My wife and I just got back from the 2014 Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City, Utah. It is an annual gathering of progressive Latter-day Saints, Mormon Studies scholars, and others interested in Mormonism in a forum that cherishes rigorous inquiry and respectful discussion. My wife, who is a Marriage and Family Therapist and a Mormon was drawn by the first meeting of the Mormon Mental Health Association, as well as workshops presented by Patheos’ own “Mormon Therapist”, Natasha Helfer-Parker, and Mormon therapist, Dr. Jennifer Finalyson-Fife. (I’m going to be writing about their presentations in a future post.)
I was drawn largely by the LDS Ordain Women movement. Recently, the movement has been getting some national press, following the recent excommunication of Ordain Women founder, Kate Kelly, for her participation in said movement. It was an honor to sit in the same room with Kelly and with other women who are working to change the institution from within. As I see it, they are helping Mormonism realize its potential. (Not only does Mormonism have an as-yet undeveloped doctrine of the Divine Feminine, but there is historical and ideological precedent for female priesthood in Mormonism.)
But there were several other great surprises at this Sunstone conference. We met the woman who performed the first same-sex marriage in Oregon and my wife met the first gay couple to be married in Utah. I also attended a workshop on “Earth Stewardship” from a Mormon perspective and was pleased to learn that there are Mormons fighting for environmental justice.
Now, why should I care about these things? I am not Mormon anymore. I am Pagan. And Pagans have at the forefront of the movements toward gender equality in religion, toward linking religion and environmental justice, and toward realizing fundamental rights for homosexual and transgendered persons.
Well, the simple answer is that I care because I used to be Mormon, and because my wife is still Mormon, and because my son and daughter attend the Mormon church (along with the Unitarian church). But it is more than that.
As I sat in the various workshops and plenary sessions, hearing people openly discuss the very issues that caused me to leave the Mormon church 14 years ago, it was as if I could see the “arc of history” bending, bending toward justice. As Joanna Brooks has written, This is the real ‘Mormon Moment’. I know that Sunstone is a small community in comparison to the Mormon church as a whole — but I tell you, it is a vibrant community. There was more energy at that conference than I have seen in a Mormon gathering since I was in the missionary training center 20 years ago.
It will probably be a long time before a patriarchal institution like the Mormon church achieves anything like gender equality or full rights for homosexuals (I mean they still think that there is such a thing as “benevolent patriarchy”!). It may take 100 years, but the suggestion that the Mormon church will never change is belied by history. In 1977, the year before the LDS Church gave black males the priesthood, there were people who would have said that it would never happen. There were people in my wife’s hometown in Utah in the early 1990s who would have said that a girl would never be the youth seminary president, until she was. I grew with Mormons for whom the word “environmentalist” was an epithet, but the LDS Church has this past June produced a video promoting responsible earth stewardship.
But I’m not even talking about institutional change. I’m talking about people changing — which less difficult in some ways, but more difficult in others. What I saw this past weekend was evidence of people changing. I heard a woman speak who had actively supported Prop 8, only to learn that her teenage son was gay, and then turn around and fight for him and others like him. I heard a gay Mormon man tell his story of stepping back from the brink of suicide and his continuing to struggle with the ambiguity of being Mormon and gay. I heard a Mormon woman who previously had no interest in environmental justice realize that a nearby factory was polluting the air her children breathed who then took up the standard of environmentalism. I heard women who had believed that women’s place was only in the home share their stories of their longing for their Heavenly Mother and how they found the courage to stand up to the male establishment. I heard a woman whose all-or-nothing, black-and-white mentality (inherited from Mormonism) led to her bulimia, and who was saved by a paradigm shift which enabled her to tolerate ambiguity both in her perception of herself and her religion. I heard current and former Mormons, men and women, gay and straight (and transsexual), critiquing patriarchy and speaking (and singing) openly of the Feminine Divine. It may take 100 years for the Mormon church to change, but the Mormon people are changing right now.
There will be days in the future, I know, when I will despair at the hopelessness of changing the world — days when environmental catastrophe seems inevitable, days when patriarchy seems built into the foundation of human psyche and society, days when religion seems like it must harm more than heal. On those days, I will remember this past weekend. I will remember that change is a comin’. It’s not going to come as quickly or as completely as I want, but it is happening right now. And we Pagans have played and continue to play a role in that change. This weekend gave me hope … not just for Mormonism, but for human beings. And that is why this Pagan cares about the LDS Ordain Women movement.