Salt and Seed
Handbook and Help Meet
One of the practical effects of this change is that, for the first time, women have full access to a venue in which they participate in an executive (rather than merely advisory or auxiliary) capacity at the highest ward level. That this represents a significant change was noted by Elder Holland, who commented, “We’ve got to have the help of the women . . . [we’ve got to] take down the barriers” that previously kept women from meaningful participation. Any member of the council, male or female, Elder Bednar observed, can receive inspiration for the entire ward in the context of that body’s deliberations.
This shift, a welcome one in my view, yields a bushel of juicy new questions. Questions philosophical: how might this collaborative understanding of revelation affect our notions of individualism, selfhood, and society? Questions spiritual: how should we understand President Julie Beck’s suggestion that the joint deliberations of an inspired ward council constitute a “new spiritual gift”? Questions administrative: what, exactly, does it mean that the bishop “directs and presides” by virtue of his priesthood keys, as Elder Bednar emphasized, but that the council itself is the agent empowered to make decisions? (The latter closely replicates in ward governance the contradiction inherent in family governance: how does the wife participate in the marriage as an “equal partner” if the husband presides by virtue of his priesthood or his sex?)
In particular, one encounters a question of scale at the intersection of women’s roles and the conceptual underpinning of the new councils. Elder Ballard, expanding on the doctrinal basis of the change, noted that the concept of councils is already well integrated in church teaching and practice: from the council of the First Presidency, through the Quorum of the Twelve, the Seven Presidents, the Quorums of the Seventy, down through the stake high council, the ward council, and the family council -- the legitimacy of collaborative deliberation, even revelation, is well established. And every council in the church is informed by our rich mythology of the macrocosmic Council in Heaven, that primordial combined ward council, priesthood executive committee, fifth Sunday, and worldwide leadership training in the sky.
I find Elder Ballard’s argument persuasive: I think the collectivism at the heart of council theology is native to Mormon teaching, and I think it’s a natural vehicle for incorporating women into church governance -- at the ward level. Because one can’t help noticing, as Elder Ballard excavates the strata of governing councils, that women only appear at the local and intimate scales. There are no women sitting in council with the stake high council, for example, or with the presidents of the Seventy. And while President Beck counsels with the highest quorums in an advisory capacity, she belongs to no general executive body.
I read no sinister narrative of oppression into this state of affairs, merely an effect of the systematizing of chain-of-command within church organizations that occurred during the correlation movement of the 1960s. Female stake auxiliary leaders function now only in a training capacity; unlike their ward counterparts, stake auxiliary heads have no executive authority and thus no reason to counsel at the stake level. And of course there are no auxiliary nodes at the area and regional levels, and so there are no female leaders in that middle stratum.
But if Elder Ballard’s catalog of councils throws into relief the limits of the council system (as presently constituted, anyway) in bringing women into full executive participation at every level, it also suggests an obvious, elegant entry an integrated institution. Without having to touch on the vexed topic of female ordination, the same mechanism that has extended authority to women at the local level through the ward council could bring women into executive councils at the stake and area levels. The framework -- and indeed the doctrinal justification -- for a larger scale integration is already in place in the new handbook; there is no reason, that I can discern anyway, why mixed-gender councils could not function at higher levels in the same way that they are about to begin functioning at the ward level.
Perhaps it is not only at the level of discourse and messaging that the new handbook represents a rejoinder to mid-century-style correlation; perhaps it also offers a glimpse of a new avenue for women in church governance. If the time comes, the plans have already been drawn up.