“It’s been weeks. Why haven’t you written about IT yet?”
That’s from an email I received just yesterday. That wasn’t the first message I’ve received on the topic. Since Kate Kelly was excommunicated last month, I’ve received other emails and private messages on Facebook, asking me about how I feel about the whole situation, especially in light of the fact that I have a certain sympathy with the aims of Kelly and her organization, Ordain Women.
I’ve had Life Things to worry about, so I haven’t had time to really organize my thoughts and put them to
paper computer screen. But when requests for my thoughts (such as they are) hit the double digits, I try to oblige. No sense in continuing to disappoint dozens of people.
Truth to tell, I’ve never been been enamored of some of the tactics employed by Ordain Women, even though I think that the organization adds a valuable voice to the ongoing discussion of women’s roles in the church, and I think that Kelly’s excommunication might have been a bit harsh. But, hey, if she still wants to participate, I suppose she can take the Lavina Fielding Anderson approach to Mormonism, which is to still act like a Mormon, even though the church hasn’t reinstated the membership it revoked more than 20 years ago.
The whole conversation over women’s ordination, the role of women in the church, patriarchy, and priesthood is nuanced. It can’t be reduced to a simple dichotomy, and it can’t be boiled down to “Kate Kelly was excommunicated so the issued is dead.”
Far from it. The issue of female ordination is far from over. And female ordination isn’t the only area of interest when it comes to gender topics in the LDS Church. There are a number of interesting conversations about women and their roles going on right now. The conversation is wide-ranging, and it includes a number of interesting personalities, insights, ideas, and doctrines.
Even with Kelly excommunicated, the Church still hasn’t shut the door on the possibility of female ordination, or the continued expansion of women’s roles in church hierarchy. In fact, a church spokesperson floored just about everyone listening to a Radio West interview when she admitted, outright, to Doug Fabrizio that there is no scriptural reason to deny women ordination. That’s right. Women’s roles are almost entirely dictated by revelation and practice.
Of course it would take a revelation to change current doctrine/practice related to women and the priesthood. (My bishop thinks that women have been preordained and that we might be surprised at our authority/priesthood/whatever in the next life. It’s an interesting thought that deserves consideration.) But Mormons are used to these types of revelations. The Church hasn’t ruled that out, and those insisting that Kelly’s excommunication “proves” something about the “eternal nature” of women and the priesthood are a little premature.
All it really “proves” is that Kelly’s local church leaders (with perhaps, but who knows, encouragement from Salt Lake) think that she took things too far.
Mormon Dissent — It’s All About Publicity
In the end, and Church leaders and many others have been careful to stress that Kelly’s excommunication was about tone and publicity.
The continued agitation, the encouragement to others to follow in her footsteps, and the move introduce ways of teaching about female ordination, have been cited as possible reasons for Kelly’s excommunication (officially, Church leaders don’t comment on specific cases; they only make generalizations as to why dissenters might be excommunicated). And, as we saw with the September Six back in 1993, Church leaders (local or not) start to Take Things Seriously when dissent becomes public, and when others start agreeing with dissenters and asking the church to change policies. It happened to dissenters who thought blacks should have the priesthood, and who took matters into their own hands, or publicly opposed Church teachings.
Reading the book Latter Day Dissent: At the Crossroads of Intellectual Inquiry and Ecclesiastical Authority offered me a very interesting look at some of the ideas that qualify as dissent, as well as some of the activities that can lead to excommunication — if you aren’t willing to back off.
What it comes down to, in the end, is whether or not you are actively teaching something contrary to the Church’s current position, and whether you are trying to get people to follow you in your beliefs. And of course, whether or not you have a high enough public profile that your dissent becomes annoying to Church leaders, no matter where they are located. Dissent isn’t exactly squashed in the LDS Church, but the manner of your dissent, and its publicity, can be at issue. And, of course, once the Church begins disciplinary action, it matters whether or not you are willing to step back, conform, and keep your dissent to yourself.
For instance, there are people who think that I say some pretty outrageous things on this blog. However, the fact that very few people actually read this blog means that most of my crazy isn’t going to raise anyone’s ire. I’m not going to become a public nuisance. Plus, I’m not really advocating anything.
Mormon dissent is an interesting thing. We’re encouraged to ask questions. And we’re usually not punished for asking those questions (unless you do it in a Sunday School class full of people with a different political ideology than you, but that’s more of a social punishment, and not a Church punishment). But once the questioning and searching starts to get others to question and search — and even ask the Church to change it’s current position before The People In Charge are ready — that’s when things get dicey.
Of course, the line is blurrier than it was in 1977, and in 1993. Thanks to the Internet, “public” has a whole new meaning. Reach and accessibility are wider than ever before. And it’s possible to find people who think as you do and have these discussions. Fifteen years ago, I would never have believed that there are so many Mormon feminists, and of varying stripes. I would still think that my concerns are my own; that no one else shares them.
But I know that’s not true, thanks to the Internet. I can reach out and interact with people who have the same concerns, and I can read blogs written by people who think similarly to me. And that has the potential to change everything about what is considered “agitation” and “advocacy.”
The very nature of Mormon dissent is changing, and it will be interesting to see how the Church responds.