Woman Kneeling at a Prayer Desk by Sir Davis Wilkie
I try to avoid writing about religion in this space. God, yes. Spirituality, yes. The Atonement, you betcha. But religion, I leave alone. Because you can’t talk about one without disagreeing with another. Because it isn’t a universal concept. Because at the end of the day it is really just the shiny wrapping around the gooey gospel goodness. (Did I just equate The Word with caramel? MAYBE.) But today my call to write comes from within my faith tradition.
Write it I must, but read it you...may. (Tune in tomorrow for more traditional meg in progress fare.)
I am LDS. And for several years, the topic of female ordination has been one of agitation, honest hope, dutiful prayer, anger, peace, love and disenfranchisement. I have friends on both “sides” of the topic. Not that it matters much, but I fall in a third category myself - one neither those that seek ordination nor those that discourage it feel much kinship towards. This gives me the unenviable role of outsider. It also gives me a sense of objectivity. (I say a “sense” because objectivity is surely always an illusion.) I’ve wept with my friends who have felt their hearts have called them away from the church. Their choices were not made lightly. They had to decide to tear themselves apart to go. I’ve stood next to women that have decided to stay because of truths bigger than the doubts that clutter around their feet. Their choices were not made lightly. They had to decide to tear themselves apart to stay. And I’ve felt honored by every damn association with every one of them.
I thought of every one of those women today as I read the announcement by April Young Bennett. A woman on the board of Ordain Women. A fervent contributor to The Exponent. An active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. According to Ms. Bennett, her stake president gave her a choice. If she wished to keep her temple recommend, she would need to step down from OW. She was allowed to remain a member. She was also told take down every article she’s ever written about Women and the Priesthood. This included the surveys she conducted asking women how they felt about their positions in the church and priesthood authority. If she complied she would have her temple recommend and access to her brother’s impending wedding. If she did not, she would lose both. Faced with exclusion from one of the most sacred events of her brother’s life, she acted as many of us would have acted...she did what she was told to do.
I’ve never read April’s work. And as of the writing of this article, I’ve decided to keep it that way. I did not want my assessment of her opinions to have anything to do with my assessment of her situation. So what do I think? With an objectivity colored only by our joint membership in this sisterhood in Zion?
I find myself hoping the facts have been misrepresented. But if they are accurate, if this is what truly happened, then I am appalled.
I cannot address her work with Ordain Women, I don’t know enough about the organization or her role within it to write about that aspect of the demands coherently. What I do know about OW has mostly left me feeling ambivalent about whether being a member makes one in open rebellion against the church. That is another discussion for another day. (I lean towards the “everybody’s invited to this party” approach.)
But I do - I DO - know about writing as a means to seek, communicate and commune as an LDS woman. These men. With their desk jobs and time away from hearth and home. With their certainty about what should be said and where and how it should be spoken. Do they have any concept of what it is like to be an LDS woman with ideas that want to run about and hopes that don’t have a name? We have joy. But the hardships are not few.
Do they know the isolation of a traditional LDS woman? Of the moments over the dishes and the children and the floors and the meals? With no weekly meetings, no lunches with colleagues, no time for personal aspiration except what is carved out of the exhaustion of early mornings and late laundry soaked nights? How can they not understand that writing and publishing our revelations, our hopes, our hard sought answers and, yes even the imperfect act of seeking itself, is how we commune, how we find one another, how we build?
Let’s meet this stake president halfway. Let’s say he is right in his assessment of Ms. Bennett’s position. Let’s say she is wrong. Well, then. What?
Are we only to publish the things we KNOW to be right? How many things do we absolutely KNOW with a surety? Are we only to write the things that are approved by people we’ve never met? Is there no room in our journey, our places of refuge, our online board meetings for ideas that may seem irreverent or iconoclastic or fringe? Don’t we have the right to be wrong if we go about it with a love for Christ and man? If we do it without offense or broken covenant? If we’ve lost that right, then we’ve lost our pursuit of truth. I don’t know how to find The Lord without bumping around in the dark. I can’t. If you require that of me, then I’ve lost all hope of finding His light. Thank goodness, Joseph Smith wasn't held to this same standard. He never would have survived it.
My dear Stake President.
Yes, we think and write in the public eye. We reach out across continents connected by screens and wifi. For many of us, it is that or muttering to ourselves over the dishes during naptime. Because we’ve listened to you. We’ve stayed home. We’ve raised our babies. We’ve made meals for the sick and the heartbroken and unmended. We’ve sought revelation and we’ve been confused, too, by the myriad of answers across gender and circumstance.
So we’ve written what we know and we’ve written what we hoped until we knew and hoped something better...and then we’ve written those things, too. Places like The Exponent aren’t nests of dissent, they are sanctuaries for thoughts and hearts that sometimes meet and sometimes collide. Their existence is an act of sisterhood - the good, the bad and the genuine. The fact that we let you read there,too is a testament of our hope for you - not an invitation to police and destroy. You can’t silence our faith journey simply because you don’t agree with it. You can only rejoice that we’ve garnered the strength to embark on one at all. We get to disagree with you. We get to ask questions. We get to share the revelations that have settled into our bones. You don’t get to decide what is worthy of thought or conversation.
It’s not up to you.
By telling Ms. Bennett to remove the work of her heart from the safe walls of The Exponent, you’ve told us you think her journey to the truth is unworthy of our sisterhood. By removing the surveys that recorded the thoughts of her readers, you’ve told us the feelings of women in the lay membership only deserve to be acknowledged if they reflect your own. And, most damningly, you’ve used admittance into our highest house of learning as a way to discipline someone you deemed not learned enough. You know, the next time my oldest daughter confuses how to write her bs and ds, I am going to keep her home from school. That ought to teach her about the importance of her education.
Did you know discipline comes from the Latin, disciplina? It means to guide, not to punish. Where else to go for guidance but the temple?
I think Ms. Bennett and I would disagree on a great many things. But I also think we would find common ground in our love of Christ, our adoration for the gospel, our thirst for more revelation and our hopeful faith in the framework of the church. Most importantly, I think, after awhile, the two of us would discover the great truth inherent in the sisterhood. We need one another. I need April. I need women like her. Women that are different from me. Women that teach me to love those that are not of my heart and mind. I need to feel something bigger than our mortal fabric pull us together. I need to sit next to her at the Temple and marvel at the same truth reflected through a prism of hearts and souls.
And, not with due respect but with respect freely given, I would say you need that, too.
In solidarity with my sisters that know, hope to know or don't know whether they know or not, a few things I currently believe that are not doctrine:
The Word of Wisdom approves the drinking of beer. (Okay, this one doesn’t really matter...I certainly stay away from the stuff since I’ve been asked to by later prophets. But a thorough reading of D&C leaves little room for other interpretations. D&C 89: 17 Nevertheless, wheat for man, and corn for the ox, and oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and for swine, and for all beasts of the field, and barley for all useful animals, and for mild drinks, as also other grain.)
The Holy Ghost is a female presence. (If gender is eternal, then what do we make of that personage’s very female gifts?)
The concept of eternal progression applies to ascension from one kingdom to another in the eternities. Nearly all of us will be exalted in the truest sense of the word.
The priesthood is the Power of God, it is not withheld from women. In the fullness of the gospel, women will regularly participate in the laying on of hands. While I do not believe my priesthood looks like male priesthood, I do believe further revelation will show us its full force and full place. Until then, I have patience.
The coming years will prove the veracity or falseness of these present convictions. And I will rejoice no matter what the outcome. Because the truth can't hurt the truth. No matter the accuracy of my current thoughts, they will have been one of many steps that led me to enlightenment. And that is a blessing I will not deny.