It’s been an interesting week for women. Suddenly we’ve become visible again, with mixed results. Let’s recap.
- Reddit began buzzing with a leaked copy of a new church essay on Heavenly Mother.
- The church responded to the leak by immediately releasing two essays: “Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple and Women,” and a shorter, simpler one called Mother in Heaven. Both essays were met with mixed feelings across Mormon discussion groups. More on that below.
- Elder Ballard told a YSA audience that the men should look at all the beautiful women around them, and he told the women that they should “not look like men” and to put on some lipstick, adding “it’s not that hard.” #malegaze
- The Salt Lake Tribune noted that one church committee still lacks any female input or involvement: the correlation committee, responsible for creating church manuals. That seems like a pretty big gap. #allmalepanel
So let’s pull up a few thousand feet and look at the big picture here.
What’s Not So Encouraging
Aside from being quoted in the Mother in Heaven article as using the term “Heavenly Parents,” E. Ballard seems to be straight up old school sexist, incapable of opening his mouth without cracking a sexist joke or objectifying women. Maybe it’s time someone had a friendly chat with him about not creating a hostile environment for women in the church. While his crack about men not noticing women got some laffs, note the awkward silence after he takes a dig at the supposedly unattractive (but for a little make-up) spinsters. The audience does give in to laughter eventually, though, to their discredit. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve heard a sexist joke from the pulpit, unfortunately; sexist jokes are all too common in Mormonism. I don’t consider it a very high form of humor, an accurate depiction, or at all spiritually edifying. I’m glad E. Ballard is trying to keep his audience awake. I’m not glad that he doesn’t see why these comments are mean-spirited and unfunny.
Aside from this, it’s a bit discouraging to see just how little fulfilled the vision of Joseph Smith seems to be. Women were giving healing blessings in his day, and are now barred from even holding a baby during its blessing in most wards. Emma was elected by the women of Nauvoo to be the president of the Relief Society whereas now all women are appointed by men and serve at their leisure for a limited time with all decisions including budgetary oversight ratified by men.
And although the essay points out how “remarkably constant” the relationship between women and priesthood has been since Joseph Smith’s day, it does so after pointing out just how much has been taken away from the women of the church. Yes, the Relief Society still exists, but it has definitely swerved in terms of autonomy and empowerment.
The essay on Mother in Heaven by contrast was pretty light on content:
our present knowledge about a Mother in Heaven is limited. Nevertheless, we have been given sufficient knowledge to appreciate the sacredness of this doctrine and to comprehend the divine pattern established for us as children of heavenly parents.
Limited knowledge about our Heavenly Mother is apparently sufficient, and yet as recently as 2013 General Conference, E. Bednar spoke of procreation as being modeled by the creative power of the Father and Son, not by our Heavenly Parents:
“Our Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son are creators and have entrusted each of us with a portion of their creative power.”
And while we’re adding women to councils, not including women in the correlation committee seems like a huge omission that goes a long way toward explaining why our manuals sound a lot like men explaining things to women, including things like chastity that really could use a woman’s perspective.
Even though the Mother in Heaven essay is thin, it’s an opening salvo paving the way for open discussion of Her, and more open seeking of Her. Given that we apparently had little curiosity about Her to now, why would we want to codify what little we do know at present? This is a new seedling of hope. This also immediately invites more use of the term Heavenly Parents where appropriate rather than just Heavenly Father. Embracing our doctrine of a Heavenly Mother signals a willingness to clarify a doctrine that is unique to us among Christian sects; we’re not trying to fit in with the strange bedfellows of the religious right, where we aren’t wanted anyway. We’re proud to be different in this doctrine, and I’m proud of us for it.
In the essay on Joseph Smith’s vision of the priesthood, most of what is encouraging is what isn’t said. Priesthood isn’t equated with motherhood. Women aren’t said to be separate but equal (which always means not equal). And the ban on women holding priesthood office is implied to originate in historical cultural norms, not the Bible (a claim which doesn’t hold water). It leaves the door open for future changes.
As in most other Christian denominations during this era, Latter-day Saint men alone held priesthood offices . . . like most other Christians in their day, Latter-day Saints in the early years of the Church reserved public preaching and leadership for men.
The essay is consistent with E. Oaks’ remarks about women operating under delegated priesthood power in callings, including leadership callings, rather than being directly ordained to offices in the priesthood.
Joseph Smith delegated priesthood authority to women in the Relief Society
Although it’s true that women are still in a very subordinate role and never in a position in which men must listen to them, time will tell where we land.
So yes, women apparently exist. Heavenly Mother exists, and we’re ready to acknowledge Her more openly. If She only wore more lipstick, maybe we’d have noticed Her there before.