It is not my habit to read New York Times obituaries, but my friend Marjorie Jones sent me a link to one with the message, “It seems Mormon women face similar issues.”
In what was as much an update on Mormonism than the story of a life, the Times reported that during the approximately ten years that Thomas Monson was President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the church doubled the number of young women in its missionary ranks, to 18,400, by lowering the minimum age for service, starting in 2012, to 18 from 19 for men and to 19 from 21 for women.
“That sent shock waves through the church,” Richard Lyman Bushman, a Mormon scholar and Columbia University historian, told The New York Times for this obituary. At 21, he said, many Mormon women were married and not free for missionary work, while lowering the age to 19 let them become missionaries soon after high school.
And Dick Bushman, a colleague in my former American Civilization life, offers the analytical perspective on the impact that postponing marriage has on the opportunities for women. The Mormal still continue gender-based differences, of course, but this is opportunity for over 18,000 women.
The obituary goes on,
Despite persistent demands for change on another feminist issue, Mr. Monson — who as president was considered by adherents to be God’s “prophet, seer and revelator” — did not open the door to women in the priesthood, which, like the Mormon hierarchy, has been male since the church was founded in the early 19th century. Critics say the ban on female priests has no explicit basis in church Scripture, but efforts to overturn it were sometimes dealt with harshly.
Some Mormons faced sanctions for questioning church positions on women’s roles. Kate Kelly, a feminist Mormon lawyer, was excommunicated on a charge of apostasy in 2014 after founding the organization Ordain Women.
Well, thank you, obituary writer. I call 18th Street in Philadelphia a “geography of sexism”: the Mormon Tabernacle and the Catholic Cathedral are a block from each other. The Tabernacle was built since the Women’s Ordination Worldwide witness outside the cathedral in 2015.
I then started wondering if this Mormon example could be a lesson for Pope Francis about what the benefits of changing the rules about Catholic deacons might be. Certainly more hands to do the work.
It would not lead to women priests very soon. I know that. But I am going to come down in favor of women deacons as an intermediate strategy. In New Women, New Church for Fall 2016, you can read Christine Schenk’s summary of her own process and reasons for the same decision, as well as an update on the status of the issue in the Vatican (available to WOC members online here).
Nicole Sotelo, in the National Catholic Reporter argues that seeing more women in liturgical roles will help young women, especially, to “believe more deeply in ourselves.” Sotelo refers to various studies that show that exposure to women leaders makes women more likely to see leadership potential in themselves. She writes about Phoebe, a deacon in Romans 16:1 who I knew about, and a letter I did not know about: this year marks the 1,000 anniversary of a letter from Pope Benedict VIII to the bishop of Porto, Portugal, in 1017. The pope wrote, “In the same way, we concede and confirm to you and to your successors in perpetuity every Episcopal ordination, not only of presbyters but also of deacons or deaconesses.”
Well, there it is. I will infer that Benedict VIII, by using “or,” equates the roles of women and men deacons. I do not want to see some secondary ordination with different roles for men and women. We have enough of that already. But we can be hopeful: (in the words of Glen Campbell)
it’s knowin’ I’m not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds …
That you’re waitin’ from the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
Ever smilin’, ever gentle on my mind.
A perfect image of women deacons. Let them emerge gently from the back roads to the altar.