Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Me and the Priesthood: A Series of Vignettes



Some of my earliest memories include receiving priesthood blessings from my father. I remember a blessing when I was constipated at the age of three, blessings at the start of every school year, a blessing when I was 11 and woke up in the night nauseous and anxious and shaking uncontrollably, a blessing when I was trying to decide whether to serve a mission or get married, a blessing before my wedding day. After each blessing, I felt loved, comforted, and known.

*

Most of the boys in my church age group turned twelve before I did. I remember each of them being called to the stand as the months paraded on and raising my hand to sustain them in their new callings as Deacons and priesthood holders. I watched them in ensuing weeks as they trooped white-shirted through the chapel aisles, wielding trays of bread and water, serving silently but visibly. I felt an increasing internal agitation, a painful little itch somewhere in my thorax, as my birthday approached. And on that sunny September day, I was handed my Primary graduation certificate with a handshake from my bishop on the podium. There was no sustaining vote for me, no encircling rite of ordination after the meeting, no subsequent increase of responsibility or service.

I knew women weren't eligible to receive the priesthood, but I was angry. My pride was wounded. I knew myself to be just as capable, just as responsible, just as righteous as my male peers. Let's be honest: I also thought I was more mature, more knowledgeable in the gospel, more prepared for such a privilege than they were. It rankled inside me for a long time that these boys I saw at school who said such crude things were entrusted to serve in the church in a way that I wasn't. 

It was the first time I really understood that being a girl in the church was different than being a boy, that regardless of my efforts and my worthiness, there were many opportunities to serve that were closed to me.

*

I always knew I wanted to serve a mission. It was not a commandment for me like it was for my male friends, but I was excited to go. I was in high school when our prophet, Pres. Hinckley, made a statement about sister missionaries (in Priesthood session of all places) where he, in essence, said that missions were primarily a priesthood (male) responsibility and that the reason women couldn't go until they were older (21 vs 19 for men) was because the church was trying to keep the number of women serving "relatively small." I was bewildered and hurt that this statement on a subject so near to my heart had been made in a meeting I wasn't allowed to attend, and I felt that the church I so desperately wanted to serve didn't honor or value my desire simply because I was a woman.

*

I was 20 when I sat in the office of my singles' ward bishop at BYU. I nervously laid out each of my reasons for wanting to be a missionary like pearls between us and asked if my motivations were worthy. He reluctantly handed me a packet of mission papers, but he informed me that women were not encouraged to serve, that my number one priority should be thinking about marriage and family. He knew I was seriously dating a wonderful man in our ward, but I wasn't sure I was ready to get married. I left the interview clutching the papers with a heavy heart and feeling like my offering wasn't enough.

*

I worked up the courage to consult with the bishop of my home singles' ward over the summer. When I nervously asked if he thought it would be okay if I served a mission, his smile and exuberant affirmation warmed me.

*

I loved my missionary service. It was brutally difficult, but I wanted to be there. I served alongside mostly young men, and I came to love and respect many of them deeply. It rankled sometimes that I wasn't eligible for leadership service positions, but for the most part I enjoyed working with my district and zone leaders. Once, as a formality, I asked a zone leader for permission to leave my ward boundaries to say goodbye to and introduce a struggling investigator who'd moved unexpectedly to the Elders in his area (the investigator lived about 15 minutes away but was in our singles' ward boundary, just not in our family ward's boundary). The zone leader left a message on our answering machine telling us that we could not go. I called him back and said that we knew what was right for our investigator and we were going anyway and who was he to tell us no when most missionaries wouldn't have even asked and we were just trying to be obedient. My tirade wasn't exactly Christlike, but he gave us permission to go (with qualifications). I chafed, knowing my anger had less to do with this Elder and more to do with the knowledge that I would always be the one asking permission, never the one granting it.

*

In one ward I served in, the bishop had previously excluded sister missionaries from PEC meetings because they were not men. We held the same calling and authority as the Elders, but because we were women, we were not welcome. He thankfully reconsidered his position around the time I got there, but I always felt like an intruder in PEC after that and had a burst of anxiety that my voice was not welcome any time I needed to speak.

*

There were a few times over the years where I met with various bishops to discuss matters that were very sensitive and personal. I felt so awkward and ashamed to talk about such issues with a man, especially one so much older than myself. I remember desperately wishing I could talk to a woman who might be better able to understand me, might better know how to comfort and counsel me. 

*

Jay and I were asked to speak in church in a previous ward. The bishopric member asked Jay to speak for 15 minutes and me to speak for 10. Jay was asked to speak last. I'm sure the bishopric member didn't mean anything by it, but I was hurt and angry. I felt like my voice, as a woman, was considered less important. I worry that, in our culture, we unwittingly pass on the message that what women have to say is only important for women (and children) to hear, while what men have to say is important for everyone. We are slowly improving in this regard, but I still yearn for more strong women who are treated as spiritual leaders for the membership as a whole, and not just for women.

*

I held a calling in a stake capacity several years ago. My stewardship was minimal, but I was able to observe the workings of the authority hierarchy in the stake. I was stunned and frustrated when, multiple times, my committee's decisions were overturned and our needs were not met. Despite logic and appeals, our various requests were denied by a leader who, while a wonderful man I very much respect, was a stubborn micro manager. There was no recourse for us; we yielded to his directives (some of us with more grace than others). 

*

I handed over my sweet baby, swathed in yards of gauzy white, to my husband, who joined a group of other men at the front of the chapel to give her a name and a blessing. I was so proud and so pleased, but a small part of me wished that I could be part of that sacred circle, too.




*

I am currently serving in the Young Women organization in my ward. I love the girls I work with: they are bright, beautiful, and capable. Young men in our church have the opportunity from the age of twelve to serve the general ward membership in very visible ways (performing sacrament ordinances, home teaching, collecting fast offerings), which is wonderful. I have been looking for ways that the young women can likewise serve and support the members of the ward. I have suggested a few things, but coming up with ideas takes a lot of creativity and implementing ideas/seeking permission takes a lot of work. With the way the church is so efficiently run under the structure of the priesthood, it can be difficult to carve out places for women (and young women) to serve and minister to the general membership and not just children and other women.

*

I first heard about the group Ordain Women a year ago. I never joined it since part of their platform and many of their methods were not in line with my beliefs, but I marveled that there were other women like me who felt unheard and underutilized, who had love for the gospel but pain from their experiences in the church. I respected their courage and grace, especially in the face of a vitriolic backlash that horrified me. I did not feel I could join them, but I understood them. I have compassion for them. 

I join with them now in mourning during this difficult time while simultaneously trying to withhold judgment on whether Kate Kelly's excommunication was right or wrong. It is not my place to judge or condemn, but to love, to acknowledge all pain and experiences as valid, to mourn with those that mourn.