Picketing Zion

Pants, now prayers. Some LDS feminists have raised the banner again and invited members to send letters to general authorities petitioning that women give prayers in General Conference. Once again, it’s a fairly (strategically?) trivial issue that has become symbolic in the effort to bring policy and practice in closer alignment.

I’ve done some more thinking about appropriate responses to concerns with Church policies. Last time, I suggested reorienting our expectations and proactively fulfilling some of those needs that the Church isn’t necessarily responsible for meeting. I am still a fan of that approach, but I’m not sure it adequately addressed Mormons’ commitment to community. That community element, responsible for so much of the cultural codes and excess baggage we would do well to shrug off, is also the source of our profoundest spiritual growth and fulfillment.  It isn’t quite as simple as taking the teachings, ordinances, and our personal revelation and leaving the building of Zion to the millennium.

After all, I can study teachings, participate in ordinances and pray in relative spiritual or emotional isolation.  In fact, my freshman year of college, I did that very thing, and felt quite smug about it. After attending sacrament, I’d hold my own personal scripture study. It felt far superior to tedious gospel lessons riddled with clichéd questions and trite answers, and I didn’t have to bother with all that cumbersome human baggage in BYU ward life.  It wasn’t too long before I stumbled on Eugene England’s essays and began to discover what it meant to be part of a community. I started to realize my own spirituality was uncomfortably and inextricably tied to others; that salvation is relational; that my own growth and happiness is contingent, in so many ways, on how much charity and mercy I extend to other people. In the words of Daniel Coleman, I learned spirituality is “not just an inner feeling…or process of interior discernment…it is the way we live out our relationships with our environment and with other people, as well as with our secret selves.”  I discovered that Mormonism is more than ordinances, revelation, and teachings. It is also a community trying to use those things to build the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Before I promptly set the bar heaven-high, I suppose I should remember that this kingdom of heaven was compared “unto a net that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind.”  And out of this net, we ramshackle vessels are to come together as the “body of Christ,” a “household of faith,” “one flock,” “fellow citizens,” a “people of one heart and one mind” – Zion.

Not only that, but this community has an element of order—rather than the organic nature of a circle of friends or the spontaneity of a neighborhood party. There are vertical lines of hierarchy that intersect with horizontal lines of brotherhood and sisterhood.  The mix of equality (all are equal before God) and stewardship (God designates people to certain service and responsibility) can be difficult to navigate, especially when these stewardship roles are filled by “imperfect but honest” men and women who are trying to receive and act on revelation in the midst of their own weakness, cultural context, personal experience, and subjective concerns.

To make it even more complicated for Mormons, there are scriptural mandates against “steadying the ark,” or intruding on responsibilities God has handed over to particular individuals. Does that mean we sit back and let leaders just take the reins? Well, not that simple either; we’re also taught that every member is an essential part of the “body of Christ.” My take-away from that Pauline analogy has as much to do with my responsibility to participate as it does with my need to feel valued. And the same canon that tells us to be “anxiously engaged” also tells us to receive the words of the prophets “in all patience.”

What do we do then? When to participate, when to refrain? When to question, when to sustain? And more importantly, how?

Letter writing? Marches? Blogging? No one seems to have found a silver bullet. But I do know that if we create a culture where activism is the response to every single issue in the Church (and there are plenty of issues), I’m going to be too tired to go anymore.

Not to mention that I just don’t think an adversarial approach works in a community that rests on trust more than rights, on shared weakness more than merit. Furthermore, there is the potential to create a misleading sense of direct causation. Dialogue can open spaces for revelation where direct petitions seem to only corner leaders into reaction. That isn’t a posture anyone, I think, would really like to promote.  I like H.W. Trevor-Roper’s sentiment: “Heat and stress do not provoke new thought: rather, they drive men back into customary, defensive postures…but in the mild warmth of peace, the gentle give-and-take of free and considered discussion.”

That means we need a replacement for this inherently adversarial and political language of “rights,” “oppressors,” and “victims.” And on a different part of the spectrum, other critics voice their concerns with a sense of ownership that makes the Church sound like the heirloom quilt they inherited from their grandmother. The former seems to ignore the horizontal lines of community that bind laymembers and leaders and focuses only on the vertical lines of stewardship. This approach treats the Church like a corporate or political institution that requires an active and vocal, even angry, union to keep them accountable. It fails to acknowledge the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood that entitle us all to charity, mercy, compassion, patience and long-suffering—leader and laymember alike. The latter approach, on the other hand, seems to ignore those vertical lines of stewardship by treating the Church like a personal heirloom that, by virtue of our birth, heritage, or tradition, is ours to claim. It doesn’t acknowledge that, while the Church is, in so many ways, meant to be a product of our own hands—and thus, reliant on us to shape and improve—there is also a nonconstructed element that is not ours to claim. That part is divine will, which may direct the Church at a pace we don’t enjoy, through channels we don’t like, or by means we don’t understand. (Deciding which is which isn’t something I’ll tackle in this blog post!)

And when it all just gets too exhausting or hard, I start all over again with that simple question: “Will ye also go away?”

And I remember that we’re all still in this because somehow, in some form, we came to the same answer.

“Lord, to whom shall we go?”

And it helps.

  • laverl09

    This is one of the best articles I have seen on the dilemma of how to express feelings of frustration about issues in Church hierarchy that are not doctrinal.
    As a child I was impressed with the fable of the argument between the wind and the sun–who was the stronger? To settle the disagreement, they decided to see who could most quickly get the coat off a certain man. The wind only caused the man to cling tighter to his coat. The warmth of the sun caused the man to quickly remove the coat by himself.
    As a life-long psychologist, I have been extremely impressed by the depth of awareness that Church Headquarters has had about current issues. Just after I finished my Master’s degree in Education, I was impressed with the Teacher education manual. I wished I had had it to help me with my actual classes. It was more advanced and effective than my actual paid program.
    In the early 70″s Sister Spafford asked me to serve with many others on local committees to help analyze the depression syndrome among Mormon women. The suggestions that came in Church-wide were used to help simplify and revitalize the Relief Society from within.
    The progress we have made from top to bottom in leader awareness of child and spouse abuse is phenomenal. For a while, there was even a specific question on the temple recommend about this.
    As we all know, numerous General Authorities have read actual letters in Conference from members about sensitive issues and then answered them from the pulpit.
    I would encourage writing letters about how grateful “I” am that the Church was the first world organization to set up an organization of women and how much good they have done, especially in influencing US attitudes about family; how grateful I am that young women have progressed from being “allowed” to go on missions at age 23, then at age 21, to being “invited” to go now at age 19; how grateful I am that Church Headquarters has clarified the existence of NO policy on females wearing pants to Sacrament Meeting; and how grateful I am that females have been giving prayers in Sacrament Meeting now for over 30 years.
    I would then ask a simple question: Is there a reason females are not currently saying prayers in General Conference?

    • Rachael

      Thank you, laverl09, for such positive comments. I think that efforts to infuse our dialogue with appreciation and acknowledgement for the good that has been done makes for a more balanced, effective and unifying (or “warming,” acc. to that useful analogy) conversation. I appreciate the fact that All Enlisted seems to be making an effort in that direction on their facebook page (though it is a testament to social media how that does not get conveyed very well) by trying to pose positive and inclusive questions of their participants. But the tipping point is crossing from “presenting concerns and ideas,” as they state, to directly advocating them in what is, at the moment, a very public and one-way dialogue. I think taking a moment to analyze potential reasons for certain policies could lead to a better route: Perhaps it would be useful to ask for clarification on policies rather than jumping to lobby their change. It gives leaders space to reevaluate policies and even proactively change them without being forced to simply “react” via lobbying, etc.

      • JohnH

        I think anything that gives the appearance of marching and picketing can place church leadership in an awkward position from which to respond. Even if the point in question is a non-issue (such as if women can wear pants in church) or something they may not have even considered as being an issue (women praying in conference given the prayers in the general relief society and young women meetings plus devotionals, firesides, sacrament meetings, etc.) it can still be difficult for them to respond, especially in a positive manner. If they give the appearance of submitting to the protest, even in cases where the protest was protesting something that wasn’t real but perception, then that can encourage more protest on potentially much more important issues. It can potentially send a signal that going through the legitimate lines of communication is not effective but that engaging in contentious adversarial behavior produces results, even when it really doesn’t.

        • Geoff – A

          JohnH,
          What are these legitimate lines of communication? We are not to write to GAs, or Apostles (although they often quote letters they recieve), telling your local leaders is not likely to get a message to the decsion makers. There is no acceptable method of communicating with our leaders, they are completely isolated from the majority of memebers.

          As for making them uncomfortable, that is why it is being done; to make them think and justify rather than just doing what has always been done. Now if they are too proud to considder change, it would seem they have a problem. Is pride something to be proud of?

          As for the requests being trivial, yes perhaps but they may achieve something little. Perhaps they are trying to encourage the leadership to make the church more female friendly. Do you think they would get anywhere if they asked for the priesthood for all worthy memebers?

          • JohnH

            Legitimate lines of communication are through the stake president to the seventy to the apostles as laid out in the Doctrine and Covenants, unless it is a disciplinary proceeding where it goes through the High Council to the Apostles. If one thinks that the Bishop and Stake President will not communicate with the Seventy, for whatever reason, then why would one think that the Apostles or Seventy would respond any better or differently then the local leadership? Sure specific circumstances may vary, but a Stake presidency has the same authority in all things over that stake as the First Presidency does over the entire Church.

            As for getting a message to the decision makers, you have as much ability to get the message to the All-Knowing as anyone else.

            Pants was completely a non-issue, my wife had worn pants previously and no one said anything to her, I know nursery teachers that always wore pants for obvious reasons, and I have known many other women that have worn pants to church from since the time I was in nursery. Women wearing pants to church is not something anyone in their right mind should have needed to think about or justify and anyone that objected to the pants-themselves rather then the pants-as-protest is and was just as wrong as those that thought that they were protesting anything real at all. How does protesting a complete non-issue make the church in any way more female friendly or achieve anything good? What if I think it is completely unfair that I have to wear a tie to church (note: a tie is not required) should I start a no tie protest just to get the church to respond that ties are not required (which is the current position anyway), what good would that accomplish?

            I think the question of priesthood for all worthy members shows a lack of understanding of the priesthood, who holds it, and how it is used. I think asking for clarification of women’s roles in the priesthood and what type , if any, of outward offices and ordinations in the priesthood women should hold and how that is to be done would be better. I would actually be fairly surprised if the answer received was anything close to being acceptable to the feminists that wish for women and women’s roles to be the same as men and men’s roles, because according to what I read in scripture the genders are different and eternally different in complementary ways.

            I am of the opinion that in order to receive more revelation the church in general should have a good understanding of the current revelations and it is my opinion that the way many of the questions are being asked currently in general show an utter lack of understanding of what has already been revealed on the subject in this dispensation and what records from other dispensations suggest. I know that there is a lot more to be revealed on this subject but I also know that if the desire is for the Church to conform with the worlds ideals of feminism they will end up being greatly disappointed. In terms of policy, not doctrine, there are number of things which could easily change, but to get that to happen I think it would be helpful if those advocating change knew what was policy, what was culture, what was doctrine, and the differences between them otherwise they will keep protesting cultural norms or attacking unchangeable parts of doctrine instead of having a dialogue with the Church and the Lord on policy, which is completely changeable to the current needs of the Church, and on doctrine, which can be added to as the Lord sees fit.

  • Eric Taysom

    Something that greatly puzzles me is why these are even issues. There are women who have worn pants in my home branch for years, never an issue. I don’t see any reason for women not to give prayers in General Conference, nor can I understand why people would be so concerned that they do.

    Expressing your opinion is a fine thing, and should be done, but why over such trivial things?

    • Rachael

      I think there could be a number of reasons they express opinions over “trivial” things. One is that by picking something trivial like pants or prayers in Conference, they may gain more momentum or support than perhaps they would if they jumped right into the deep stuff. Another possibility is that deliberately highlighting relatively minor discrepancies that don’t require any doctrinal changes is a more feasible and less risky path to a potentially significant symbolic victory. While I may have some disagreements with that approach, I can see those as being practical reasons for their strategy.

  • Pacumeni

    Thanks for your thoughtful and wise comments. Our community is a precious thing that we should not lightly replace with some kind of rights based libertarian alternative. There are lots of those in our society. The Mormon communitarian tradition is rare or even unique. We should treasure it and tread carefully as we justafiably work for the changes that are occasionally necessary.

  • Dale Wight

    “I discovered that Mormonism is more than ordinances”
    I believe that if we better remembered what we covenant in the ordinances, we wouldn’t dismiss them so facilely. E.g. baptism is riven with horizontal connections:
    Mosiah 18:8-10
    [...] as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, [...] what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments [the second greatest of which is to love each other], that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?

    As is missionary work
    D&C 18:15
    And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy WITH HIM in the kingdom of my Father!

    And the highest rewards are obtained only by preparing to receive them in a eternally-sealed lateral connection with a spouse.

  • http://www.mormonsundayschool.org Jared

    Thank you for this thoughtful, engaging post Rachael. It was meaningful to me as I was working through similar issues. I quote you here: http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/2013/01/religion-feminism-and-the-ethics-of-difference/


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