Thinking Through Kate Kelly’s Op-Ed
In a recent op-ed for The Guardian, Kate Kelly, the founder of Ordain Women, discussed her thoughts in regards to women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and her current status with the church. I have already addressed a comment by one of Kelly’s supporters, the following are my thoughts upon reading Kelly’s writing.
Kelly begins by discussing an upcoming disciplinary council being held on her behalf:
“On Sunday, I will be tried in absentia for apostasy by the leaders of my former congregation in the Mormon church. I face potential excommunication for the simple act of opening my mouth and starting a conversation about gender equality in the church and the deep roots of this institutional inequality.”
Kelly would have us believe that she is being persecuted for the “simple act of opening [her] mouth”. However that is not the extent of Kelly’s actions. She has started an entire movement – with an official name, a website, and facebook page. She has lead a march on church owned property, during a church run event – twice, after being specifically asked not to. She has participated in a number of media interviews, blog posts, and public appearances to teach in opposition of church doctrine and leaders. She has lead others to also act against the church and its leaders and procedures. This is much more than simply “opening my mouth”, this is an active campaign to change the church, its policies, and its doctrine. It is a very loud campaign, though it holds a following of less than 2/10ths of a percent of the total church membership.
In addition, excommunication is not the only possible result of the upcoming disciplinary council. There are at least five potential results as laid out in the church handbook: no action, informal probation, formal probation, disfellowshipping, and excommunication. None of which are considered to be permanent, non reversible, actions. Though they may be very difficult and be accompanied by serious pain, they are not a final condition unless chosen so by the individual. A council, though referred to as a “trial” sometimes is far from a courtroom proceeding. Excommunication is a distinct possibility, however, excommunication is not used lightly. Excommunication can be used in the event of apostasy, something that the church has defined clearly – only a disciplinary council can decide of apostasy has occurred and excommunication for apostasy can only occur after other remedies have been explored, which is the case this time.
“My grave situation is another example of how silencing women has long been a top communications priority for patriarchical institutions, both literally and figuratively.”
If anything, church leadership has only increased the voice of women in the church. The first woman to speak in general conference was Lucy Mack Smith in 1845. However, for decades after, women speakers were only seen on an occasional basis. A predominance of male speakers at such an event would have been nothing but a social normality at the time, and was not a conspiracy to keep women silent. There certainly was no doctrine that women couldn’t speak publicly, at they were invited to from time-to-time. As time went by, especially for about the last 30 years, we have seen more consistent appearances of women in General Conference. In just the last year we have seen Linda S. Reeves, Rosemary M. Wixom, Bonnie L. Oscarson, Linda K. Burton, and Carole M. Stephens all speak at least once at General Conference. We have also seen them, and other sisters, speak at other meetings around the world.
Twice a year there is a general meeting just for women of the church.
In addition, women often write articles in the official church magazines. In just one recent issue of the Ensign we see at least seven female authors. Women also help develop and write church curriculum. There are also many female Mormon authors who write wonderful scholarly and historical books and sell them on the regular market.
Kelly herself references, in the article, a song written by a female. Another song written by a female member of the church is likely the most popular of all LDS hymns.
Recently the church PR department met with an unofficial LDS women’s group and thanked them for the work they are doing to support each other and other women.
For years BYU, a church owned school, has held an annual Women’s Conference which features both male and female presenters. BYU hires female professors, some of which are among the most popular on campus.
The church includes the largest women’s organization in the entire world – the Relief Society. An international organization of service and fellowship that utilizes female lay leaders and instructors from every walk of life. This organizes and binds more women in the world than any other single women’s organization.
Does this mean there aren’t some kinks that could be worked out? No, but the above is hardly the work of a conspiring organization that wishes to silence women and keep them oppressed.
“In the Mormon church, all positions of authority and leadership require ordination to the priesthood – and no women can be ordained, though the vast majority of male members, age 12 and up, are. This means that no women can lead any official rites and ceremonies, despite the fact that there is no specific Mormon church doctrine explaining why women are not ordained.”
This statement is less than accurate. Some of the leadership positions that can only be held by women are: Primary President and counselors, Young Women President and counselors, Relief Society President and counselors, instructors in the Young Women and relief Society organizations. These organizations have women leaders on the ward, stake, and general leadership levels. There are also newly formed international boards for women leaders. In the temple there are positions that can only be held by women, some of which require those women to perform priesthood ordinances. These women perform and participate in two of the most important ordinances of the church.
Yes boys as young as 12 are ordained to the Aaronic or “preparatory” priesthood and given authority to perform some basic ordinances under the strict direction of adult leaders. Under no circumstance are they given any authority, or stewardship, over anyone other than other young men their same age. They are, however, given mandates to serve everyone in their ward as part of their priesthood service. That is how the priesthood works, it is about 90% mandate to serve and 10% authority and stewardship – and then only under specific situations as directed by a higher authority. In a regular LDS ward there are only four people who have authoritative priesthood stewardship (called “keys”) for other people in the ward. Three of these have stewardship for other boys and men, and one, the Bishop, has stewardship for all members of the ward. The vast majority of priesthood holders in the church right now do not hold any keys of authority for other people. However, each one of them is under mandate to serve others.
“In early 2013 I felt inspired to create a movement seeking equality for and ordination to the priesthood for Mormon women. The backlash was fairly immediate from many more orthodox members of the church, but my congregation’s leaders in northern Virginia said nothing to me for over a year.
Last month I moved away from Virginia and, after I left, I was placed on “informal probation” by my former local congregational leaders and can no longer participate in church activities in any congregation or church, regardless of where I go. One of the stipulations listed in the letter from my leaders is to literally keep my mouth shut. It says, “If you are invited to pray or read a passage or comment in a class or other Church meeting, you must decline.” Under this directive, I am not even allowed to speak when spoken to in church. I am, however, encouraged to continue to tithe.”
This is not specific to Kelly’s experience. Though she would frame it as a reaction to her speaking out, the same exact instructions have been received by many church members as they work through a variety of spiritual issues – not just apostasy. One may be given the same limitations for issues with morality, issues with dishonesty, or any number of spiritual issues while continuing on the path of repentance. Tithing is one of the most basic exercises in faith. Given up something that we naturally want for the Lord, and it is personal between the individual and the Lord. Thus it is no surprise that tithing would continue for a repentant person.
“Being silenced this way feels as though a physical gag has been placed in my mouth each Sunday, and the pain of knowing my feelings and ideas are unwelcome is sharp. I am deeply saddened that my beloved church is considering forcibly ejecting me for living out what I was taught in a primary song as a child: “do what is right, let the consequence follow”.
It is interesting that she would appeal to a church hymn to make her point. Another song she would have learned in primary says “Follow the prophet” and yet her movement is explicit in its intention to not follow the prophet unless he makes a directive to the liking of Ordain Women. Primary songs are very boiled down and simple versions of gospel teachings which allow children to begin to comprehend doctrine and be inspired to moral virtues, they are not meant to deal with more complicated issues such as gender, equality, and apostasy. Nor are they meant to be the extent of one’s understanding of church doctrine or practices.
“Religious women with concerns about gender inequality, like myself, are faithful people, yet we have earnest questions. Our voices speak words of concern with love. Far from being censured, the valid questions we are asking should be taken seriously at the highest levels of our institutions, no matter what creed or faith. After all, women make up at least one half of all church membership worldwide.”
Valid questions should be asked and heard, but demands such as “Ordain Women believes women must be ordained…” are not just valid questions. Campaigns to “put ourselves in the public eye and call attention to the need for the ordination of Mormon women to the priesthood” are more than questions they are demands backed with activist tactics. Demands and activism may work in other organizations, but not in the Lord’s church.
“For me it is because of my faith – and not in spite of it – that I have a desire to stand up for myself and my sisters. I have been taught a vision of a truly cooperative future where men and women are complete equals”
Visions are great, anyone can receive revelation. But they can only receive revelation as it applies to their stewardship. Only the prophet can receive revelation for the church and its doctrines. This principle has been taught in the Bible (Amos 3:7), The Book of Mormon (Words of Mormon 1:16-18), and the Doctrine and Covenants (Doctrine and Covenants 1:14-16).
It is great that she has received a spiritual vision of the future, however, that vision is for her and can not be the source of change within church doctrine. If each revelation given to each of the 15 million members of the church constituted a need for change to the church we would, in the end, believe nothing and accomplish less.
“In fact, Mormon doctrine teaches that we have Heavenly Parents: Mother and Father. As Mormon poetess and pioneer Eliza R Snow wrote in a cherished Mormon hymn:
In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.
Knowing that our Heavenly Parents are both male and female teaches me that our potential as women is limitless. However, I do not see that eternal equality reflected in the contemporary church.”
To claim that not being ordained to the priesthood limits the eternal potential of women ignores a few doctrines of the church. The basic of which is that men and women are “equal but different”. One of the most glaring faults with Kelly’s assumptions is that not having the priesthood somehow makes her less than equal. The world’s view of equality is based on simple perceptions, the church’s view of equality is based on eternal principles and God’s teachings.
Kelly indicates that because she does not have the priesthood she can’t obtain her limitless potential – a potential known in the doctrine as “exaltation”. Yet a basic teaching of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is that even people who have never heard a word of the gospel of Christ can be exalted (D&C 137:7). They too can reach that limitless potential. If one is not damned even when they have no knowledge of the gospel in this life, how can one be damned because they don’t have the priesthood in this life?
It also ignores the fact that some truths are yet to be revealed. The things we do not yet know are almost limitless. Some of these things may never be revealed on this earth. If one is really looking for potential they will see its limitlessness, however, limitlessness in the future does not give evidence of limitations in the presence.
“In my professional work as a human rights attorney, I have had the great honor of working with courageous women from all around the world. From Western Sahara to Cuba to Zimbabwe, I have been inspired by courageous women of all faiths, who face great consequences – many far greater than I do – for pursuing equality in and outside of their faith traditions. They have taught me that there is no reason that our churches, mosques and synagogues should be the last bastion of sexism in the world.”
It is certainly easy to apply a worldly definition of equality, and politically charged issues like sexism, to a church whose priesthood is held by men. But in doing so one also admits that they do not believe the leaders of the church to be inspired. They also claim that the millions of members of the church who believe the priesthood is being administered correctly are also not inspired. These people have also prayed, they have also received revelation, and in doing so they have come to the conclusion that the church leaders are correct, that they are inspired. To claim that one lay member of the church, and few followers, have received more correct inspiration then the called and ordained prophets of God and tens of millions of other lay members – and that this inspiration must be accepted and taught – is the definition of apostasy.
It is also the claim that the world’s view of equality and gender roles should be the exact same as the eternal truths related to equality and gender. We already know that the Lord’s way is not our way (Isaiah 55:8), and we already know (as we’ll see by Kelly’s next comment) that women have the same ability to reach exaltation as men.
“Because of them, I can more clearly see the face of God, and She is beautiful.”
Though there is no confirmation of a Heavenly Mother in LDS canon, several doctrines point directly to her existence. Doctrines such as eternal marriage, eternal nature of the family and individuals, and the doctrine of all humans being literal spirit children of God. However, to say that Heavenly Mother is our “God” is not accurate. She would certainly have Godlike existence and attributes such as omniscience and omnipotence. She would certainly be of the same exalted status as our Heavenly Father, she has not, however, ever been revealed as our “God”. LDS doctrine states that the Godhead is made of three distinct individuals: The Father, The Christ, and The Holy Ghost.
Though the Father and Christ are both exalted beings, the Holy Ghost is not. Christ was not an exalted being while he acted as the God of the old testament before his birth on this earth. These are two examples showing that “God” is not just a matter of nature, but a matter of titled position.
With this in mind, we see that our Heavenly Mother is not, for the sake of our existence on this earth, our “God”. She is our mother, which position can not be diminished. But we do not receive revelation or direction from her. In fact all things are done according to the will of the Father through His son Jesus Christ. To say that Heavenly Mother is our “God” is to ignore the most basic doctrines of the Godhead. How can one claim to know a better way for the church to follow as they step over the very doctrines that set this church apart from others?
“Significant, worldwide progress to achieve gender equality necessitates progression from inside every religious tradition, because injustice and discrimination inside our faiths hurts all of us, not just the women in those faiths.
But while religion can be – and has been – used to perpetuate insidious discrimination, it has also been a motivation for many courageous people to seek social justice throughout history. Religion can – and should – be a catalyst for good. It can encourage men and women to re-think outdated gender roles and help us all become more accepting and inclusive.”
I agree that continuing to analyze the place of both men and women in the church is a good thing. I do not believe, however, that there is a necessity to change “every religious tradition”. The LDS church doesn’t run off tradition. Sure there may be some social and other traditions, these are usually easy to see as such, but the most important doctrines in the church are not just traditions. If you believe in revelation through living prophets, then it is easy to discern truth from tradition. This is a church of revealed truth, not a tradition.
“Outdated gender roles” is another politically charged term. What we should really be looking at is: eternal truths concerning our roles as men and women. Again, applying worldly concepts to a church of revealed truth is much like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. The church of Christ can not be led by the precepts of mortal humans. I can, however, be lead by a clearly defined system of revelation and leadership.
“Changes and reforms within faith traditions ought to come from inside our organizations. Women like me are asking heartfelt questions and seeking to improve the churches that we love. Instead of being punished for speaking out, we need to be listened to and taken seriously.
Every institution can benefit from greater participation from one half of its body. To remain relevant in today’s world, religious institutions will thrive by tackling tough questions of gender equality, engaging with concerned women and helping move us all forward, together.”
As I indicated above “speaking out” is being used very liberally by Kelly. However, I agree with the basic intent of these words, I just believe the intent is being applied in the wrong way. It is not the “church” (its doctrine and practices) that need to be improved, though there may be room for other changes. Forcing dramatic changes by leveraging against leadership will not bring true positive change. It does, as we have seen recently, bring controversy, division, and falling away.
The church does not need to be exalted. One day the church will be gone. When this mortal existence is over, there will be no “LDS Church”. All that will be left will be the body of the church – us as individuals. True change for the better needs to come from this body – from us as individuals. As we learn truths as revealed by the prophets, share them with each other, and work to improve one another’s lives we will begin to see this “limitless potential” within ourselves and others. We will see true acts of inequality, found in our own words and actions, begin to disappear. We will see changes to programs and social norms and traditions, we will see true change – inspiring and uplifting change. This type of change brings peace not controversy, unity not division, and love instead of anger.
I hope that those who are considering, or who have accepted, the teachings and positions of Kate Kelly would take the time to compare them to revealed truth. Be suspicious of flattering talking points and media controversy. Opinions will pale when compared to truth.
For Sister Kelly, I hope that she will find that she does have limitless potential, that she is a literal daughter of God, and that the only thing that holds us back from reaching our potential – is ourselves.