One of the major news stories leading up to the Priesthood Session of General Conference concerned a request by Ordain Women to attend the session. The opening address at this session of conference, delivered by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, addressed the possibility of ordination of women to the priesthood head on. I’ve heard this talk characterized on social media as a “smack down” against feminists. And I’ve heard Mormon feminists characterize the talk as a “gut punch.” My response to the talk was very different. In many important ways, it felt like a positive address for the future of Mormon feminism. While Elder Oaks’ remarks did represent one step back for Mormon feminists, it also provided two steps forward. Let me explain:
Some in the Mormon feminist community have asked for women to become priesthood holders. (In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints there is no professional clergy.) Elder Oaks made clear that this would not happen. Yet even Elder Oaks’ direct response to this question represents a small step forward. First, he directly addressed the question that Ordain Women had asked. This represents a major recognition of their concerns within the Church. Ordain Women developed as a response to words of President Hinckley. During an interview, President Hinckley said that one reason female ordination did not exist within the Church was because there was no agitation for it. In essence, he suggested that church leaders would listen and respond if such an agitation occurred. Ordain Women filled this role, and Elder Oaks responded. Yes, it was not the answer many had hoped for, but it was an answer. In addition, Elder Oaks’ answer sought to unite rather than divide.
Rather than frame the decision as one to purposely reject the request, Elder Oaks saw the request as impossible to grant within the parameters of current revelation. This fits within the Ordain Women paradigm that has consistently sought new revelation. Elder Oaks simply informed them the revelation had not come, and without it the Quorum of Twelve Apostles could not make such a substantial change. While this direct rejection to the request for the priesthood certainly was not the news some Mormon feminists hoped to hear, Elder Oaks’ language represents a governing church body that respects and welcomes them.
In addition to this, Elder Oaks’ remarks contained two very encouraging steps forward for Mormon feminists. First Elder Oaks provided a model for increased female participation in current church leadership, and second Elder Oaks provided the theological framework that could accommodate female ordination, should such a revelation come. The model for increased female participation in church leadership relies on the concept of priesthood keys, about which Elder Oaks spoke much. Elder Oaks dissolved much of the distinction between men and women in non-leadership callings in the Church. Elder Oaks quoted Joseph Fielding Smith as saying, “We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their church callings, but what other authority can it be?” Both men and women acting in callings operate with priesthood authority, under the direction of the Church leadership which holds the keys. This means in essence that a man teaching gospel doctrine has no more authority than a woman, they both are responsible to the bishop. “Keys” is a significant concept here, however, because there are very few Church positions which actually hold priesthood keys. The adult positions are apostles, temple and mission presidents, stake presidents, bishops, and elder’s quorum presidents. Under Elder Oaks’ model of priesthood keys and authority, every other church position acts only on priesthood authority which both men and women have. Theoretically, this means women could serve in any priesthood position that does not specifically require keys. So the current decision for only men to be in positions such as ward clerk, temple sealer, sunday school president, or bishopric member falls under the category of policy, which Elder Oaks said the brethren could change. While this model still prevents women from participating in many leadership positions, it opens up a large number of service opportunities not currently available. It is important to note that current church policy does not allow for women to serve in these positions, but Elder Oaks’ carefully worded address clearly points to this future possibility without the need for specific divine intervention.
One of the major questions involved with female ordination has to do with whether or not LDS theology could even accommodate female priesthood holders should such a revelation come. Elder Oaks’ remarks make clear that it could. First, Elder Oaks speaks of the role of the Relief Society organization. He speaks of the power inherent in the organization. He again quotes Joseph Fielding Smith who says one role of the Relief Society is “Looking after the interests of our people both spiritually and temporally.” Elder Oaks’ carefully chosen statement narrows in on one of the very few current areas within the Church where a female leader has authority over men, not just women and children. While the Relief Society president’s primary duty involves responsibility for other women, the Relief Society president holds a significant role within the Church Welfare System, the responsibility alluded to by temporal interests. The Relief Society President, in conjunction with the Bishop, looks after the welfare needs of the entire congregation, both men and women. Alluding to the places where women currently have authority over men within the Church helps lay the foundation for future authority. The other area, which Elder Oaks did not mention, where female leaders preside over men is in the Primary, the auxiliary for children up to age 12. Men are often called to be Primary teachers, but the presidency is always comprised of women.
Second, Elder Oaks spoke at length about the role of women as creators. This distinction is important. Many Mormon feminists groan at the implication that motherhood is analogous to priesthood, because motherhood is analogous to fatherhood. Elder Oaks, however, didn’t speak of motherhood but of women’s roles specifically as creator, a role with which there is no male parallel. Defining women as creators holds a second significance. At the beginning of Elder Oaks’ remarks he spoke of several priesthood keys which were not currently on the earth. One of these keys is creation. Mormon theology celebrates the differences between men and women, differences that even most Mormon feminists embrace. Elder Oaks defines this difference as women’s ability to create, an ability connected directly to a priesthood key that is not currently on the Earth. This theological approach makes the possible future ordination of women fit neatly within the larger picture of Mormon theology.
While Elder Oaks’ remarks did make clear there would be no possibility of female ordination in the near future, he did so while recognizing Mormon feminists as an important part of the Church. He moved forward Mormon feminism in many other ways, including important theological understandings, and a framework for additional female participation in Church leadership in the short term. I understand the wide variety of responses to Elder Oaks’ remarks, but I hope that we stop characterizing the talk as a slap in the face to feminists, in many important ways it was quite the opposite.