My Very Male Youth Experience
Growing up male in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saint, priesthood played a significant role in my development. In my religious tradition, boys receive the Aaronic priesthood as a Deacon at age 12 with responsibilities to pass the sacrament (communion). Every two years they progress to a different office with different responsibilities centered primarily around blessing, passing and preparing the sacrament for each Sunday worship service, though their responsibilities extend beyond that. It’s sort of a rite of passage for young men in the church that,
if all goes well, will eventually end up with them receiving the higher Melchizedek priesthood as an elder on their way to serving a two year mission for the church. At every step, the young man has an interview with the bishop (pastor) of the congregation to determine worthiness and readiness. Going through this as I did in the 1980’s when the church was operating within peak purity culture, sexual sins were emphasized with little nuance and often uncompassionate harshness. Sexual indiscretions were one step below murder in seriousness. I remember hearing stories about prominent church leaders telling their sons they’d rather see them return from a mission in a casket rather than committing sexual sin while serving.
For someone as sensitive and young as I was, growing up with parents who were terrible at talking about healthy sexuality, being immersed in a pretty sexualized environment, and having my own biological hormones to deal with, where walking past the swim suit edition of the Sports Illustrated at the grocery store was enough to stir longing curiosity and desire as well as shameful guilt. Having sexual purity play such an essential precondition for priesthood service, while also having priesthood service occupy such a public place in the church services, where a young man who bowed out of sacrament administration seemed to be making an effective confession of sexual misdeeds to the entire ward, my maturing through the priesthood ranks was fraught with shame.
In my immature, unable to contextualize brain, I assumed my indiscretions were worthy of excommunication and would bring horrible embarrassment to me and my family if discovered, so I kept them buried deep inside, never admitting to anything in my yearly worthiness interviews, feeling worse for the secrecy. I desperately wanted to go on a mission, knowing I couldn’t go without coming clean to my problems, I finally talked to bishop around my 19th birthday. Needless to say, I wasn’t excommunicated. Nothing happened at all in fact except the overwhelming love and support I felt from a kind man who assured me I was ok and could serve a mission.
I have a 16 year old son now who is going through the priesthood advancement path. The sexual purity rhetoric has been toned down significantly, although traces are still there. As parents, my wife and I try to talk openly and honestly about sex. We emphasize the importance of consent and respect and that much of the way sex is portrayed in the media is exploitative, especially toward women. I go with him to his interviews with the bishop and the questions are far less probing than the ones I experienced. I obviously don’t know what’s going on in his head but I trust that he’s not suffering from the damaging shame I suffered.
The problem, though with my experience with priesthood was that it was centered around me – my worthiness and my opportunities to administer weekly ordinances. In that sense, it was very male, very exclusive, used primarily as a tool to keep young men in line. But that is not what the priesthood is about at all. I had completely missed the mark.
Women’s Experience With Priesthood
I don’t know why women in my church cannot hold priesthood office. I suspect it has to do with tradition more than inspiration. I know other traditions have opened church leadership to women. While its true women do have leadership opportunities within Mormonism, those are primarily within women and children organizations, answering ultimately to men who preside over them. There are examples of women prophets and spiritual leaders in the Bible, though I like to think of a prophet as descriptive that circumstance moves someone into and not as an official position.
For this Sunday’s Sunday School, we’ll be covering Doctrine and Covenants 84 which does a deep dive on the priesthood. I was anxious to hear what the Faithful Feminists had to say about it. They touched on it briefly, but rather than deal with the section directly, they instead referenced this brilliant essay by Amy McPhie Allebest which flips the gender script to help men understand better what it feels like to be a woman in a deeply patriarchal society and religious community where the majority of the elite and leadership figures in society are men, from Mozart to God.
But centering the priesthood as male authority also centers it incorrectly. Here again, we’re missing the mark.
D&C 84 – The Priesthood and It’s Potential, Rarely Realized in Practice
Pushing aside the significant issue of patriarchy and how it can negatively effect, in different ways, both men and women. I think there’s a way to read D&C 84 that centers the priesthood much more universally and correctly. Let me first provide a sampling of relevant verses.
- In verse 17: The priesthood continues in the church of God in all generations, without beginning of days or end of years.
- In verse 19: The greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom.
- In verse 20: Through the ordinances the power of godliness is manifest.
- In verse 23: Moses, through the priesthood, “sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God” and live.
- In verses 26-27: The lesser priesthood continued, holding the keys of the ministering of angels and the preparatory gospel of repentance and baptism and forgiveness
- In verses 33-34: The promise that whoever is “faithful in obtaining these two priesthoods” “and the magnifying their calling, are sanctified by the Spirit” and “become the elect of God”.
- In verse 38: A promise that whoever receives God in all the ways that entails, receives all that God has.
These set of verses constitute the “oath and covenant of the priesthood” (verses 39, 40).
This is universally inclusive language that includes women because the priesthood is not fundamentally about the men administering the ordinances. The real power and authority of the priesthood in all the ways that truly matter, in ways that make real differences in people’s lives, through which the power of godliness is made manifest, applies to those receiving the ordinances – the men, women and children sitting on a chair receiving the blessings of God through hands placed on their head, the men, women and children sitting in the pews remembering their baptismal covenants while partaking of the sacrament, the men, women and children participating in baptismal ordinances. That’s where the actual power and authority of the priesthood is made manifest. As those who receive those ordinances use the power of God to bless and serve others.
The priesthood isn’t centered around those administering the ordinances, its centered around all those receiving the ordinances and most importantly, through those priesthood keys, those people that magnify their callings, both given them through official channels and those they take on voluntarily as they seek to fulfill baptismal and other covenants by being anxiously engaged in a good cause.
Let me put it another way. We can think of priesthood blessings and healings only through the prism of priesthood blessings administered through male priesthood holders. I think that is limiting. How many people are ultimately healed through the love, care, service, prayers and yes blessings coming from all sources, men, women and children who administer love, care and concern for those who need it. The priesthood power works through these acts of service, more so.
Every person who makes covenants through ordinances receives the priesthood power enabling them to administer the power of God to bless the lives of others. That is essentially the power of God.
I hope one day our church can do a better job elevating women’s voices as well as their power and authority within the church. We need to hear their voices as keynote speakers in more of our meetings. They need to make more of our key decisions. Their ideas, opinions and perspectives need to be heard in more of our meetings. All of this is true.
But until then, we can do more right now to live up to the oath and covenant of the priesthood by emphasizing it’s universality. By realizing that the priesthood power and authority, the power of God lies within every single person who enters sacred covenant through ordinances to bear one another’s burdens, to strengthen the feeble knees and to bring to pass Zion.
The power of Godliness is not centered in the young men passing the sacrament or within the bishop presiding over meetings or within the Elder’s giving blessings, it’s centered in every single individual member of the church making the covenants, receiving the blessings and ordinances and ultimately the priesthood, it’s power and authority.