The post I was going to publish today will have to wait. The news from General Conference was so unanticipated, especially to this out-of-the-loop lapsed Mormon woman who had entirely forgotten that Conference would be this weekend, that I woke up this morning with a peculiar gnaw in my belly, a feeling I thought I’d abandoned several years ago when I decided, for my emotional health, that I would pull my spiritual expression inward and stay away from the pew for a few years. By shutting out much of the noise of sacrament talks and the expectations of visible orthopraxy, I thought, I could get to the root of the searing tingle I felt in my tissues when the best that another well-meaning bishop could do in response to my doubt and grief was to let me cry in his office.
For the uninitiated: the Saturday afternoon session of the General Conference of the Church (one of six sessions) devotes a chunk of its time to administrative news. Many Mormons cannot attend the Saturday sessions, because of work or other obligations, so the real spiritual heft is saved, in large part, for the Sunday sessions. To be clear, by “administrative news,” I mean “bureaucratic arcana,” because the average attendee is unlikely to register incremental changes in the number of stakes across the world, or voice more than a mild “huh” over the fact that 120,528 “new children of record” were born in the Church in 2010. However, this Saturday came with a bombshell, as the Church announced that women, who were previously unable to serve missions before their 21st year, will be able to serve at 19. Young men, who have always been able to go at 19, often after completing a semester or two of college courses, will now be able to go at 18. It’s not perfect parity, but it’s a lot closer to it. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, “When asked why church leaders didn’t equalize the length of mission service at two years — women will continue to go for 18 months — Holland said, jokingly, ‘one miracle at a time.’ He did note that officials had considered doing so but wanted to see how this change played out.”
One miracle is better than none, surely. And by all accounts, there has been much rejoicing throughout the Mormon world this weekend, by freshman women who don’t have to cool their heels for two more years, by fifth-grade girls who are just starting to question why dad can give blessings and mom can’t, and by the not-that-rare 22-year-old returned missionary who wishes, for the love of all that is holy, that there were more women on BYU’s campus who were his equals in both age and spiritual experience. Perhaps most importantly, there could be wide-ranging consequences in the daily operations of the church, as a flood of 20- and 21-year old women return home with a taste for the seriousness, purpose, and spiritual empowerment they learned to exercise on the mission. Will an increased capacity for church governance, directed by women, be the next miracle?
There’s already a vital debate going on as to whether this change is largely about recruitment (we have too few missionaries, and a lowered bar for half the population could, theoretically, double the numbers of active proselytizers) or philosophically progressive in nature. Administrative or ideological, the effects will, likely, be the same; the dismantling of an increasingly arbitrary-seeming distinction between male service and female service that can only be good for men and women both.
Think about it this way: if you had asked me, at the tender, cocksure age of 19, why it was that women had to wait to go on a mission, I would have claimed, probably loudly, that it was because the church considered my potential biological service as a female and a mother was more important than my intellectual or spiritual service as an individual, and while that would not have been the entire story, it was, effectively, how the world was for me at that time. Whether my Sunday School and seminary teachers were right or wrong in giving me that impression is hardly the point. My grasp on high-school level Second Wave feminism was, likewise, extremely tenuous, but even the 80s-era obsession with corporate success and power blazers could not make the “the world’s” version of femininity less appealing than the church’s. What I saw was the truth as I was capable of receiving it, because teenagers are like lions: they are easily confused by a lot of moving black-and-white objects, which is why, supposedly, zebras look the way they do.
The first time I lost it in a bishop’s office, I was 21. I would be graduating from BYU soon, and though I had decided two or three years ago that I would not be going on a mission, every other big decision of my life felt imminent. I had to decide where to move, what jobs to look for, who to be friends with and how to be faithful and what to spend my money on and who to date, and, despite years of lessons on prayer and revelation, that I would be making every one of these decisions alone. I was blessed in health and opportunity and friends, but I had never once heard what has been described as everything from a still, small voice to a thunder that “breaketh the cedars.” Though I had not yet read Kimberly Johnson’s “Love-letter,” I would have felt its truth:
“Yours is the face scarcely imagined. Yours
the voice that seduces never heard,
yours the throat that frames my gardened
I had taken John 7:17 to heart (“If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it shall be of God, or whether I speak of myself”), yet after years of study and callings and temple visits and the Word of Wisdom I was, like the truly bereft, still begging for any kind of sign. And what I asked my bishop on that day was whether the priesthood of a husband would be, forever, my best or only access to the wisdom and love of God. This kind man did not have an answer for me, but as long as I have a mind and heart to remember him, I will be grateful for his openness and his compassion, as he let silence fill the room, and from his side of the desk, cried with me.
I didn’t believe that God’s silence was entirely due to my gender: I knew many women who felt the presence of the Spirit in their lives, and who were significantly less bothered by the differences in men’s and women’s roles in the church. But it certainly seemed to be a factor. There was the fact that an ordained deacon, at 13, had a thoroughly different relationship and access to God than a woman 10 years his senior, and there was the fact that I seemed to have no access at all. I couldn’t have said then, and I’m not sure I can now, where the line between the institutional sanction of the priesthood left off and individual variance—foundational to the Mormon idea of personal revelation– began. Was this happening because I was a woman? Or because I was me?
I stuck it out four more years before I stood up from the pew one Sunday morning and walked to my car and drove 3 hours to sit on a log by a stream in the Shenandoah instead, because I knew I could not take the Sacrament one more time, feeling as I did that my commitment was being betrayed by a God who, visibly, doctrinally, and anecdotally, did not care as much about me as He did about the people who stood to testify of his work in their lives.
There is no reason to believe, of course, that my experience has been universal, or that my response has been the “right one.” There are many, in fact, who might say that my ambivalence and inactivity in the face of difficulty is proof that I am insufficiently faithful, or especially immature. It is entirely possible that they are correct.
Then again, whose vision is the baseline? Who could paint the more accurate portrait of reality? We are like the lions–what each of us senses may not be the most accurate view, but it is, for all intents and purposes, the truth of the world. It is Nature; it is Is.
Holland’s choice of the word ‘miracle’ can’t have been purely in jest. Miracles are miracles because they interfere with what Is. Water to wine, dead to living, one version of the possible substituted, somehow, for another. And what Is, Is now greater, because the world expands as the definitions of the Real do. Truth flickers. The wonder is that we might have been wrong.