It’s way too early to be up writing, and probably this post – which is published in first-draft form, seldom a good idea! – will show the effects of the hour. But I woke up and can’t get back to sleep; rather than lie there going over and over the same ground in my head, I got up to record my middle-of-the-night musings in pixels.
Probably most of us who attended Priesthood meeting or Relief Society yesterday heard a lesson from the George Albert Smith manual, “The Holy Priesthood – for the Blessing of God’s Children.” A friend wrote to me late last night about her response to the lesson as given in her ward. I hope she’ll excuse me for quoting anonymously from her note – I haven’t asked her permission – because it gives me a chance to express some ideas I’ve been wrestling with lately, and to do it one step removed from any reference to my own ward, since it’s the ideas I’m wrestling with, not the presentation of our teacher or the comments of anyone in our class.
After leaving Relief Society today, I have been very discouraged. Our lesson (as I assume was the same church-wide) was on “The Priesthood.” Being Relief Society, of course, we really only touched on our roles in helping prepare boys for priesthood and in supporting our husbands/sons/fathers/etc in their priesthood. And therein lies my discouragement.
I heard suggestions like “make sure he is well fed” and “make sure you show him a positive uplifting attitude so he can go out and do his callings.” And I mostly agree. But — who supports the wife who takes care of kids and probably works and then goes out to do HER calling?? Where are the lessons telling the men that they need to support her in all her roles? I keep getting the view that ultimately, in the minds of many Church members, women ONLY, or at least primarily, exist to support men. But where does support leave off and, I don’t know, enabling, start?? So many strong women who hold SO much together– and yet too often I feel this sense of many who just want to pat us on the head and send us back to the kitchen. As if our little lives and little minds are really just secondary to what the men have to do. (I have to say, many men I know are really getting it right — I am blessed in [my husband] who is beyond supportive and understanding).
Additionally we were subjected to the input of one group today who stated that “we need to teach our daughters to dress modestly so they don’t become a distraction to the young men.” (Apparently that was said in similar format over the pulpit at recent Stake Conference by the Stake President). That just left me in tears. …
I love the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and I love our prophets and apostles. I don’t doubt the Gospel or my savior. But church members — meh. I consistently feel like such an outsider.
I suspect that no matter how much we love the gospel and sustain our leaders and want to, in the words of the question appended to this lesson, “stay true to these responsibilities,” many wards had similar discussions and more women than this friend – especially those thoughtful enough to have been reflecting on the lesson all day – were similarly discouraged. Add the many women in my position (no man to send off to his assignments well fed, no son to prepare to receive the priesthood) who felt similarly out of place and out of touch with the priesthood as presented by many teachers.
How to respond? Deep breath …
This is a beautiful lesson, as written. It is a lesson that showcases the unique mission of the Restored Church, the unique repository of God’s authority to perform the ordinances of salvation. The historical aspect is included, which helps bind us as a people to our past and our future. The lesson stresses personal worthiness and service to God’s children. It is a beautiful lesson, and coming from the words of a sensitive man like George Albert Smith, there are poetic passages and an emphasis on the tender-practical, not just the logical-theoretical.
The difficulty for many women in discussions of priesthood, I suspect, arises from the several uses of the word priesthood, and the way those uses are confused and conflated.
Priesthood as authority. The Lord’s kingdom is one of order, and he requires that those who perform the ordinances given for our salvation be authorized by him, performed according to his instructions, by those called and ordained under his direction. Every Melchizedek Priesthood holder should be able to trace his authority step by step back to the Lord Jesus Christ (if we need a refresher course on how to do that, say so in the comments). It is this authority that is the power behind the performance of priesthood acts; it is this authority that comes with responsibility for the Church organization and its functioning in the world.
Priesthood as shorthand for quorum activity. When someone says “Bishop Bingham said something interesting in priesthood this morning …” he isn’t necessarily claiming that the bishop was invoking the authority of God to issue a “thus saith the Lord” pronouncement (interesting would hardly cover such an instance!); rather, we understand that “priesthood” is a brief way of referring to the regular meeting of a priesthood quorum.
Priesthood as shorthand for men. When someone says “The priesthood will please help fold the chairs and stack them against the wall,” nobody assumes that any divine authority is called for; rather, we all understand that it’s a call for the men of the ward to lend a hand with a routine task.
There may be other distinct usages of the word, but these will serve my purposes. (I think someone gave a conference talk about the various ways we use and misuse the word, but obviously a search of the word priesthood at lds.org returns rather a few too many hits for a practical search.)
I think the difficulty for women, at least some women, in at least some frames of mind, is that we sometimes forget that the word priesthood has these related but distinct meanings. When women’s roles in assisting the priesthood are discussed, the discussion too often ends with assisting the men in our lives, and overlooks women’s roles in sustaining the authority and exercise of the priesthood power itself.
That’s not entirely a bad thing, of course. For “sustaining” to have any meaning at all, it has to come down to specific actions by specific people at specific moments: A wife graciously accepts that a planned date yields to an emergency call for her husband to assist in giving priesthood blessings at the hospital. A mother wakes her sleepy son, gives him a good breakfast, and gets him out the door to meet his quorum for a service project.
But does that cover the entirety of a woman’s duty toward and participation in the mission of the priesthood? I don’t think so.
What is the mission of the priesthood? Isn’t the purpose of the Lord’s giving the priesthood to his Church to enable us to fulfill the unique missions of the Church? “That faith also might increase in the earth; that mine everlasting covenant might be established; that the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers”? (D&C 1:21-23) Don’t women have a part in that?
Of course we do.
“That faith might increase in the earth” is roughly equivalent to our formulaic “perfecting the Saints.” Women contribute to that whenever we teach a class to increase gospel understanding; whenever we assist a family – our own or anyone else’s – to function by relieving distress, whether physical, moral, or emotional; whenever we lend an ear or a hand or an hour to assist young people find their way; whenever, in short, we do anything that helps one of God’s children fulfill his or her purpose in coming to this earth.
“That mine everlasting covenant might be established” has overtones not only of establishing and maintaining the covenant in our own lives, but in extending the blessings of that covenant to the dead. Genealogical research leading to temple ordinances, family history projects leading to closer ties between the living and the dead, temple attendance to stand as proxies for the dead, are all significant ways women help to fulfill that priesthood purpose.
“That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed” is an obvious connection to the priesthood responsibility of missionary work. Whether it’s serving full time missions, or ward and stake assignments, whether it’s speaking of the gospel to friends or strangers when the situation is right for that, whether it’s helping children develop a missionary mindset, whether its simply being the kind of people we ought to be when we interact with the world, women have the right and the freedom to further the work of the priesthood in this respect.
Whenever women – individually, or through collective action – help to further the mission of the Church, we are sustaining the priesthood and helping priesthood holders fulfill their responsibilities. The home and family and ward are, for women as well as for men, the most common theaters for acting their parts and fulfilling their roles. But I wish we’d recognize that women’s sustaining roles do not consist entirely of keeping the men well fed – that’s limiting our sustaining of “priesthood” to the shorthand role of “men in our lives.” We ought to talk more – ought to recognize better – the myriad ways in which the life of a Latter-day Saint woman furthers the mission and goals and responsibilities of the priesthood in its primary sense of “authority from God.”