I’m currently enjoying a holiday in Italy. I was in Assisi a few days ago, visiting the magnificent Basilica of Saint Francis, covered in sombre, mysterious frescos chronicling his life. I was struck at how revolutionary Francis was for his day, having the audacity to preach to the people on the street in Italian without the priesthood. It surprised me that the Catholics didn’t burn Francis at the stake as a heretic. His preaching of poverty and peace could have easily been seen as a threat to the wealthy and violent clergy. But Pope Innocent III decided to try and reign Francis in, developing a Franciscan monastic order based upon some of the principles he taught, though not all of them.
Francis, being strong-willed and idealistic, could have condemned the hypocrisy and riches of the church as other heretics had done, or he could have insisted that the Franciscan order adopt all of his principles. But Francis wanted to be a good and obedient Catholic, believing that the celebration of the authorized Eucharist was an absolute necessity for salvation. His ability to work within the church rather than against it, gave him an extraordinary influence which would never have been possible without the blessing of the church.
This attitude reminded me of something I read recently from Neylan McBain, regarding Kate Kelly’s excommunication:
A mentor once told me, “Never be more than three steps ahead of the people you lead.” I believe those are wise words, even if sometimes I want to be five steps ahead.
Neylan is not the most popular feminist blogger in the church, but she has probably had a more positive influence on church leadership than others, as she demonstrated with her work on the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. Just as Saint Francis’s condemnation of wealth could have been seen as an attack on the church, Neylan’s Mormon Women Project could easily have been seen as a threat to the church’s idealization of stay-at-home motherhood. Her belief that women in the church today are suffering a metaphorical “40 years in the wilderness” could have been read as a tacit approval of the beliefs of Ordain Women. Even with these more progressive approaches, why is Neylan still the darling of church leadership?
Her secret is to always support the brethren. She praises them continually, even as she adds that she would still like to see more progress on a particular issue. The following quote is a brilliant example:
I believe that our general Church leaders are committed to increasing the ways we see, hear, and include women at church, and that they are supportive of women’s participation at church as a subject for conversation….That said, there is nothing I would love more now than an action from our general leadership that continues to demonstrate their dedication to seeing, hearing and including women. Continued changes in policy and practice, such as the ones we’ve seen over the past few years, would help us as members understand that it was Kelly’s tactics that drove this tragic situation, not the conversation.
Saint Francis would never allow himself to criticize a priest because he knew that only priests had the authority to give the blood and body of Christ to the people. Losing that connection would sever everything. Neylan understands this implicitly. With this priority firmly in place, Neylan can say and believe almost anything, and still be respected and trusted by the church.
Neylan concedes that her approach will not bring change about as fast as most progressives wish:
I know the arguments: the change is too slow; we’ve been proceeding this way for decades and little has happened; policy changes don’t mean anything…But I believe there is a new fervor—not only among a few activists but among the mainstream body of our entire people—that makes a cultural shift now attainable if we commit ourselves to keeping this conversation going. A cultural shift might not be as comprehensive as what Ordain Women was going for, but I believe it is a path that will give us a more solid foundation for female ordination, if that does in fact come some day, and for more positive church experiences if it does not.
Vitrolic criticism of the church and aggressive activism seem to do little or nothing to change the church, and may even hurt the causes they advocate for. But it is Neylan’s approach, love and support for the brethren, mixed with the boldness to press for certain reachable goals, that seem to be working. In the end, what do progressive feminists want? Which is better, a little progress or no progress at all?
Ultimately for Neylan, progress on this issue is less important than the lessons we learn by working through it.
“If ye are not one, ye are not mine.” That is the thing that scares me the most about the conversations that are happening today is that the amount of vitriol, and the amount of divisiveness. You know we talk about the various women’s groups and various women’s factions. I’ve talked very hard with the leaders of some other women’s organizations to come together and model a dialogue that really is trying to get to that heart of ye are not one, ye are not mine, and this is not just about the various women’s factions. This is about men and women coming together.
“Men and women coming together.” I think St. Francis would have approved of this sentiment. His was a gospel of peace, of penitence, not of divisiveness or rebellion. And in the end, he had a greater influence on Christianity than a hundred heretics.
- What do you think of Neylan’s approach to progressive issues in the church?
- Is there too much divisiveness on the part of progressives which is counterproductive to their goals?
- How can we advocate for change within the church while still celebrating and sustaining the authority of the church?