At last week’s FAIR conference in Sandy UT, Neylan McBaine gave a presentation which described the angst that many Mormon women feel about their roles in the church:
There is a tremendous amount of pain among our women regarding how they can and cannot contribute to the governance of our ecclesiastical organization. . . .
Denying this pain or belittling it is an all too common occurrence among both our men and our women.
Lest you think that McBaine is just another radical feminist, it should be noted that she holds a very responsible position for the LDS Church-owned Bonneville Communications and is an active member of the church.
A problematic example of a problem was registered on zelophehadaughters.com:
I found myself accompanying my husband and his teenaged home-teaching companion as they took the sacrament to a nursing home within our ward boundaries. They broke the bread, blessed it, and set it before the old man they were ministering to. He was so frail that he had difficulty taking it, and I unthinkingly, spontaneously reached out to help him. Equally unthinkingly, my husband intervened to prevent me from touching the tokens. I was devastated. I don’t know when in my extensive experience it has been clearer to me that my feminine presence was contamination of the sacred.
McBaine suggested shifting the church’s ecclesiatical model from a hierarchical to a cooperative one. Toward the end of her presentation, she listed several suggestions for elevating women’s stature in the church:
- consistently using the title “president” when referring to women leaders;
- having local women leaders routinely sit on the stand so congruents know them;
- more female participation in leadership meetings;
- inviting female leaders to speak monthly, as men on the stake high councils do;
- quoting women’s speeches as often as men’s;
- allowing women to be the last speaker in Mormon services;
- recognizing the mother after baby blessings: and
- inviting girls to participate in the Pinewood Derby.
These suggestions seem more like tokenism than real change. And ironically the first two seem to emphasize the hierarchical over the cooperative.
I’ve never been a big fan of titles, so calling men or women “president” is not something that has a lot of meaning for me. But, I do agree that women should play a more prominent role in Sacrament Meeting, but again this is not real change, it is just a small accommodation.
When I was in Africa last month, I witnessed an LDS baby blessing where the mother held the baby during the blessing. And I see no real reason why the mother and other women couldn’t participate in the circle. My father, just before he died, was given a blessing by my son. I wish we would have had my wife, daughter, and mother participate in the blessing.
Ben McGuire in his critique of McBaine’s presentation makes another suggestion:
My son was invited to help pass the sacrament by the Deacon’s quorum president (he hadn’t been ordained yet – that was to come later in the day). When it was noticed, one of the leaders as inconspicuously as possible took the tray from him and continued with the passing of the sacrament. We discussed it afterwards. His rationale was that Deacons were officiating and so needed to hold the priesthood. That view (probably not uncommon) was shot down a century ago when Deacons first started to pass the sacrament. It was then decided that administering the sacrament only referred to blessing it.
Thus, maybe woman shouldn’t be excluded from passing the sacrament (or touching someone else’s bread). McGuire goes on:
What are we doing to look at our collections of policies and traditions that we cling to? Can we distinguish between what is really “divinely mandated” and what is largely non-doctrinal, but yet has the stamp of tradition and time?
McGuire concludes that much of “what we view as divinely mandated practice isn’t anything more than tradition and custom backed by history.”
I would additionally suggest that girls be more involved in the competitive and outdoor activities offered by the LDS Church. For example, they should be camping with the boy scouts. In his autobiographical article in Dialogue (Summer, 2006), L. Jackson Newell discusses his time as an LDS youth leader:
. . . [W]e organized outings for both young women and young men. As our own children moved up through their school years, I was able to take advantage of my youth leadership callings to do with them and to see that they and their peers got many opportunities to enjoy the out-of-doors and engage in community service. Contrary to usual Church practice, I tried to involve the young women in the same activities as the young men.
There are plenty of examples of women serving very capably in high leadership positions in the church and its peripheral organizations. (McBaine appears to be one of these.) Common sense should tell us that by not involving more women in high leadership positions, there is a great potential that is being lost.
I realize that change is frequently evolutionary rather than radical. And what McBaine proposes are small increments of change. But I think the LDS Church needs bigger steps than she is proposing.
Let’s have more women speak in General Conference, and not just the leaders. Let’s find more real decision-making church positions for women. Let’s put visible women in church’s PR department and give them real responsibility. Let’s find real ways for women to participate in some church ordinances. Let’s have the minimum age for going on a mission identical for men and women (say 20). Let’s develop a better interpretation of the role of Eve in the Book of Genesis.
And most of all, let’s start to build into our theology a better description of our Mother in Heaven.