14 January 2012

Queens and priestesses

Misogyny in the temple was never a huge concern for me. But for many, there's a troubling, even overwhelming sense of sexism built into and permeating the entire temple ceremony. Some are concerned by aspects of the temple ceremony: men and women are separated in the ceremonial rooms to opposite sides of the room. Ceremonial elements and covenants center around the representative male-female pairing relationship as a foundation for family and eternal progress, the men representing Adam in his dealings with God, and the women representing Eve in her dealings with...Adam? Adam and God? Adam-God?

But to me, as an orthodox but self-identified open-minded member, I figured that at some point, order or structure is arbitrary. God might have assigned priesthood authority and head-of-houseness to women, and then the dynamic might be reversed, with men crying sexism and a few being troubled with why men don't have the priesthood but others being content to support their families humbly and serving under women because women bore the sacred mantle of child birth and priesthood. I figured maybe God knew something about the nature of the beings he created, and he knew that giving men the priesthood would, despite kinks introduced by the weakness and evil designs among humans, be the best-working solution to establish order and structure in families and in the kingdom. Perhaps men needed the responsibility to give them something as sacred and powerful as child birth and motherhood is to women? I couldn't say, because my understanding was that of a spiritual infant. But the temple brought a new paradigm of equality to me.

To me, men and women being referred to as kings and queens, priests and priestesses was a beautiful declaration of shared glory and responsibility within the order of heaven. I wondered if there might be an extension of priesthood authority to women in store when human society and culture had developed to a point where we were ready to receive it without losing a sense of order and while maintaining mutual respect without constant power clashes. Maybe we needed to be ready enough to ask, I thought, as had happened with people of African descent, but it wasn't mine to know, so I let it go and trusted that the Lord would work it out through his appointed channels in the long run.

I never felt like submitting to or hearkening unto God was a demeaning or humiliating act but was a humbling covenant of mutual respect and love. So in turn, even though I was, in the back of my mind, troubled with language used in reference to women submitting unto their husbands in church culture and the talks of past prophets, when it came to the temple ceremony, I figured faithful LDS woman would not get caught up in the cultural baggage of hearkening as a demeaning thing. The way I saw it, I, as a future husband, was taking on a very delicate and sacred responsibility to be that much closer to the Spirit, that much more aligned with the will of God, because I would one day have a wife who would likely bring great perspective and spiritual power to the marriage, and if she was going to be able to trust me in exercising my priesthood, I would need to have my crap together.

To me, the priesthood was not my "right" as a male. To me, for whatever reason, males were assigned to be the bearers of the priesthood, at least for now, and even then only after showing they value it by living in accordance with God's commands and exercising the atonement of Christ. The priesthood didn't make me any more noble than anyone else. It didn't make me the boss of anyone. It was a charge and a sacred responsibility to use God's power to serve others and build the kingdom in a specific way, not to wield power or dominion in any way. And it could be taken from me in a snap if I wasn't living worthy of it and using it with care, tenderness, righteousness, and selflessness. There was no room in my understanding of the gospel and of the priesthood for tyranny or insistence on my family "submitting" to me as the head of the house merely because I'd been given a charge to metaphorically wash the feet of others, to confer blessings of health or comfort, or to visit the homes of others to offer messages of hope and to let them know someone cares.

In that light, I never thought of myself as being the future "head of the household" in an absolute or concrete way. I was raised by a mother who respected my father but taught me that they made decisions together, and they didn't make any big decisions or parenting decisions without consulting each other. In my view, men were not the head of their homes by virtue of being male. They were the "head" as a matter of order and because they had been authorized to exercise the power of God in official ways. Therefore, I saw the "hearken" covenant as being about mutual respect, responsibility, and order, not actually hierarchy or superiority.

I figured that the only time the man, as the head of the house, would need to be hearkened to is when both spouses have prayed about something, can't seem to agree, and a decision needs to be made. But I knew that I, personally, was not comfortable assuming the role of "decision-maker" every time there's a disagreement just because I held the priesthood. I knew, firsthand, that having the priesthood was no guarantee of having the best answer to any given situation, so I decided that I could not and would not subject my future wife to deferring to my opinion every time we have a disagreement, priesthood or not. I decided that exercising my priesthood responsibly included admitting when I wasn't sure what the answer was rather than pretending I knew just because I was "supposed to". Honoring the priesthood meant admitting when I hadn't had any divine revelation on a topic and telling my future wife, "Well, my opinion is this, but I'm not sure that's from God, and we can't seem to agree, so you make the decision this time, and next time we're in this situation, I'll make the decision. Can we trust each other that way and agree to respect each other's decisions?"

I set aside the understandably extrapolated notion that men are supposed to be to women as God is to men. That just seemed like poppycock, that I would be my wife's god or mediator, so surely that's not what was intended. It was maybe more an arbitrary chain of authority out of necessity for order's sake, or possibly something inherent in the order of heaven which I didn't comprehend. But one thing I was sure of: women were not "less than" men, nor were they weaker or less inspired than men, nor were they to hearken to men in _any_ instance where the man was not fully aligned with God's will, which I figured for myself was probably as often as any other faithful, sincere, Spirit-centered member of the church.

That, to me, was the kicker: women were to hearken to their husbands "as their husbands hearkened to God". This wording, to me, did NOT mean, "Women, your husband is to you as God is to your husband, which is to say the final authority, to be obeyed in all things." It meant, "Women, your husband has just been charged with aligning his will with God's and responding to God's commands. He will discuss matters with God, and as this yields answers, you are to hearken unto your husband when he has truly done so with God. And you have a right and responsibility to consult God about it directly through personal revelation and inspiration. And when there is a disagreement, where both of you are convinced, the responsibility defaults to him. You are also to hearken to God, understanding your husband is the one among you who is authorized to officially exercise the priesthood and certain keys thereof."

Did it place men as intermediaries between their wives and God? I didn't think so. Women were still responsible for speaking with God as Eve had in the garden, so "intermediary" wasn't an accurate word. But even if it was so, and I had yet to understand it in its profundity, it wasn't because men were better. It was based on the priesthood. And since I believed that could conceivably be extended to women someday, I didn't see men as being inherently superior or more authoritative than women. I saw the priesthood as being the divinely appointed channel for God's work, and that happened to be given to men, so for now, yes, men are representatives of God in ways women are not, only because of the priesthood. And should that ever change, those clownish men who think they're hot stuff just because they have "authority" to do things women don't will be put in their place. I kind of looked forward to that day, actually.

I wondered how some women might interpret or respond to the language of the temple ceremony, and I wondered how I would respond if I were a woman. I decided that through the eyes of understanding, it was not a deeply troubling concept and would likely become more clear in future years, or maybe after this life. I decided this because I was confident it, as with all doctrines and ordinances of the church, was of God and therefore had a good explanation, whether or not our limited mortal perspective was able to grasp it completely now.

I did consider that maybe women weren't denied the priesthood for reasons I'd heard thrown around. I considered that maybe men aren't any less inherently spiritual or righteous than women and therefore in need of the priesthood to whip them into shape. I considered that maybe men didn't need to be sandwiched between God and the beautifully sacred daughters of God to keep the men in line or give them purpose. But I put those thoughts on the back burner as mere speculation. After all, thousands of years of such gender-based order had to be justified somehow. There must have been some reason it was set up that way, even if those weren't it. A logical test I've used is to imagine the alternative: in this case, women having the priesthood and men not. Then women are giving birth and breastfeeding and raising children throughout history AND tasked with running the affairs of the church and counseling with members? Goodness, that's a lot to ask, and it would make men pretty darn subservient, mere sperm donors and money-makers while the women bear and nurture and raise children (newly arrived-in-mortality spirits) and manage the affairs of the kingdom of God. But why not give the priesthood to both and just assign different responsibilities, I wondered? But it came back to, "Surely there's some reason, and maybe we'll understand it in the next life if not this one." It was a matter of faith, awaiting further light and knowledge.

In short, I had a different perspective from many on the whole "sexism in the temple" thing. But I understand the concerns of many women and men in the church about the inherent separation of women and men and the roles which do have built-in orders of authority. And I understand, now, that my interpretation of the division of sexes was partially doctrine but also partially my own convictions, experience, and perspective. I found a way to make enough sense of it to accept not having all of the answers, but that included the necessary, "Perhaps someday it will be made clearer" and, "If only everyone saw it how I do, there would be no room for sexist tyranny in the church". The church's leadership could make the answers clearer if I was right. They could speak more concretely or clearly in defense of the perspective that husbands and wives are equals even if they have distinct roles. I do, to be fair, remember conference talks along those lines. And I appreciate those talks immensely. But I see an undercurrent in the culture which is not changing and if anything is re-entrenching in response to perceived threats on the stability of family structure. So those talks which might be intended as clarion calls to higher perspective feel more like token efforts to quell feminists. They seem less like a change and more like isolated voices which are almost "take it or leave it" peripheral ideas out of the mouth of only one witness. An occasional token reference in a conference talk doesn't stack up well against deeply ingrained social patterns and the regularly-experienced temple ceremony which is as official as any church teaching can possibly be. So personal interpretations of it become very cemented in the minds of members.

I admittedly wish women would just be given (and receive) the priesthood already. And I'm under no illusion that most who attend the temple see it the way I saw it. Even if there's nothing inherently sexist about the priesthood structure, I think too many men puff themselves up in their "authority", even if subtly, and some women who have suffered under tyranny of priesthood holders are reminded of terrible experiences every time they agree to hearken unto their husbands unless they understand the wording the way I did. I would like to see more explicit explanations of equality (even in distinct roles) among genders. And I have a pipe dream of a church which acknowledges personal adaptation of roles and relationships, even within the framework of doctrines and principles of the gospel. Even though I don't think I got caught up in misogynistic cultural interpretations, I recognized that many messages in the temple and in Mormon culture can and will be easily "misinterpreted", as I saw it, as supporting or condoning sexism or misogyny. I think the Church still has a lot of work ahead to help its members overcome the tendency to interpret doctrine and priesthood roles in sexist ways if the truth is, in fact, anything like my perspective was. But maybe my interpretation was just a preliminary cafeteria mormonism, a nice attempt to smooth over something inherently sexist and irreconcilable. Either way, it's not mine to wrestle with anymore. Best wishes to those of you still engaged in that endeavor.


Trev said...

Interesting thoughts. I always thought along similar lines as you.

Also, I like the way you concluded the first paragraph. It made me chuckle.

Sulli said...

The first time I went through the language about harkening to the husband and of course feeling that marrying put someone between me and God was disturbing. After the first time through though I eventually came so some of the conclusions that you did and it helped me be ok with the temple for a long time.

I saw too many men not using that covenant in the way that you described though. There were too many that did expect a certain amount of submission...

Plus just covenanting to submit in some ways changes ones attitude and actions. It changes your self-view. I wonder if some effects of that altered self-view aren't why some women turn into underachievers and and fail to plan for their own futures. They get degrees in things like child development, home and family sciences degrees, etc... (Of course though lots of people who choose those degrees have not gone to the temple yet...)

Unknown said...

I've always perceived the Temple rituals and ordinances the same as you did. Rather than take everything literally, I use my understanding of Christ's teachings to interpret the intend of the rituals and ordinances, and I don't feel at all unequal or subject to men. I don't want the Priesthood any more than I want to be a tradional homemaker. Regardless of what I've done professionally, I consider motherhood to be the highest station in life, with a level of responsibility and accountability greater than that of the Priesthood. I'm grateful to have been born a free-thinking, intelligent, independent woman and mother. My husband and I are equals in our partnership, and neither of us would have it any other way. And, despite not meeting the expectations of some mortals, I've never felt out of synch with Christ's teachings. That's one Mormon woman's perspective.

A Girl You Know said...

I'm sorry to say, but the thought process sounded like circular excuses to me. If that's really the meaning, why the need to say it at all?

There was/is a lot of lip service about equality in the church. I frequently heard "women are equal to men" but the evidence to back that claim was nowhere to be seen. Women can make no decision in the church without approval from a man. Not in primary. Not in YW. Scouts are fully supported and the structure is there. If girls want to camp they first need an okay from the men, then they need an okay for the money from the men, then they need okay to get the help to organize the location and dates, then they need men to be at the camp because there must always be a priesthood holder present. A neighbor can be part of the circle for a baby blessing, but not the mother?!

Did you know that women actually used to practice the priesthood? Not only are prophetesses and preistesses mentioned in scripture, but there is plenty of documentation (though harder to find with "streamlining" and "correlation" nowdays) of women anointing, performing blessings. There were rituals done by and for women during pregnancy, labor, and post-partum.

I wonder if the loss of women's rights within the church stemmed from the suffrage movement? Gender roles are becoming further entrenched in reaction to the gay rights movement, so this idea isn't really off base. WHY was/is the church so against an Equal Rights amendment anyway?