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Advocating for change in a religious organization presents a unique challenge. The church is not a government body or even a corporation that can be picketed, but a body led by a president whom members obey because they believe he has a direct line of revelation from God.
Kelly says she decided to walk a fine line when organizing Ordain Women. The group does not presume to demand that church leadership restore the priesthood to women, she says, but is simply asking leadership to pray for guidance on the issue.
“Obviously, the church is not a democracy,” Kelly says.
But for Laurie Walker, a devout member who runs the blog A Mormon Mother’s Musings, even a “quiet protest” like Kelly’s represents an inappropriate challenge to the prophet’s role in revealing and administering the word of God.
“Women get the blessings of the priesthood even though we may not carry it and we may not hold it—God has asked that men be the ones to do that,” Walker says. “When you start to question whether or not women should be allowed to hold it, for me, it’s like second-guessing whether God knows what he’s doing.”
Kelly points out, however, that letter-writing campaigns and public pressure did help church leaders decide to seek revelation that ultimately allowed for black LDS men to begin receiving the priesthood in 1978.
Walker, who stresses that her opinions are her own and not those of the church (the LDS Church declined to comment for this story), argues that complaints against gender inequality in the church fail to recognize church members of both sexes benefit in an equality of blessings that originate from the different roles men and women share. Women’s roles as mothers, she says, give them a power the church is dependent upon. Though men can’t experience it themselves, they can benefit from in their own families; likewise, though women can’t hold the priesthood, they can benefit from male priesthood-holders.
These roles are different, but complementary, says Walker, who adds that “motherhood” isn’t a term that should isolate women who can’t bear children.
“We don’t need to carry a child in our belly to say we are a mom, to have that role to nurture and love those that are around us,” Walker says.
Walker says she’s aware of the different roles women had in the early history of the church, but also points out that the church also then practiced “the law of consecration,” whereby the pioneer communities operated like a socialist economy, sharing resources, until it was revealed by revelation that the church wasn’t ready to fully embrace that model of living.
While she says it’s possible that one day the church could recognize the need to give women the priesthood, it’s a decision that shouldn’t be pushed and must be decided on “God’s time,” she says.
“If God wants it to happen, he will make it happen,” Walker says. “If not, we need to have enough faith to know that we have what we need here, and to know that we as women don’t need the priesthood to validate who we are as a person.”
It’s also a point echoed, but with a twist, by Valerie Hudson, a Mormon feminist blogger of Square Two Journal. Hudson argues that motherhood is an apprenticeship for women to aspire to the model of Heavenly Mother, and that the priesthood is the apprenticeship for men aspiring to be like Heavenly Father. Believing that the priesthood is the superior path to one’s divine goal is a sexist perspective, Hudson says.
“It is misogynist to assume that the masculine and the ways of the masculine must be the yardstick by which all else is measured,” Hudson writes via e-mail. “And it is satanic to assert that we all must be identical in order to have any hope of equality.”
Hudson also argues that the family is the model that people should follow, even above the church and the roles the different sexes play in it.
“As a convert, I am bewildered by those members who believe their church life is Life,” Hudson says. “The church is but a supportive auxiliary to the true work of life, which is found in the home, where men and women rule together as equal and loving partners—which is also the government of Heaven.”
And Hudson balks at the idea of feminists feeling that they need to ask the patriarchy for power they already have.
“For a woman to feel she must ask a man to give her divine power is a fundamentally anti-feminist stance,” Hudson writes via e-mail. “Women are not ordained under the power of men; they are ordained under the power of women.”
Hudson believes that at some point in the church’s future, women will be able to claim their authority without having to ask permission first.
Looking at the church as a whole, such a time seems far off. But even now, one woman in the church has decided to take it upon herself to use priesthood powers, following her heart instead of the rules of her faith’s patriarchy.
Confessions of a Female
On April 28, 1842, Joseph Smith appeared before the Relief Society and spoke to the women about their sacred duties, which included providing healing blessings. According to the society’s minutes, Smith felt the need to address criticism of the power being given to the sisters of the faith. It was a critique Smith didn’t see much merit in, telling the women, according to the minutes, that “if God gave his sanction by healing—that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water—that it is no sin for any body to do it that has faith.” He also advised the critics of the day that “if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.”
In 2013, “Amanda” says that when she prepared to first lay her hands upon another woman to offer a blessing, she was filled with dread about the line she was crossing—until she crossed it.
“I had what could only be described as a vision,” Amanda says. She says she described what she saw to the woman she was blessing, “and it had intense significance to her. The feelings of love and peace were so powerful that I could not deny it.”
Amanda, whose true name has been withheld because of her fear of being excommunicated from the LDS Church, considers herself to be a very upright, orthodox, good-faith member. She’s married, has a family and says “Oh my gosh” in a reflexive way that marks it as a lifelong habit. She also knows that her standing in the church she loves could be jeopardized if she spoke openly about the blessings she performs.
How Amanda came to provide that first blessing, she says, was almost accidental. It occurred in a gathering of women several years ago when a discussion was raised about faith healing in different beliefs. Some of the women expressed that faith healing among women of other beliefs is still common practice, though it’s usually called “praying over you” instead of being called a blessing. One woman in attendance, a fellow Mormon, asked for the women there to “pray over her.”
Amanda says that she and the woman asking for help both knew, without saying anything, that what they were doing was taboo. While not exactly forbidden over the pulpit, for more than a century, it’s been a power understood simply as being legitimately wielded only by men who hold the Melchizedek priesthood.
When Amanda touched the woman’s arm, she says, her field of vision was swept over by a field of darkness. Amid the dark, a small light glowed, softly at first, before expanding, growing brighter and eventually pushing the darkness away.
“I didn’t understand until later that she was struggling with depression,” Amanda says. “I didn’t know what that image was supposed to mean, but she understood it—the darkness in her life was lifting.”
As profound as the blessing was, Amanda says, she avoided repeating it for some time, but in the past year has begun performing blessings with more frequency. These underground blessings have come about through word of mouth, though occasionally she has felt guided by the spirit to approach a woman who seemed in need of help.
Some women have turned her down, fearful of what she offered or simply not feeling comfortable with it. Amanda stresses that when she attends to a woman in need, she does not invoke a priesthood authority but simply the name of Jesus Christ.
She also says that she has faith in male blessings, but says she’s come to learn the significance of a blessing from one woman to another.
“The pain that women feel is often distinct from that of men, and there is something about having another woman to minister to her that touches that pain in a way that a male priesthood blessing doesn’t,” Amanda says. “Women are so hungry for authority for us, and understanding for us ... I have never done a blessing that didn’t end with the both of us just being in tears.”
Amanda says that in the act of blessing, she feels no fear, but when she steps back and considers what she’s doing, she realizes the risks. She’s begun to consider the possibility of becoming a Reiki master or learning another Eastern form of energy work so that she might have a cover for providing healing blessings.
But she says it’s shameful that women with gifts might have to hide them simply because the church has decreed such power to be available only to men.