Why the Women’s Ordination Question Will Shape the Future of Mormonism

“An endeavor in radical self-respect”—that’s how founder Kate Kelly has described Ordain Women, a grassroots, social-media driven movement for women’s ordination to the lay priesthood of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The question of women’s ordination is nothing new to Mormon feminists.  But never before in Mormon history has the issue been so broadly discussed among Mormons at all points on the orthodoxy spectrum—a development some trace to the March 2013 launch of Ordain Women’s website featuring pictures and testimonials from rank-and-file Mormons who support ordination and a more equitable role for women in LDS Church leadership and service.

Today, the global operations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are governed and directed by an all-male organizational chain of command.  Mormon women may participate in some decision-making at the congregational level.  But at all levels most forms of institutional power—from the power to shape the church’s global policies and finances to the power to bless the sick, administer sacraments, baptize, and excommunicate—belong only to men.

Does pervasive institutional gender segregation really reflect the will of God and the core tenets of the LDS faith?

That question may constitute the defining theological challenge of Mormonism’s next century. 

With reports of declining retention rates among young Mormon women (and men), there are some signs that Church leaders recognize that they must address gender issues—not by excommunicating Mormon feminist leaders as they did twenty years ago this month, but directly.

In April, the Church allowed for the first time women to offer prayers at its global General Conference; that same week, it issued a video in which leaders of Mormon women’s auxiliaries explained that men and women had “complementary” but exclusive roles and that women could access the “blessings” of the priesthood through the men in their families and congregations, a video some viewed as a response to the Ordain Women movement.

This fall, the leaders of Ordain Women made plans to continue their gentle press for ordination by waiting in line for admission to an October 5 evening session of the Church’s General Conference conventionally restricted to “priesthood holders”—men and boys.  Just last week, in another move broadly interpreted as a response to Ordain Women, LDS Public Affairs representative Ruth Todd announced that for the first time “Priesthood Session” would—like all other sessions of General Conference—be broadcast on television and the internet, a move that would effectively allow women to watch, although not attend.  

Small victories, say some; tactical public relations concessions, say others.  But will the LDS Church undertake serious theological consideration of the relationship between gender, leadership, and priesthood?  If so, how, and how soon?  Systematic theological deliberation does not receive institutional support in Mormonism.  Throughout the twentieth century, most of the energy and creativity in Mormon life was absorbed by the pragmatic challenges of transforming an upstart American religious movement into a global bureaucratic institution.  In the service of bureaucratic uniformity and simplicity, complicated aspects of Mormon history and theology were systematically eliminated in official programming and publications, and some forms of inquiry stigmatized.  LDS institutional and business insiders often cite with approval Harvard Business School professor and former LDS regional authority Clayton Christiansen’s work on “innovative disruption” as a force in institutional life, but it is hard to conceive of an organizational culture more allergic to disruption than today’s gender-segregated, regionally- and racially-dominated, hierarchical, and gerontocratic LDS bureaucratic culture.

For their part, advocates of LDS women’s ordination are well versed in the dimensions of Mormon history and theology deprioritized by the bureaucratic church, and history may be on their side. Recently released historical records suggest that LDS Church founder Joseph Smith promised to make of Mormon women a “kingdom of priests” and that Mormon women once exercised a fuller range of institutional and spiritual powers than they do now.  Historians have also shown that the now frequently cited rationale of “complementarity”—priesthood for men, motherhood for women–only entered LDS discourse in the 1930s and without basis in Mormon history, liturgy, ritual, or scripture.  Nor does the still-cited rationale of gender-segregated “complementarity” reflect the increasingly diverse lives of Mormons around the globe, even in the Church’s western United States strongholds, where non-traditional and dual-worker households are increasingly the norm rather than the exception.  If Mormon men and women work together side by side in their homes, ask Mormon feminists, why should they not work together side by side at church?

For advocates of women’s ordination, asking in good faith serious questions about the divergences between Mormon history, theology, lived experience, and institutional policy is an opportunity to exercise “radical self-respect.”

How it chooses to respond to such questions may present the LDS Church with an equally profound twenty-first century opportunity to demonstrate “radical self respect”—for Mormon history, theology, and the distinctive Mormon belief in continuing revelation.