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Ordaining women: The priesthood and LDS women

December 13th, 2013 Posted in Opinion

By Manda Perkins

LOGAN — Growing up, Debra Jenson was a self-described tomboy: the girl who played football with the boys at school. When she began attending The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the age of 12, she had a hard time understanding why some of the boys she once played with at recess could have the priesthood, an ordination inaccessible to her because of her gender.

“It really grated on me that they were given automatic respect,” says Jenson, a public relations professor at Utah State University. “I remember thinking that there was nothing that made them more qualified, and it never felt right.”

Years later, she found a group of people asking that same question and joined immediately; she became a founding member of Ordain Women, an organization of LDS women and men from around the world advocating for the ordination of women in their church.

According to an official LDS church website, the priesthood is defined as an ordination given to worthy male members; men ordained with the priesthood can lead congregations as well as perform sacred ordinances, such as baptism.

Jenson says not allowing women to be ordained with the priesthood often places them behind the scenes. Although she does not believe that every woman, or man, should be ordained, she feels the church would benefit from placing more women in leadership roles.

“Any time you effectively remove 50 percent of the group from any leadership or any real guidance, you lose voices and it’s problematic,” said Jenson. “You put women in positions of influence and positions of power and they are no longer a voice we allow to just sit at the table; they are the person sitting at the head of the table.”

Tanya Garn, of Layton, says she has spent time in leadership positions among women as a member of the LDS Church, and has never felt inadequate because she does not hold the priesthood.

“There’s so much focus on what men have and what we don’t have, and not enough of a focus on what [women] do have,” said Garn. “I feel, as a woman, I am so empowered… I’ve been able to be a strong leader and a nurturer. Maybe some women have felt squelched and not valued or respected, but that hasn’t been my experience. I feel that what I have to say is important.”

Some LDS women agree that there are instances of gender inequality in their church that should be adjusted at the local level. Lexie Kite, co-founder of the non-profit organization Beauty Redefined, said although she has witnessed these inequalities, ordination based on gender is not the root of the problem.

“I don’t feel women must hold the priesthood in order to fully participate in the gospel, because we all have access to priesthood power, blessings, and the spirit as individuals regardless of gender,” said Kite in an email to Hard News Café. “I do believe women have yet to be able to fully participate in church in ways that we could be participating, purely because of cultural traditions — not necessarily doctrinal roadblocks to participation.”

Kite said she understands why it can be difficult for women to feel equal and “uniquely special” in the LDS church, giving examples of the church hierarchy and the representation of gender in holy texts. However, she said, change is happening and it is up to women to recognize their worth as members.

“Fortunately, the church has undergone some awesome changes recently, what with thousands of female missionaries out in the field at younger ages, a cool re-vamping of mission leadership to include women, women praying at conference (at the beginning AND end), more discussion and focus on the history of women in the church and our place within it,” she wrote in an email. “The thing is, change does happen slowly. And maybe in our lifetime, we won’t see the structure of the church reflect whatever we believe to be ‘true equality’. Just like what I teach at Beauty Redefined, it is up to us as individuals to grasp our power, our potential, our unique and totally needed place in this world, and our divine identity.”

Jenson said ordaining women would not immediately erase the gender stereotypes she sees in the LDS Church, but believes that inviting all members to fully participate would help remove them.

“If had a nickel for every time someone said to me, ‘You want the priesthood? Fine. Then you can put away all the chairs. OK?’ You think I’ve never put a chair away after a church event?” she said. “There are inequalities that hurt both sides. Why should we put the leadership and the disciplinary stuff and the counseling in extremely difficult circumstances only on the shoulders of men? It doesn’t make any sense to me. We expect men to perform certain roles that not all of them are comfortable performing.”

This isn’t to say that Jenson doesn’t value the men of the church who hold the priesthood; she said she is the wife of an ordained priesthood holder and has great relationships with men who also hold that office.

“I don’t hate men,” she said. “Men serve a wonderful purpose, and so do women. It is, to me, an affront to the idea that I was sent here with individual characteristics and traits, that I was blessed with abilities, and yet I am limited, we all are, based on this one thing. That is a problem.”

Mormon.org, an official site of the LDS Church designed as an informative tool for investigating the religion, addresses the question of women and the priesthood. Quoting the late president of the church Gordon B. Hinckley, it said: “Women do not hold the priesthood because the Lord has put it that way. It is part of His program. Women have a very prominent place in this Church. Men hold the priesthood offices of the Church. But women have a tremendous place in this Church… The men hold the priesthood, yes. But my wife is my companion. In this Church the man neither walks ahead of his wife nor behind his wife but at her side. They are co-equals in this life in a great enterprise.”

Jenson said that after publicly announcing her affiliation with Ordain Women, many asked her why she is still a member of the church; some even suggested she leave and start her own religious organization.

“This is one of the most hurtful things that people say,” she said. “If I didn’t care about and love the gospel, the church and the people I go to church with, I would just leave. Nobody just leaves, though. I think it is evidence of how strongly we do love this church. I don’t know if the people who ask me that realize that the unspoken thing they are saying is that I should be excommunicated, because that’s the natural consequence and that’s what has happened in the past to people who question the leadership of the church. That is an extremely serious accusation.”

Despite the negative reaction from church members in her own community, Jenson said her experience is an outlier. There are members who, although they do not agree, support the idea of asking questions and receiving personal revelation.

“From what I understand, they are just asking [church leaders] to pray about it and I think it’s very valid,” said Garn. “I think we should always be able to ask and question things. But, I haven’t felt any desire or need for myself to hold to priesthood. I feel like the blessings of the priesthood are available to me regardless. I feel like it wouldn’t change me as a person or my access to my Heavenly Father.”

When a group of Ordain Women members, including Jenson and her husband, asked for admittance to the priesthood session of General Conference in Salt Lake City this year, the women were denied access. According to LDS Church spokeswoman Ruth Todd, church officials responded to the media with this statement: “Millions of women in this church don’t share the views of this small group that organized today’s protest, and most would see such efforts as divisive. Even so, these are our sisters and we want them among us, and hope they’ll find peace and joy that we all seek in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

And according to Jenson, finding that peace is what she is trying to do.

“I’m not storming the Church Office Building saying, ‘Give me this or I’m out of here,’” she said. “I don’t plan on taking over a sacrament prayer and declaring that I have the priesthood. I’m asking, through the proper channels that existed in the Old Testament, and the New Testament, and The Book of Mormon and in Joseph Smith’s day. I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, which is praying on my own and going to my leaders and saying, ‘Please ask about this’… I have too much respect for this power and authority to assume this mantle without it being bestowed upon me. I believe that I can’t take it; it has to be given.”


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