A women’s movement is beginning to challenge the traditionally patriarchal Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Over the last weekend, some 400 Ordain Women supporters, marched together to Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City to request tickets to Saturday night’s twice-a-year, all-male priesthood meeting held at the 21,000-seat LDS Conference Center.
These women didn’t carry placards or chant slogans. Instead, wearing their Sunday best, they formed a line, and, one by one, asked for admittance. Each woman was rejected in turn.
Kate Kelly—the D.C.-based human-rights attorney and devout Mormon who in 2013 founded Ordain Women—led a similar action six months ago at the October priesthood meeting with a group less than half the size. Men in suits and ties were on rejection duty that first go-round. Media photographers shot the episode as women approached the doors, only to be rebuffed. PR-wise, it wasn’t a shining moment for the Church, and on Saturday, a woman was tasked with refusing admission. The Church had meanwhile already announced that media would not be welcome to capture the scene.
Realistically, priesthood for women might be generations away. The Church is led by great-grandfathers—prophet Thomas S. Monson turns 87 this summer, and the next in line is 89—and the religion has a natural aversion to change. Until 1978, black people weren’t allowed to be ordained as priests, serve as missionaries, or be sealed for eternity in the temple. And while the Church presently endorses monogamy, it still teaches that men will be able to have multiple wives in heaven and that plural marriage could be reinstated on earth if the prophet gets a revelation from God giving the go-ahead.
There’s another reason the priesthood debate is different for Mormons than, say, for Catholics. The women who marched to Temple Square last weekend weren’t asking for the right to join a special society of highly trained elders. In the LDS Church, priesthood power is not held by career bishops, reverends and high-ranking officials. Young men are allowed to receive the priesthood as early as age 12.*
It’s a nuance that news outlets typically fail to make clear in their “Mormon women seek ordination” headlines. Priesthood-for-women supporters say they are asking for certain spiritual privileges that only men have. They say they want to be allowed to bless their children when they’re sick or need counsel.
See, at the local level, congregations or “wards,” are run by everyday members, all the way up to the presiding officer, the bishop. Without “holding priesthood keys,” women not only can’t give blessings and baptize—they can’t help with the ward’s “nuts and bolts” tasks, such as collecting tithes, allocating funds for activities, deciding what will be taught on Sunday, serving on disciplinary councils, conducting temple worthiness interviews, etc. Women lead the Relief Society, the Church’s organization for women, and Primary for children, but even then only to a point—ultimately the bishop has the final say.
“Equality is necessary for healthy, well-functioning relationships and communities,” says a statement at OrdainWomen.org. “In a lay church, we rely on the talents and abilities of our members. To underutilize, dismiss, or impede the contributions of half our membership is self-defeating.”
Kelly says she felt the crushing weight of this defeat while serving her mission in Barcelona. After pounding the pavement to find and then teach the gospel to investigators, she was left on the sidelines when it came time to baptize the new members. That job went to a male missionary who had done none of the legwork she’d done.
And yet Kelly still believes she belongs to God’s true church—and so do hundreds of active Mormons of both sexes who submitted testimonials on OW’s website. These are people who grew up singing the treasured LDS hymn “I Am a Child of God” and live with the peace of mind that if there’s an illness in the family, the Relief Society will be at the door in a jiffy with a piping-hot pot roast or casserole. Kelly says her faith brings her closer to Jesus Christ, that the church has made her the person she is today, and that no matter what happens with the movement she is spearheading, she will continue to be a faithful member. Instead of ditching Mormonism for its flaws, she’s working to improve it from within.
Mormon feminists also point to the LDS teaching that God is both male and female. That is to say, Mormons don’t just believe in Heavenly Father but Heavenly Mother, too. She is the wife of God the Father and the spiritual Mother of humanity, a Goddess in her own right. Heavenly Mother is rarely discussed—she’s a topic “too sacred” to speak about—though “Heavenly Parents” are referenced on occasion.
Kelly is fond of saying of OW supporters, “We are not against the Church. We are the Church.” She sees her actions as a retention effort that will keep women, especially young progressive ones, from leaving when they become disillusioned.
So far, the LDS Church hasn’t been particularly receptive. In March, the Church’s public-affairs department sent OW leaders a letter requesting they do not enter Temple Square prior to the priesthood meeting. And the first talk of the priesthood session they were shut out of? A sermon by apostle Dallin H. Oaks detailing why women will never hold the priesthood.
Last Monday, The Deseret News, the 167-year-old daily paper owned by the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, published portions of a letter to OW supporters by Church spokeswoman Jessica Moody. “Declaring such an objective to be non-negotiable, as you have done, actually detracts from the helpful discussions that church leaders have held as they seek to listen to the thoughts, concerns and hopes of women inside and outside of church leadership,” Moody wrote. “Ordination of women to the priesthood is a matter of doctrine that is contrary to the Lord’s revealed organization for his church.” (The Church declined to comment for this story.)
And yet, several news-making, albeit small, changes have taken place in the Church since OW’s launch, though the Church gives no credit to the grassroots organization for the developments. Last fall, as OW’s plans to attend the October priesthood meeting gained traction in the media, the Church announced that, for the first time ever, the priesthood meeting would be broadcast live on TV and the Internet. Previously, it had been an exclusive event that only men could witness live in person or by satellite in church buildings throughout the world. Women, from here on out, are invited to watch from home.
Also in April 2013, a woman was invited to pray from the pulpit in General Conference, a task previously off-limits to sisters. And in March 2014, three photos of female auxiliary leaders were hung on a wall inside the Conference Center next to male leaders—a décor decision significant enough to make headlines in The Salt Lake Tribune.
The Church kept away video cameras from OW’s ticket ask on Saturday. But within a day, a force more powerful than TV news—mighty social media—had already spread a poignant message. It’s simple, and it comes in the form of a meme: side-by-side quotes from LDS Church leaders 47 years apart. The gist? Never say never.
* This sentence has been edited for clarity.