Margaret Toscano, “Priesthood Matters: Should Mormon Women Follow the Example of the Catholic Womenpriest Movement?” talk given at Sunstone Symposium 27 July 2012.
In an impassioned speech at the Sunstone Symposium last month, Margaret Toscano called for both leaders and members of the Church to “accept the revelation God gave to the Church in 1842 through the Prophet Joseph Smith when he addressed the newly-formed Female Relief Society in Nauvoo.” Margaret interprets the Prophet’s statements that he would make the Relief Society a “Kingdom of Priests” and that they should “move according to the ancient Priesthood” as a promise which was never fulfilled. “…the women of the Church have never wielded the priesthood key given to them by God through Joseph Smith,” Margaret states. “If they had, they would currently be functioning in priesthood offices within the official Church structure.” Indeed, she sees this as a “central mission of the Restoration.”
While I am sympathetic to the idea that women should be (or perhaps already are) ordained to some sort of priesthood, I view Joseph Smith’s ideas of women and priesthood as somewhat gender essentialist. That is, the ordinances Joseph restored gave women the possibility to become “queens and priestesses,” and allowed for women’s authority to manage money, curriculum, spiritual gifts, and resources within their own structure, but did not include ordination to priesthood offices within the Church. As I have studied Joseph’s directions regarding women and priesthood in the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes, I have seen a Masonic influence in his words. I believe that when he spoke of “turning the key” to women, he meant that he was restoring the knowledge and power to enter into communion with God and act in his name. Margaret herself has pointed out in other writings that priesthood was not connected with hierarchical office or corporate management as it operated in the early Church and in restoration scripture.
My understanding may seem to fit into all of Margaret’s three categorizations of women who resist ordination for women in the Church. They are:
- Those who believe it is not God’s will for women to have the priesthood; they are equal, but different. Men have priesthood, women have motherhood.
- Those who do not want priesthood offices but believe women should have more control over their own organizations.
- Those who do not believe in the hierarchical, corporate nature of the Church and do not want to be part of an abusive priesthood system.
It’s true; I do believe in a form of gender essentialism, that women’s authority operates in a separate sphere than men’s, and that the hierarchical priesthood system that exists is a corruption of what was intended. But I agree with Margaret that Joseph envisioned something different than what we have today. Is there a way to restore balance and autonomy to women while addressing the above three concerns, and remaining true to Joseph’s original conception of priesthood?
In her talk, Margaret suggests that women act “where they stand” to improve their spiritual and institutional power and authority. These actions could include
- Praying for leaders to receive further revelations
- Exercising gifts of blessing, healing, teaching and writing with priestly authority
- Following the example of the Catholic womenpriests movement in getting LDS men to perform “rogue ordinations”
- Ordain each other to priesthood offices in the tradition of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery after they had received keys from angelic visitors
Margaret encouraged leaders and members to do all they could within their range of comfort to enable women to act in priestly roles.
Two models which Margaret did not mention and which we already have in place in the Church could be expanded to accomplish these goals. The first is the separate but equal view of the Relief Society, Young Women’s, and Primary organizations. As it stands now, a Relief Society (or other auxiliary president) is under the direction of a Priesthood leader—the Bishop. But a structure is already in place where she could instead be guided by a Stake Relief Society President, who is in turn directed by the General Relief Society Board under a General President and two counselors. If the buck stopped there—with any decisions of the General Relief Society Presidency being absolute and final in regard to female financial, educational, social, and spiritual issues—then these auxiliaries might truly be separate but equal.
The second model is the idea of an “exalted couple.” Within Mormonism there is a theological concept that a Heavenly Father and Mother act unitedly in the position of God. In our temples, this concept is repeated with a temple president and Matron, who are called as a couple to supervise temple activity. This is also seen with a Mission president and wife. It would not be difficult to extend this idea to include married men and women acting together in the calling of Bishop. The wife could extend callings and give interviews to women and young women, while the husband did the same for men. Meetings and decisions could happen with the equal input of both sexes. Apostles could be called as couples, as well as Prophets. This arrangement would promote understanding and union between the two groups that neither Margaret’s vision of women’s ordination to priesthood offices, nor the “separate but equal” model can approach.
The resistance I feel to Margaret’s vision for women and the priesthood is not so very great. I do agree with her that women have not fully utilized the power that the Prophet intended them to have. The energy Margaret put forth in her talk was beautiful. At the end of her speech, I leapt to my feet. I’d like to include some of her closing words to give you a taste of what I experienced as I listened to her presentation.
…I believe the initiative and leadership for this movement must come from women themselves, otherwise we are defeating the very goal we are pursuing: gender equality. This is not merely an abstract concept. It affects all of us on a daily basis: how we interact with others, how we feel about ourselves and our potential, what we think we can do and be. I call upon my sisters to have a new vision of yourselves. Think of yourselves as priestesses, as instruments for the power of God, of the divine spirit working through you to bless and revive our world…
“Put on your Strength, O Daughters of Zion!” I am paraphrasing Joseph Smith’s interpretation in D&C 113 of a prophecy from Isaiah. Joseph explains that for Zion “to put on her strength is to put on the authority of the priesthood, which she, Zion, has a right to by lineage…to return to that power which she had lost.” I think that the gendered pronouns here are prophetic. The LDS Church will never be right with God, nor can it fulfill its mission to bless the whole world, until women are ordained to the priesthood and begin to act in the priestly roles, including apostle and prophet. We were called to this mission in 1842, six years before the famous Seneca Falls conference that led the way in women’s rights in this country. We should have been at the vanguard; instead we have dragged far behind. We, the daughters of Zion, must act now. We must put on our strength, the authority of our priesthood, in order to prepare for the return of Zion, our Heavenly Mother.