Why this Pagan cares about the LDS Ordain Women movement

Why this Pagan cares about the LDS Ordain Women movement August 13, 2014

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.)

Ordain Women aspires to create a space for Mormons to articulate issues of gender inequality they may be hesitant to raise alone. (Photo of Stephanie Lauritzen being turned away from the Priesthood Session of the LDS General Conference.)

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.

Kate Kelly (recently excommunicated from the LDS Church for her feminist activism) speaking at the 2014 Sunstone Symposium.  In the background is a photo of Kate being declined admission to the Priesthood Session of the LDS General Conference.

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.

My wife, Ruth, with Seth Anderson and Michael Ferguson, the first gay couple to be married in Utah.

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.

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  • Thanks for this, John. I can relate to it, in part because while I have never been a Christian, now that I am a Quaker, I am surrounded by many Quaker Christians who are actively working on getting that arc of history to bend just a little bit faster. As a non-Christian, I don’t feel that it is my place to tell Christians what to believe, though I am deeply grateful for the progressive Christians who are doing so every day.

    (This is one reason I’ve been a supporter of Soul Force since 2007; I strongly believe in their efforts to use non-violent witness to change hearts. http://soulforce.com/

  • Oh! I see they have also been active with Mormons: http://www.advocate.com/society/religion/2012/04/24/soul-force-riders-meet-mormon-officials

    There are signs of progress everywhere.

  • 0-e^(i*pi)

    From the article: “a forum that cherishes rigorous inquiry and respectful discussion.”

    This is a contradiction. Rigorous inquiry is neutral. Rigorous inquiry is not biased. In rigorous inquiry, all ideas get treated with the same amount of “respect,” namely *none,* because ideas are not people, don’t have civil rights, and don’t deserve “respect.”

    The whole discussion about “respect” is a ploy — an attempt to preload the discussion so as to enhance biases and lead the discussion to a foregone conclusion. The Mormon Church pushes this whole “respect” theme for a very deliberate purpose — if they can get people to use their “respectful” talking points, they’ve already won the discussion.

    Take Joseph Smith and “polygamy” as an example. The Mormon Church would prefer that this subject be approached “respectfully.” But “respectful” discussion automatically eliminates the possibility of discussing Smith’s relationships in terms of things like adultery and child abuse. If “respect” means we call mistresses and 14-year-old kids “wives,” then “respect” cannot coexist with rigorous intellectual discussion. Sunstone, sad to say, is so fixated on “respect” that they’ve managed to seriously loose track of what it means to engage in rigorous inquiry.

    • I think you read too much into that phrase. I don’t mean respect for polygamy. I mean respect for the people standing in front of you for whom you want to be in community.

      And I think you’ve conflated the Sunstone community with the Mormon Church. The LDS Church has publicly condemned Sunstone.

      • 0-e^(i*pi)

        John wrote: “I mean respect for the people…..”

        What’s that supposed to mean? That you don’t slap them in the face while speaking to them? That you don’t spit on them, or punch them in the nose?

        Does anyone really think that’s what in discussion here? Of course not!

        One of the main problems with any cult is that the members self identify to the point that accusations against the cult are interpreted as accusations against the person. The Mormon Church nurtures this self identification among its members, deliberately, so that discussions about the Church cannot be perceived as “respectful” unless we mute our language.

        And that’s the point that I’m making — when we use muted language in an attempt to be “respectful” then we’re no longer engaged in “rigorous inquiry.”

        John wrote: “And I think you’ve conflated the Sunstone community…”

        I’ve done no such thing — I think you should go back and read what I wrote.

        • Well, not punching people is a good start. But “respectful discussion” is also about figuring out how to address the issues not the person (i.e., avoiding ad hominem attacks), using “I” language, avoiding hyperbole, and basically giving people the benefit of the doubt. And I don’t think this is inconsistent with “rigorous inquiry”. Maybe you think that is “muting your language”, but I think it is necessary in any interfaith discussion.

          There’s a good article on respect in interfaith discussions here: http://humanisticpaganism.com/2012/06/10/etiquette-for-interfaith-discussions-by-thalassa/

          I do agree with you that the Mormon church and its members often confuses any criticism with an attack on the existence of the church — that’s a symptom of fundamentalism anywhere.

          I went back and re-read what you wrote, and I still don’t know how you went from my characterization of Sunstone to your comment about the Mormon Church as a whole. But in any case, I’m curious how you arrived at the conclusion that Sunstone “is so fixated on “respect” that they’ve managed
          to seriously loose track of what it means to engage in rigorous inquiry.” That has certainly not been my experience at Sunstone, and I don’t know many people more critical of the Mormon church than me.

    • Bob_Knows

      Yes, we get a lot of that same kind of disrespect on Pagan forums like this one. Only approved thoughts are tolerated. Say something of a different opinion and they are very quick to banish you and your thoughts. If anything, pagan forums are less tolerant than Mormon forums.

  • Kelly Knight

    I truly want someone to help me understand why so much effort is put forth to change the doctrines, philosophies, covenants, and policies of the LDS Church by people who voluntarily belong. There is no compulsion to belong to the LDS Church, and so all of these people with so many progressive ideas are absolutely free to create their own associations and organizations which espouse their points of view. If one is not happy with an organization to which one freely, and without compulsion, belongs, is one also not free to leave and create his or her own organization in the image s/he wishes? Why is it so necessary to change the Church? After all, the Lord has never said “come unto me all ye who are heavy laden, and don’t like the things I teach, and I will see if I can bend some of the rules for you. Or better yet, do away with them.” No, He says “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Emphasis on “let him deny himself.” One does this by putting off one’s own desires, passions, and appetites in favor of the Lord’s.

    If one does not accept that the LDS Church is the Lord’s Church, let him leave in search of that church. On the other hand, if the LDS Church is the Lord’s Church, then the Lord has chosen His prophets and apostles, and we would do well to follow them rather than council them.

    • Yeah, it’s that all or nothing attitude that is the problem. Mormons will readily admit that their prophet is not infallible like the Pope, but then they insist on perfect obedience as if he were.

      The fact is that the LDS Church is a human institution lead by humans and it is incumbent upon we humans to improve it — or help it “fulfill the measure of its being” if you prefer.

      There are lots of good reasons not to chuck the baby with the bathwater. Speaking as someone who walked away, I can now appreciate that I lost an opportunity to help improve an institution that I had loved for a quarter century.

      It’s that all or nothing mentality that keeps the LDS Church stuck in the early 20th century. If Mormons truly embraced the concept of continuing revelation, then they would be more comfortable with the changing nature of the LDS Gospel.

    • As an aside, for what you think it is worth, I tend toward the all of nothing mentality myself, and it led me out of the Church as soon as I started to realize that not everything the Church taught was true. I won’t get into all the details, but I think it is inevitable that members will encounter things that the Church teaches that don’t jibe with actual history or with science or with their own conscience or whatever. I have met quite a few Mormons and ex-Mormons, and I can say with confidence that those who are able to tolerate ambiguity (appreciating the shades of grey) with regard to the Church are better able to maintain their membership. Those who adopt a black-or-white mentality tend to either leave or become fanatics.

  • Danielle Amourtrance Verum

    I’m with Kelly Knight on this. One of the main reasons I left the Catholic Church and Christianity as a whole was because it was the intellectually honest thing for me to do, and the respectful thing toward that god and that religion. A religion has the right to define for itself it’s doctrines. If you don’t like them, there’s the door. It’s so many shades of rude (stronger word desired but settled on rude) for people to try and change religions, esp when they do it as members. Imagine, just imagine the absolute uproar if a Wiccan had a change in their views, but stayed part of a Wiccan coven and tried to change doctrine from the inside to their new found faith and views? Outrage! There would be absolute outrage in the Pagan community and rightly so. And I think the same in any other community. Leave those people and their organization to have their views and go your own way.

    • That’s not true of all Wiccan communities. Many Wiccan groups are more open to change than you suggest. In fact, in general, I would say that Paganism is way, way more open to change than authoritarian religions like Catholicism and Mormonism.

      Having said that, there is a huge downside to just walking out the door every time you don’t agree with something. For one thing, (and I’m saying this as someone who walked away) it is unlikely you will ever find lasting community, because no community is perfect. (I think the current state of the Pagan community is largely a function of the fact that too many of us are the “just walk away” types.) Second, you loose an opportunity to change the institution from within — and change does happen even in authoritarian religions like Mormonism.

      • (I think the current state of the Pagan community is largely a function of the fact that too many of us are the “just walk away” types.) This! Many of the most thoughtful, spiritually mature, with the most stable lives health/economics-wise and ethical Pagans I know have left the community to be more solitary, or for atheism or another religion. It’s like erosion.

        • There’s another issue: It’s that Paganism does not demand enough of us. Stark and Bainbridge et al. have shown that the religions that survive are, counter-intuitively, those that demand the most of their adherents, so their adherents become invested (literally and figuratively) in the survival of the sect/cult. In some ways, it’s too easy to be Pagan. No one is demanding 10% of our income. No one is insisting that we give up friends who do not fit with a Pagan lifestyle. No one is looking over our shoulder to see if we recycle and compost. There’s (often) no priests to report to. We not expected to (and actually are actively discouraged from) proselytizing. And many of us never even meet another Pagan in real life. It’s too easy to be Pagan — which makes it just as easy to *not* be Pagan.

          • Danielle Amourtrance Verum

            I think the faiths and paths under the Pagan umbrella offer something better than an outside authority, and that is we have to be our own authority. And remember, there are some Pagan paths with the structures, rules, oaths and other things that you’re talking about. Some Theodish Heathens for example have strict rules about oaths, community participation, leadership responsibilities etc…

            • If be really interested to know if Theodish Heathens have the same attrition rate as eclectic Pagans.

          • Courtney

            Is mere survival of a religion really a good thing though? Surely I’d instinctively be protective of something that I invested a lot of time and money in and made some rather arbitrary sacrifices for. Looking at a religion’s longevity is no real measure of the quality of life for its adherents or for the wider community it affects. Plenty of terrible human institutions survived for a long time because of their own momentum, because people were invested in them.

            I think you put too much weight on a label. It’s easy to be a Pagan or not be a Pagan because, as I think we’ve all learned, “Pagan” by itself doesn’t mean much. It’s VERY easy to be a Christian in America if you just call yourself that and can use a “Get Out of Proselytization Free” card when people come knocking on your door. How many self-identifying, even church-attending, Christians never really put much thought or effort into following Christ outside of rhetoric? How many just cruised into the church on the momentum of their parents’ teachings?

            While there may be people who use Paganism as an excuse to do whatever they feel like and call it a religion – which honestly isn’t the worst thing in the world, I ‘d rather have that than people contorting themselves and society into dogmatic boxes – I think many people who have a strong sense of self-discipline and a desire for self-improvement are called to this path as well.

            • >”… I ‘d rather have that than people contorting themselves and society into dogmatic boxes …”

              Me too! And you make a good point that there are Sunday-Christians (and Christmas- and Easter-Christians), just like there are “Sabbat-Pagans”.

          • Yes- this is one of the reasons commonly cited in the decline of liberal Protestant churches, and New Religious Movements are more classically known for being high-commitment. Here in the Twin Cities, we do have a bunch of Gardnerian and related covens that have been around a long time, I think the high structure and commitment is part of why they are still here. Personally, I find it hard to commit to spiritual practice when I don’t have a local group.

      • Danielle Amourtrance Verum

        I think you’re being kind beyond reason. I do think the Pagan community is much more open. However, we’re Pagans for a reason. And let’s say our Wiccan example decided that Jesus was now a major person in his/her life and thus wanted the coven structure to change to accommodate Jesus and a heap of other things Christian oriented. Rather than leaving to be a part of a coven that was more eclectic, demanded that her coven accommodate her and her views. I just cannot see that as anything but rude. You don’t see Pagans going and becoming members of Christian churches and changing them from the inside out. Cuz that would be rude. And if that is happening, for the gods’ sake stop!

        There’s also a downside to things changing and being updated every time a worshiper decides something for them has changed. And you’re right, that is exactly why I am not and will never be part of a community. Because my views are updated and changed as I grow, and I don’t expect other people to change because I have. If a religion has something about it that enough people disagree with and walk away from, it’ll fade out of existence. And then something else can take it’s place.

        • That’s the model I’m comfortable with too. But I wonder if we don’t need more institutional staying power to effect real change in the world.

          • Courtney

            Hey John! Been a while.

            Anyway, I definitely have some opinions on the discussion re: changing a religion versus just leaving, but I wanted to point out that I appreciated the broader message of your post, which is change happening, albeit slowly. I may have a hard time reaching your optimistic conclusions, but just to know that you’ve reached them is hopeful.

            So. While I appreciate your points about sticking with a faith community – or any more-or-less optional community – rather than just giving up and walking out, I strongly feel that the abstract concept of a religion is something to which an individual human being owes NOTHING. If one truly believes their faith is doing good in the world but needs some restructuring, and wants to work for that improvement, great! But no one should feel obligated to work for social change within a current that is purposefully structured to run at its own pace as opposed to wider national or global communities. Even if you’ve been raised in a religion, even if your family are all members of said religion, if there comes a point where you decide the faith is perpetuating harmful ideals, or that you yourself feel spiritually abused, you feel free to get out of there.

            I view the relationship between a person and their religion much like that between two lovers/life partners, I suppose. Find the right one for you, and your life can be vastly improved. You can accomplish so much you couldn’t have on your own, and of course it takes sacrifice and humility on your part because relationships are not a one-way street; they ideally help change and improve both people. And, while you can work to change this person, it’s important to recognize they are who they are, and something in that is what drew you to them in the first place. However, the instant your partner starts spouting abusive language, let ALONE threatening or performing physical harm, or if you realize that they really were kind of rotten inside all along, you have every right to and absolutely SHOULD get out of there.

            I guess an important question is, “is my church allowing me to improve IT? Am I a valuable and appreciated member of this community who can use my strengths to better the lives of the others?” If the answer is no, and it’s not because of lack of effort on your part, then… hmm. Maybe there’s a place you’re needed more.

            Religions are human institutions and we have no obligation to honor the superficial bonds they impose. A person’s obligations should be to their fellow beings, whether it’s other humans, the earth, or gods or what they perceive to be God. If you believe your church is sanctioned by God but at the same time is corrupt or rife with problems, it’s important to REALLY evaluate your religious affiliation. I’m certain your wife and the Mormons at Sunstone have done much thinking and come up conclusions that compel them to work for change from the inside, and I commend them. But other people might not reach those conclusions, and they shouldn’t feel obligated to work for social change within a certain context when they could already find more equal footing elsewhere.

            • Courtney, I couldn’t agree more … with everything you said. In fact, I think the Mormon church is very much like an overly-controlling parent, to the point that it borders on abuse. I also believe that the LDS Church does more harm than good to the souls of those who are in it, even if they don’t realize it. Having said that, another person’s calculus of the harm vs. benefit will be different. I personally think that is because they are blind to the harm though. I would like to see everyone, the world over, walk out of authoritarian religions.

  • I’ve also often had the “why don’t they just leave?” mentality about women and GLBT folks in conservative churches, though I myself was raised a liberal Methodist, so I left more for spiritual reasons. Then I remember once reading an interview with a feminist Catholic nun, and the interviewer asked her why she didn’t just leave the church, she pointed out how many problems there are with the U.S., so why didn’t the interviewer just leave the country? To the sister, the Church was like her country. I found myself really relating to that. Of course, it’s lot easier to leave a church than a country, but some people’s whole social/emotional and family lives are wrapped around their churches. In my family everyone just picks their own church/religion as an adult (or doesn’t) without much fuss, but for other people it’s much bigger deal.

    • Yes, exactly! I didn’t like to admit it at first, but it was easier for me to leave the LDS Church than it is for others. I was raised Mormon, but at the end of the day, it was a voluntary association. For my wife, in contrast, it is in her blood.

    • Danielle Amourtrance Verum

      Many countries have means by which you can bring up issues and talk about them. Many churches are not like that. They have set dogmas. I don’t think it’s quite the same “things” you’re comparing.

      • Many countries do not allow assent and many churches do, also.

        • Danielle Amourtrance Verum

          I think you may be missing my point, or something else is amiss that I’m missing. The LDS church is a religion where ordination of women is not up for discussion, thus the excommunication of said woman in the article. You seem to be talking about churches or religions that do have things open for discussion. So which is it? I’m saying in religions where the issue(s) is not open for discussion, a person should walk away. You seem to be mixing the two. Which are you talking about?

          • And my response is that (1) whether something is up for discussion is often up for discussion and (2) the decision whether to walk away should be balanced with other factors, including whether you still find your spiritual home there, whether there are other positive things you enjoy about the association, what the alternatives are available to you, etc.

  • Guest

    I’m Pagan.. I dont care about sexuality. I don’t think any Pagan can speak for all Pagans when we are all so very different. I respect people’s sexuality but I don’t affiliate myself with any sexuality movements or anything. Sexuality should be personal, in my opinion. Before you go an reply to my comment remember that I don’t have to be like you, I am Pagan. I am an individual..

    • Ah, the Pagan mantra: “I am an individual!” It’s ironic that we’re so jealous of our individuality when so much of (Neo-)Pagan theology is focused on our interconnectedness.

      Of course you’re free to believe what you want. I don’t know why people bother to chime in just to say they are an outlier.

      Anyway, how do you not care about sexuality. Are you asexual?

      Regardless, I think Paganism generally is very concerned with sexuality. Obviously, there are exceptions.

      • Guest

        You don’t care for my post but you ask me a question?

      • Guest

        Paganism doesn’t care about sexuality because Paganism is not an intelligent being. Yes, I am an individual.. I don’t really understand why it bothers you to see me say so. Do you disagree? Does my “chiming in” offend you? I’m not really sure why Journalists are having such a hard time handling honest replies without being offended.. This is social media, is it not? All Pagans are individuals, it is a valid reason so many are leaving religion for Paganism. People are not supposed to be caged or limited to one man or woman’s structure. Just like not all Pagans are advocates for sexuality movements. Some of us just don’t care. My sexuality doesn’t matter. That is just some weak attempt at trying to find out why I’m not like you. Well, too bad. And I hope more people come out and admit they do not care. Because your opinion might be supported by a group of people, but that doesn’t mean it is above all else. Paganism is not an ‘order’. And it will never be. Also, nobody can say Paganism is…Only what Paganism is not.. Because Pagans do not all think alike. This is elementary level common sense.

    • Bob_Knows

      Good reply. There are way too many people who try to speak for all pagans when supporting their own personal political agendas. I find that disturbing and disrespectful of others.

    • good for you,,,,, B B…………………………moses

  • Bob_Knows

    A religion that blows in the current political wind is not much of a religion. I have a lot more respect for a religion that believes what it believes despite outside attacks than I do for non-religions that have no firm beliefs in anything. Sometimes I wonder what so-called “pagans” and what they actually believe in, if anything.

    • “A certain type of mind is frightened by the mutability, the elusiveness, and the mystery of life, and thinks of salvation as a state of everlasting fixity and certainty from which the disconcerting elements of spontaneity, surprise and mystery are largely removed. A image of God in which the ridged male qualities predoinate, which excludes the beautiful, the fluid, the playful and the feminine, simply mirrors that fear of life and Reality. The rigid, male God embodies the ideal of the possessive will—to grasp and hold the mystery of life, to freeze the desired form of the living moment into an eternal and immobile possession. And so frozen, the thing is quite dead. The moment, the movement, the life has passed on and gone free.

      “… For another type of mind fixity is death, and instead of trying to catch and possess the wind of life, he lets it blow freely around and through him, finding peace, joy and salvation in its very movement. He surrenders the desire to possess it in any fixed state or form, and lets it possess him, affirming and joining in its unceasing and ungraspable movement as in some divine dance or melody.”

      — Alan Watts

    • i was just wondering is this Bob_Knows nought,,,,, things do change, everything changes, circumstances, lives, experiences, religion can be dogma that makes the mistake of not being able to change sometimes. As for Pagans, as such were around before man made religions were written to control the masses. Advice to me and all,,, research the truth……is a good idea………….moses