Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Just HOW do Mormon women hold the priesthood?

What kind of priesthood authority do Mormon women receive in the LDS temple ceremony?
What kind of priesthood authority do Mormon women receive in the LDS temple ceremony?

What kind of priesthood authority do Mormon women receive in the LDS temple ceremony?

On Friday at the FAIR conference in Salt Lake City, LDS leader Sharon Eubank affirmed that LDS beliefs are some of the most “expansive and powerful in the world” for women, the Salt Lake Tribune reports.

However, the first-ever female director of LDS Charities also cautioned that the Church “can improve in many, many ways” in how it puts those beliefs into actual practice:

The church needs a new vocabulary, she said, for such positions as “mission presidents’ wives,” who play a vital role but have no unique title.

And, possibly alluding to the movement known as Ordain Women, which is pushing for female entrance to the all-male LDS priesthood, Eubank said, “we need a way to describe the female contribution to priesthood. We are a faith community of priests and priestesses. We need a way to talk about that.”

I was intrigued by Eubank’s comment about women and priesthood. (There is a video posted here of her actual remarks, but it would not play on my computer, so I’m just going by the Trib’s recounting and this Times and Seasons summary report.)

Eubank acknowledged that something unique happens in the LDS temple ceremony — something that imparts priesthood power to women — and suggested that we are just now beginning to understand what that means.

I hope that the change in vocabulary that Eubank refers to occurs soon, because I’m tired of the inadequate explanation that women can passively “receive all the blessings of the priesthood” even if they don’t hold it themselves.

For example, in the June issue of the Ensign the cover story by Linda K. Burton asserts that priesthood power is “available to all.” Women may not have access to priesthood authority, which requires ordination, but they have unlimited access to priesthood power, which is available to everyone.

Rehearsing a standard complementarian claim, Sister Burton promotes the idea that women’s counterpart to men’s priesthood authority (which she muddles in her own argument by calling “priesthood power” here when she has just spent the article carefully and helpfully distinguishing between priesthood power and priesthood authority) is “moral influence.”

The Ensign article is predictable and disappointing, not only in its rehash of the same old patriarchal arguments about women and relational “influence” but also in its subtle reification of Mormonism’s gendered power structure: amidst all the quotations from general authorities past and present, not a single woman is cited as an authority.

The overall argument that women (and children, and cats, and possibly guppies) can receive all the blessings of the priesthood just by having hands laid on their head and some lovely words spoken is, at best, only partially true. And without intending to, these sincere and well-meant justifications actually undermine the power of the priesthood.

This came home to me while reading that same Ensign issue, which contained a beautiful personal essay by Cesar Lima Escalante of Mexico City. One day, his bishop asked him just before sacrament meeting if he could please participate in blessing and passing the sacrament, which he was glad to do. Being asked to help made Escalante approach the whole meeting with a more spiritual focus; he read through “I Stand All Amazed” before the meeting started and tearfully pondered the Savior’s great sacrifice for us.

Performing the ordinance sparked an epiphany about Christ’s suffering and death; the act of tearing the bread reminded Escalante of what was “precious, beautiful, and extraordinary.” Never before had he so clearly understood what the sacrament prayer means by the words “that they may eat in remembrance of the body of they Son.” The act of blessing the sacrament brought home to him the Savior’s perfect love, a love he was able to share with others.

That is the fullness of priesthood. The administration of ordinances offers an unparalleled chance for spiritual growth.

By saying that I’m not demeaning how beautiful it can be to also be on the receiving end of ordinances; I’ve shared before how powerful and important this has been at times in my Mormon life. But the spiritual blessings of receiving are not the same as the blessings that come from a well-balanced spiritual life of both receiving and stepping up to the plate.

My perspective on this is admittedly unusual for a Mormon woman. At one time I was a Protestant who attended divinity school and was training to be a pastor; in that role I was called upon to practice what it would be like to bless communion, baptize babies, lay on hands for healing, and of course preach and teach. In my experience those activities were challenging and sometimes agonizingly difficult – there are good reasons I’m not a pastor today – but they certainly forced me to grow as a Christian.

Eubank’s perspective is that Mormon women deserve a better articulation of the priesthood power we already possess. That is far more mainstream than my own view that priesthood ordination is the optimal path for true equality in the Church. Even if I don’t think her view goes quite far enough, I’m delighted that we’re all having this conversation at all.

It’s a step forward. What will the next step be?

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.