a matter of tradition, rather than doctrine. I still believe, as I did fourteen years ago, that Church leaders are inspired, and I would never presume to suggest that I know better than they do, especially about their specific stewardships. But there are many changes, like including the Relief Society President in disciplinary councils, that could be made to expand women’s roles, broaden their voices, in the Church, without giving women the priesthood.

At the close of the nineteenth century, Elder Francis Lyman of the Council of the Twelve was asked if it was alright for members not holding the priesthood to pass the sacrament. Elder Lyman responded:

“You pass it to one another, do you not, all the time, all you sisters and all you brethren? Then why ask the question? The administering of the sacrament is not passing it to the people. The administering of the sacrament is when the brethren offer the prayer in blessing the bread or water. That is the administration of the sacrament. That cannot be done by Deacons, nor by members of the Church who do not bear the Priesthood.”

We often confuse, I believe, cultural practice with official doctrine, we have adopted the business wear of the office world into our meetings and have rendered it holy attire. Yet it originally comes from the profane world of business. Likewise, we often assume that all traditions originated in revelation. Many practices, like Deacons passing the sacrament, have no scriptural precedent and have become the norm in the Church and we don’t always know the origin of these practices. Furthermore, I’ve witnessed vastly different approaches from local Church leaders with whom I’ve served. Where the official Church Handbook is silent, some leaders have seen a restriction while others have seen an opportunity to exercise their imagination and seek direct inspiration. I’ve witnessed some leaders who implement creative and inspired solutions to local problems, while many others feel bound to do only that which is permitted by the Handbook.  I believe we have a massive failure of the imagination when it comes to women’s roles in the Church. We have not thought enough about creative ways to be more inclusive and we are hindered by tradition from seeking inspiration.

In a recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune, columnist Peggy Fletcher Stack reported on the growing number of women who “are not pushing for ordination” but are seeking “a more engaged and visible role” in the Church.  (See also here.) Stack goes on to outline many of the possible changes that could be implemented without any major doctrinal changes:

“[T]reating a stake Relief Society president much as her male counterpart and assigning her to be a regular speaker at stake conferences and in ward worship services; quoting more women in sermons and Sunday School lessons; selecting more women to speak and pray at church wide General Conferences; letting women either conduct (or at least be present at) worthiness interviews for teen girls; choosing strong General Relief Society presidents and allowing them to serve longer and become more visible in the church; and permitting women to serve as mission zone leaders, ward clerks and other traditionally male positions.”

To make such changes would require no revelation or doctrinal innovation, and some of these changes—like integrating quotes from more women in lessons and sermons—can be made independently by individual members. Such changes would require us to rethink cultural practices.

In the Old Testament, naming children is more often the mother’s privilege, rather than father’s. While not all of the naming speeches are recorded, mothers name their children more often than fathers by twenty-seven to seventeen, and their speeches outnumber those by fathers by eighteen to eight. Almost seventy percent of the naming speeches preserved in the Old Testament come from the mouths of women. We know too that from the early days of the Church through the first half of the twentieth century, LDS women regularly blessed and anointed the sick. [1] John A. Widtsoe’s Priesthood and Church Government, essentially the Church Handbook from its publication date in 1939 through at least the early 1960s, reproduced this quote by Joseph Smith under the heading of “Administration to the Sick”:

“Respecting females administering for the healing of the sick, he further remarked, there could be no evil in it, if God gave his sanction by healing; that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on and praying for the sick, than in wetting the face with water; it is no sin for anybody to administer that has faith, or if the sick have faith to be healed by their administration.”[2]

In Selections from Answers to Gospel Questions, which was used as the Melchizedek Priesthood manual in 1972-73, Joseph Fielding Smith responded to a similar question about women administering to the sick with a quote from his father, Joseph F. Smith:

“A wife does not hold the priesthood with her husband, but she enjoys the benefits thereof with him; and if she is requested to lay hands on the sick with him, or with any other officer holding the Melchizedek Priesthood, she may do so with perfect propriety. It is no uncommon thing for a man and wife unitedly to administer to their children.”[3]

Our foremothers did not need priesthood to take an active role in their spiritual lives, and priesthood leaders fully acknowledged the appropriateness of these roles.

They also took seriously our unique and liberating theology. They recognized that by denying original sin and promoting a fortunate Fall our religion leaves Eve and her daughters free from the blame for mortal woes. They acknowledged that a Church that teaches of a Heavenly Mother must recognize the divinity within all women. The Proclamation on the Family states that we are each “a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny.” It can no longer seen heretical to talk about a Heavenly Mother. While some may argue that we simply do not know enough about our Mother in Heaven to talk about her, the same could be said of our Father in Heaven and we still acknowledge Him in our lives and worship.

Once, and for far too long, men of African descent were denied the priesthood. I remember often hearing Church members speculate about the justification for the ban, most assuming these justifications were doctrine, the mind and will of God. The most common folk belief was that those with African blood were not valiant in fighting for truth in the preexistent War in Heaven. Today, the Church has not only changed the policy, opening the priesthood to all worthy male members, but it has denied the folklore justifying that earlier ban. Bruce R. McConkie humbly admitted at the time that members should “Forget everything I have said, or what…Brigham Young…or whomsoever has said…that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.”[4] More recently, the Church issued a new statement about the ban emphasizing that the “origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.”  I think it’s important to note here that the Church statement emphasizes that Church leaders do not know why the ban was put in place to begin with. Likewise, I believe, we do not know why women do not hold the priesthood, nor do we know precisely what role Joseph Smith envisioned for the Relief Society. But judging from the historical record, I believe, it’s safe to say that role was bigger than we see it today.

Might women receive the priesthood in the future? When I was a child, few imagined that the ban on members of African descent would ever be lifted. One of the things I love most about the Church is that it teaches that revelation continues and it adapts itself as we evolve as a people. I hope the priesthood is, likewise, given to women. But I also know that political protests do not result in these kinds of changes. They didn’t in the 1960’s, as the Church faced immense pressure to change its position on Blacks, and they won’t in the twenty-first century if the Church faces pressure to ordain women. These kinds of major changes, as Church leaders stressed then and now, only come from direct revelation. But, as the history of the 1978 revelation makes clear, such a revelation can only happen when Church leaders are asking the right questions of the Lord and when Church members are sufficiently prepared for the changes.

In his 1973 essay, “The Mormon Cross,” Eugene England offered an important path that, I believe, Church members did not take seriously enough. He counseled members to start “praying in our private prayers and in our meetings that the time may soon come when blacks may receive the priesthood and then acting with energy to be prepared for and thus make possible that time.” I know that Gene was not suggesting that prayer be used as a political tool. Gene believed, as do I, that prayers are efficacious only if sincerely offered and should never be used to coerce, embarrass, or effect institutional change. Christ taught when we pray we should “enter into [our] closet” and pray “in secret,” that “thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly” (Matt. 6:6). Prayer is a tool of communication with God not a weapon to be used for social change. Nevertheless, I do believe the time has come for us to pray for further knowledge about women taking on a more equal role in the the Church program, with or without ordination to the priesthood. As the history of the Black members receiving priesthood demonstrated, it is only when we are valiantly seeking God’s will and opening ourselves for any eventuality, that we will find out His will. And I believe that it is we members who are dragging our feet, here. Since the days of Moses, it has always been the members of the Church who are least prepared for changed.

Recently, while I was attending an academic presentation on gender in Mormonism, one woman expressed to me that she didn’t think the Church really cared about women. “They see us as expendable,” she said. This was a life-long member of the Church in good standing. But after a lifetime of trying to raise awareness within the Church, she had seen few results and had lost hope. I had no response for her other than to say that I hope she’s wrong.

But I do believe she was wrong, and a spiritual experience I had many years ago gives me great hope for the future. When we lived in Maryland during the early 1990s, I taught early-morning seminary. The young people from our ward would gather at our small apartment each morning before dawn and struggle to stay awake while studying the scriptures. One morning as we were taking turns reading from the Doctrine and Covenants, we came to section twenty. One of the most devout young women in the ward asked if she could read verses 76-79 which contain the sacrament prayers. Her desire was innocent and sincere. I’m sure she simply yearned for the experience to speak aloud, in public, the words she heard the young men say each Sunday. Since we were not performing the sacrament but simply reading the prayers—it was gospel study not a ritual act—I could see no reason to deny her this opportunity. A sweet spirit settled over the room as she proceeded. Nothing ever felt more right than her humbly saying these prayers out loud. I felt a comforting assurance, a strong witness of the Holy Ghost, that I could not completely understand nor deny. But I came to believe that one day this young woman, all women, will eventually exercise priesthood keys. Perhaps that will mean eventual priesthood bestowal, perhaps it will mean sharing in priesthood power with Mormon men as women do every day in the temple.

In ancient times, the prophet Joel prophesied that in the last days, God “will pour out [his] Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2:28). Peter reminded New Testament-era believers of the prophecy during the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17), and when Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith he quoted the passage saying it was soon to be fulfilled (JS-History 1:41). Later, in a blessing for Emma Smith, the Lord promised her that “thou shalt be ordained under [Joseph Smth’s] hand to expound scriptures, and to exhort the church, according as it shall be given thee by my Spirit” (D&C 25:7. I firmly believe that the time has come when the true meaning of that passage is about to be revealed. We must, I believe, exercise our faith by praying for more light and knowledge about how women’s role in Christ’s Kingdom may expand and bless us all.

[1] See Jonathan A Stapley and Kristine Wright, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History, 37 no 1 (Winter 2011): 1-85; Claudia Lauper Bushman, “Mystics and Healers,” in Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah, edited by Claudia L. Bushman (new edition; Logan: Utah State University Press, 1997), 1–24; Linda King Newell, “A Gift Given, A Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing, and Blessing the Sick among Mormon Women,” Sunstone 6 (September/October 1981): 16–25.

[2] John A. Widtsoe, Priesthood and Church Government (Salt Lake: Deseret, 1939), 357. The quote is from Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Ed. Joseph Fielding Smith. (Salt Lake: Deseret, 1938), which is still in print today.

[3] Joseph Fielding Smith, Selections from Answers to Gospel Questions, A Course of Study for the Melchizedek Priesthood Quorums of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 1972-73, (Salt Lake: First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1972), 200. The quote originally appeared in “Questions and Answers” The Improvement Era 10 (February 1907), 308.

[4] Bruce R. McConkie, “New Revelation on Priesthood,” Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 126-137.