The issue of women’s ordination in the LDS church is at least in its fourth decade. In the 1970’s, and especially in the 1980’s after the expansion of the priesthood to all worthy males in 1978, LDS women and men have published and organized in favor in women’s ordination. Such movements have been common in other American churches, which vigorously debated the issues during the 20th century. Movements for women’s ordination exist in nearly every denomination which has not already made the transition. Other Restoration-derived churches, including the Community of Christ, have ordained women for 30 years.
I know of no example of a modern church which ordains women that has reversed or even sought to reverse the decision to ordain women. The issue has cost some denominations members who understood maleness as a necessity for church leadership, as has the decision to not ordain women cost other denominations members, including Latter-day Saints. The issue became a kind of political marker between churches, signaling where a church might stand on other issues that divided conservative and liberal Christians over the past century.
The LDS OrdainWomen.org movement has received a lot of attention since its founding a year ago, much of it negative from men and women who see the group as opposing God’s will and/or embarrassing the church. For a long time, raising the idea of women’s ordination has been a taboo in LDS culture, a kind of redline of apostasy since the last real activist work in the 1980’s and 1990’s ended unsuccessfully.
Even many contemporary Mormon feminists have been skeptical of the call for ordination, either preferring incremental reforms in the short term, objecting to the particular strategies of the OrdainWomen organization, or preferring other possible solutions to inequality in the church that do not involve ordination. The backlash from LDS hierarchy and lay people has served to rally many Mormon feminists to their cause, but has also stressed the fractures within Mormon feminism toward factionalism. Everyone recognizes a problem, including the leadership who has reportedly been engaged in “helpful conversations” about women’s concerns, and many minor reforms have been trickling out in recent years, but a definitive solution has been elusive.
Still, ordination faces an uphill battle for two reasons. First, Mormonism’s distinctive ecclesiology makes female ordination more complex than other denominations. Ordination is not just for one who feels called to the ministry, but rather is offered to all eligible men beginning at 12 years old, progressing through various ranks along the way. Ordination of women would potentially require the complete restructuring of Mormon communities, which is why it is not necessarily an elegant and easy solution to the problems of inequality. As it stands, beginning at age 12 men and women follow two tracks, coming together for some common instruction, but largely existing as separate organizational groups with separate leadership structures. Such a division has worked well since the founding of the female Relief Society by Joseph and Emma Smith for women in 1842, with various restructurings over time. What would happen to the practice of having separate spaces for men and women to discuss and teach and minister to one another remains unclear if Mormon women were admitted to the priesthood, and many lament the idea that such semi-independent women’s organizations might fall by the wayside.
The second issue is how the LDS church is governed. While other churches often function democratically, to greater and lesser degrees, and the issues are decided variously by appeals to scripture, tradition, and hermeneutical contexts, the LDS church is governed from the top with most major reforms requiring a revelation. In this sense, scriptural and historical warrants, validations of the problematics of the current practice, and even the will of the leaders themselves may not be enough to bring about the change. Just how exactly such a revelation might come, and if it might come at all, is understood to be beyond the powers of the leadership. Navigating such an organizing structure for change is difficult, and leaders are defensive about the appearance that revelation comes at the behest of social forces.
In spite of these challenges, Mormonism has a gender inequality problem, not only culturally, but structurally. This issue is one which the leadership is aware of and has been tinkering with in various ways. Whether such tinkering can satisfy enough of the moderates for the short term to relieve pressure on the call for women’s ordination remains to be seen. Still, perhaps ordination is the only true solution to the problem and all such tinkering only puts off, and makes more painful, an inevitable necessity.
I suspect that as long as the church does not ordain women, there will always be a number of women and men in the church who will object to the practice of a male-only priesthood and that it will continue to be a reason people will cite for activism or leaving. Whatever happens to OrdainWomen.org as a movement, the issue is not going away, and the negative reactions to the concept uncover much of the problematic attitudes and structures of the status quo. As a community, we may have to develop better ways of having this conversation, because it will be with us for a long time still.