Last week’s worldwide leadership training broadcast, and the subsequent unveiling of Handbook 2 on lds.org, has elicited a flurry of comment, much of it positive, from LDS observers. Most have focused either on the Handbook’s formulation of hot-button issues like homosexuality and surgical sterilization, or on the implications of the Church’s decision to make the Handbook available to the membership at large. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the new transparency represents a step away from the disciplined, top-down messaging style that has characterized Church discourse in the correlation era. Whether or not the publication of Handbook 2 ushers in a progressive’s golden era of grass-roots activism and doctrinal movement on controversial issues -- or whether, on the contrary, the availability of the Handbook will ultimately work to augment the ubiquity of official discourse -- remains to be seen.

What is certain, however, is that a quiet evolution in church administration is continuing, and that this evolution could have significant implications for women’s roles in church governance. Compare, for example, the tone of Elder Scott’s 2004 comments on the doctrinal foundation of the auxiliary organizations, offered at the 2004 worldwide leadership training, with the tone (and substance!) of this year’s meeting: whereas six years ago Elder Scott focused on the subordinate position of the auxiliaries with respect to the priesthood quorums, this year the training’s overwhelming emphasis was on the empowered co-participation of the auxiliary presidents with quorum leaders in the context of the ward council.

This evolution in women’s roles has occurred indirectly, as most history does, through the new Handbook’s elevation of the ward council to an executive, rather than merely organizational or advisory, body. Much of the doctrinal and practical basis for this change came from Elder Ballard’s decades-long effort to enhance the prestige and improve the workings of the church’s governing councils, which reached its culmination in the new guidelines. So it was fitting that the training broadcast featured Elder Ballard leading a panel discussion on the proper functioning of a ward council (available to view here). This body, he emphasized, is authorized to make decisions on ward governance and teaching, and each of its members is encouraged to contribute fully and equally.