Exclusion or God’s Plan?

June 25, 2014
Exclusion or God’s Plan?
David Holland

On Monday, June 23, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) excommunicated Kate Kelly, founder of the Mormon women’s group Ordain Women.

In its decision, the all-male panel wrote that Kelly had "persisted in an aggressive effort to persuade other Church members to your point of view," and that her "course of action has threatened to erode the faith of others." Kelly, whose group used training workshops and public protests to promote the ordination of women, said that she would not give up her effort because "in God’s eyes, I am equal."

Harvard Divinity School professor David F. Holland earned a degree in history from Brigham Young University. His book, Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America, brings into dialogue a wide range of figures in American religious life, including the Mormons. He recently provided his perspective on the excommunication, what it means for the faithful, and the challenges that the LDS Church faces in the future.          

Harvard Divinity School (HDS): Can you put the decision to excommunicate Kelly in historical context? Has the ordination of women always been a charged issue for the LDS?

David Holland: The place of women in the Church has historically been a matter of significant interest and concern, but sustained debate about the specific issue of ordination to the priesthood is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Some observers—citing such evidence as the prominence of the LDS women’s organization Relief Society, early suffrage for the women of Utah, or the presence of a maternal deity in LDS theology—have argued for the ways in which Mormonism empowers women.  Others—pointing to the history of polygamy, the Church’s very public opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, or the fact that the maternal deity is rarely spoken of—see the Church as either obtusely discriminatory or willfully misogynistic.  The question of ordination has emerged as the latest (and perhaps most intractable) battleground between these camps.

HDS: How does the current controversy fit within the LDS belief system?

Holland: It is important to note that concerns about gender—whether heterosexual, homosexual, or non-binary—are radically intensified by LDS theology.  As opposed to many Christian belief systems in which sexual identity often seems epiphenomenal to the larger divine plan, LDS doctrine suggests that the very purpose of human existence is wrapped up with procreation, family formation, and gendered complementarity. 

A central tenet of Mormonism is that this earth is a training ground for souls learning to become like a divine Mother and Father. It holds that the creation, the loving, and the raising of new life are among the most essential human experiences to that end. All questions that seem to impinge on gendered roles, family dynamics, and sexuality therefore carry almost unbelievable weight. The Mormon elevation of motherhood is thus much more than a vestige of separate-spheres sentimentality—though there has been plenty of that.  And Mormon resistance to changing social norms that seem to challenge traditional gender identities is more than mere patriarchal anxiety—though Latter-day Saints have had their share of that as well.

The fact of the matter is that, for very vital theological reasons, issues like gay marriage and female ordination look fundamentally different through Mormon eyes than they do to a Unitarian or an Episcopalian or even a Southern Baptist. Have these theological ideas provided cover for basic human prejudice, episodes of brutality, and consolidations of gendered power?  They undoubtedly have.  Is that all that’s at stake here? I don’t think so. Many Mormons see the essence of their cosmology at the root of this debate.

The flip side of all this is that, just as gender functions differently in Mormonism, so does priesthood. Mormon priesthood isn’t just the right to lead a congregation or officiate over sacramental ceremonies. It's a deeply sacerdotal endowment that empowers its holders to speak, act, and heal in the name of God. It alters one’s relationship to the divine.

The fact that ordination to priesthood office is distributed to all observant LDS men—but only men—draws an especially stark gendered line. The apparent exclusion of women from such a sacerdotal gift strikes many as particularly egregious. Feelings on this matter, for obvious reasons, run very high. 

In the minds of other Mormons, however, that line of gendered distinction in the priesthood is essentially effaced by a temple theology in which women are clothed in priestly vestments—including the widely discussed Mormon undergarment—and pronounced priestesses. The idea is that just as men become fathers through a woman’s divinely endowed maternal capacity, so women become endowed with priesthood power through that same divine marriage. Through such a marriage, men and women can both be parents and they can both be priests—and thus through that relationship they both progress toward godliness—even as each retains certain complementary functional distinctions, such as the fact that men are responsible to hold priesthood office.  Mormons that make this case recognize that not all humans will have such a marriage in this life, but LDS theology provides for the fulfillment of such a union in the next. Latter-day Saints of this persuasion are inclined to quote St. Paul: "Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord." 

Critics of this argument point to the all-male hierarchy in many of the governing councils of the Church—including its highest—as evidence that such doctrines provide a convenient smokescreen for an obviously gendered monopoly on real institutional power. They say it hides a larger culture of female subordination that might take its cues from such Church structures or organically develop in the void created by the exclusion of female voices.

HDS: How does this decision fit in the context of Mormonism's struggle to maintain its identity as it moves into mainstream culture? Does it exemplify the tensions in the expanding LDS Church?

Holland: If you read Kate Kelly’s letter of excommunication from her bishop, it is rather clear that in the bishop’s mind she was not disciplined for holding the view that women should be ordained but for actively attempting to recruit others to this cause.  The Church’s position has long been that it can tolerate different ideas held in private but not multiple voices of aggressive advocacy, especially on issues that strike so close to its doctrinal core. To the institutional Church, that is a matter of communal integrity. To the supporters of Kate Kelly, that is simply heavy-handed censorship, an obfuscating way of saying you can think what you want but keep your mouth shut. 

This is why the digital age poses such a challenge to a church that has traditionally tried to maintain its theological boundaries by making this public/private distinction.  As the culture of the Internet rapidly redraws the lines between the private and the public, Church policy will be challenged in new ways. Lay, volunteer leaders—such as the bishop who officially decided on Kelly’s excommunication—have reason to believe that policing such a line is a matter of existential concern to the Church, but identifying where that line lies becomes an increasingly complicated matter in today’s world. It’s a new wrinkle to an age-old dilemma.

HDS: What do you think the long-term ramifications could be for the LDS Church? Does the decision to excommunicate Kelly preserve the faith’s cohesiveness, or simply highlight the ways in which leadership is out of touch with the faithful?

The question of whether the "leadership is out of touch with the faithful" becomes a definitional matter.  Who is the leadership here? Who are the faithful?

In Kelly’s case, the council that decided her fate was comprised of a handful of fellow members of her congregation—all male—who are neither formally trained as ministers nor on the payroll of the Church. They’re attempting to implement Church policy by their best lights. 

There have been historical cases in which members of the central Church leadership have apparently pressured local lay leaders to discipline congregants in a particular way, but that is against official Church policy and I’ve seen no evidence that anything of the sort was at play here. So apparently what we have in this case are local, volunteer members of the Church policing the boundaries of their shared congregation—and yet their decision does not just remove Kelly from that particular congregation, but from the Church as a whole. 

Certainly their decision is at odds with some of the concerns of some active, observant Latter-day Saints, but evidence suggests that their basic position on the question of ordination is actually quite reflective of the majority view in the Church.  A Pew survey conducted last October found that 90 percent of LDS women oppose the ordination of women (compared to 84 percent of LDS men).  Whether most Mormons would agree that excommunication was the appropriate response to this situation is another—at this point, unanswerable—question.  My sense is that most Mormons of all persuasions—those whose sympathies lie with Kelly, those who sympathize with her bishop, and the significant number that I think feel for both— regret the fact that this chapter of the story has ended this way.

—by Paul Massari