Kicked Out of Heaven for Wanting Women Priests

Kate Kelly, the founder of Ordain Women, has been formally excommunicated from the Mormon Church. What do you do when your religious community doesn't want you?
A reflection of the Salt Lake Mormon Temple in Salt Lake, Utah (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

When you are excommunicated from the Mormon Church, you may not donate money to your congregation or wear religious clothing. You may not take the sacrament, which is the tradition of eating bread and drinking water that represent the body and blood of Christ. You may not speak in a Mormon church, and you may not publicly pray for your community.

The word is quite literal: "ex" and "communicate." No longer part of your community.

Yesterday, that's what happened to Kate Kelly, the founder and leader of Ordain Women, a movement to allow women priests in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS. For the past year, Kelly and her group have been advocating fuller female participation in all aspects of the Mormon community, including the ability to perform certain rituals, hold high-level administrative roles, and make financial decisions for church communities. They also see the need for a shift in Mormon home life: "The Church’s Proclamation on the Family declares that men preside over their wives and families, thus preserving an antiquated and unequal model in both the domestic and ecclesiastical realms," the group writes on its website.

"Our determination is that you be excommunicated for conduct contrary to the laws and order of the Church," Kelly's former bishop wrote to her in an email. "In order to be considered for readmission to the Church ... you must stop trying to gain a following for yourself or your cause and taking actions that could lead others away from the Church." In accordance with Church teachings, the panel that convicted her was all male.

In no uncertain terms, this means Kelly must stop participating in Ordain Women if she wants to be re-baptized and re-confirmed into the Church. But that's probably not going to happen. "While we are deeply saddened by this decision, Kate is a part of us, and Ordain Women will continue," a spokeswoman from the group said.

Kelly's reaction was much less clinical. "Today is a tragic day for my family and me as we process the many ways this will impact us, both in this life and in the eternities," she wrote in a statement. "I love the gospel and the courage of its people. Don’t leave. Stay, and make things better."

Stay, and make things better—it matters for eternity. This is a remarkable sentiment: It illuminates, painfully, the challenge of trying to reconcile deeply held religious beliefs with strong convictions about women's rights. Kelly and the others involved with Ordain Women are clearly sincere about their faith; their mission is to help create "a religious community that better reflects the depth, breadth, and inclusiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, regardless of gender." This isn't just a feminist group pushing back against the anti-modern teachings of the LDS Church; its members are part of the faith, which means they believe that what happens on earth matters for all of eternity. Kate Kelly doesn't want to create a new church forged in her own image; she wants her church to follow the image of Christ. To her, that means greater inclusion of women, but at least right now, Mormon teachings on female participation aren't going to change.

It's worth noting that the Church has changed its teachings on other topics, though—race, for example. In 1852, 22 years after he helped establish the LDS  Church, Brigham Young announced that men of black African descent could not become priests, although they could still be baptized. For more than a century, this was the official policy of Mormonism. That was until June of 1978, when then-President Spencer W. Kimball reported having a revelation saying that black men should be able to become priests. So the Church can change—but for now, it's not changing on this.

In a lot of ways, being excommunicated is an anti-modern experience, though not in the way you might think. As Kelly found out, being Mormon isn't just about an individual choosing Mormonism and believing in its precepts; the Mormon community also has to choose you. According to the LDS Church, and according to Kelly's own beliefs, she doesn't have the ability to think or choose her way into the Kingdom of Heaven; if she remains excommunicated, that will prevent her from being part of her community—forever. This isn't just a fight over feminism and politics in Mormonism. It's a tense conflict between the Church's core teachings and changing views on women in society—and one woman's eternal life.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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