New Book Argues for Ordination of Mormon Women

The Challenge of Honesty: Essays for Latter-day SaintsSalt Lake City – Frances Lee Menlove’s chapter, “If Not Now, When? Mormon Women and the Priesthood,” gnaws at the conscience of male Latter-day Saints. It is one of fifteen chapters in Menlove’s new book, The Challenge of Honesty: Essays for Latter-day Saints, from Salt Lake City-based Signature Books.

Currently, Mormon women are forbidden priesthood ordination and are excluded from ecclesiastical positions. Menlove provides a critical examination of that policy.

“The LDS Church needs to extricate itself from the moral incoherence of choosing to honor the patriarchal norms of the Greco-Roman gender system,” she writes. In the Bible, women like the “apostle Junia” (Rom 16:7) were the church’s backbone. So were the women in early Mormonism, who performed priesthood rites alongside men.

The church, Menlove insists, “needs to restore women, all women, including single women, to full partnership in the leadership of the Church and the life of congregations.”

A founding staff member of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and a regular presenter at the controversial annual Sunstone Symposium, Menlove is nevertheless now a pastor with the Congregational United Church of Christ in Depoe Bay, Oregon. But she retains a strong connection to her Mormon roots. She worked for decades at the University of California-Los Alamos National Laboratory and then returned to school and earned a Master of Divinity degree from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

She eloquently, rationally lays out the argument for equal treatment of women. The situation reminds her of the early twentieth-century campaign to give women the vote. Opponents thought this would impair the unity of the family and create discord between husbands and wives, as well as worrying about tampering with the high and sacred responsibility of caring for children.

A century before that, people countered abolitionists by saying slavery had a basis in scripture and contributed to the stability of society and family structure.

Menlove reports that in November 1997, Australian TV reporter David Ransom asked then-LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley if women might one day receive the priesthood. “Is it possible that the rules could change in the future?” he asked. Surprisingly, the church president responded, “Yes. But there is no agitation for that. We don’t find it.”

Sixteen years later there is agitation. On Saturday (October 5) a group of women plans to stand outside the church-owned conference center in Salt Lake City in their Sunday best and ask for permission to attend the priesthood session. For more than 180 years, the church has excluded LDS women from this meeting, which is held every six months.

There is also a semi-annual meeting for women, but the speakers there are mostly men. In response to the news attention, the LDS Church announced on September 25 that it would deny attendance to women, but the church said it would broadcast the proceedings so that women could view them remotely.

In 2005 an Associated Press reporter was not allowed to even see the proceedings from behind the windows of the Conference Center’s press booth because she was a woman. Yet, non-Mormon men were allowed into the press booth for the priesthood session.

Ironically, LDS men are approaching the position that women should be given more authority in the church, but LDS women remain mostly undecided. From surveys conducted by David Campell and Robert Putnam and reported in their book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, 90 percent of LDS women are opposed to priesthood for women, compared to only 52 percent of LDS men.

Hannah Wheelwright of Ordain Women, which was founded this last April, sees “a heavy stigma against appearing power hungry, and for Mormon women to even consider whether or not women should be ordained would require them to grapple with that perception, however wholly unfair it may be, given that no one would ever fault a twelve-year-old boy for being power hungry because he wants to be ordained.” Mormon males are given a youth version of the priesthood at age twelve.

Previously the LDS Church withheld priesthood from adult men of African descent, but this policy was changed in 1978. There is therefore a precedent for an evolution in priesthood policies.

“Equality of women is a human right and the current situation is morally wrong,” Menlove writes. It is time “to recover the understanding that we are baptized into a community that transcends race, nationality, and gender. The time has come to ordain women to the priesthood.”