By Whitney Downard
Despite political and social gains elsewhere, women cannot hold many high religious offices because of their gender. By limiting leadership positions to men, churches erode women’s role in defining worship.
The priesthood, a cornerstone of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, grants the holder the power and authority to act in the name of God. Only those who hold the priesthood can administer priesthood blessings, bless the sacrament (the passing of bread and water) or perform baptisms. Most importantly, a majority of leadership positions within the LDS church can only be held by those possessing the priesthood. Only worthy male members, 12 and older, can be priesthood holders.
The LDS church isn’t the only church to limit women. Several major religions in the United States don’t allow women to hold meaningful leadership positions. The authorities in power – men – dictate what, how and if women can contribute to religious dogma. This prevents women from performing important spiritual rituals or practices.
While men can be prophets, apostles or other general religious authorities in the LDS church, women cannot. Of the top 215 positions within the church’s hierarchy, women can hold only nine.
By denying women the priesthood, the LDS church curtails the influence of women to the point of intentionally suppressing that influence. Women have no say in the policies of the church, they are dictated by priesthood holders. Men assume the role as the ultimate authority in spiritual matters. The LDS church explicitly says women cannot.
Other churches constrain women in religious matters. The Roman Catholic Church does not permit women to hold the priesthood. Only men can be priests, cardinals or pope, limiting the influence of women in the Catholic Church.
American Protestant churches remain torn on the issue of ordaining women. The Southern Baptist Convention does not support the ordination of women, though some member churches do. The United Methodist Church supports it. So does the United Church of Christ. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ordains women, but the Presbyterian Church of America does not.
Some religions attempt to pacify women with carefully selected positions in the church hierarchy. In the LDS church, women can hold leadership positions in both the women’s organization and the children’s organization. While still important, these roles don’t come with the same authority or power of influence. The concept of “separate but equal” has not worked in the past and fails to address the inequity of spiritual authority. Yet some churches still lean heavily on this premise, hoping that their female constituents will be satisfied with the limited power left for them.
Without women in positions of authority and power, religions imply that women cannot define what spirituality ought to be. None of these religions explicitly calls women inferior, but by limiting these offices to men they ignore and belittle the contributions of women.
The one-gender narrative of religions that do not ordain women neglects half of their congregations.
Having women leaders would drastically change the dialogue of many churches on important issues such as birth control or abortion. Rather than men solely representing the interests of other men, women and men would be engaging each other to find something to agree upon as religious doctrine.
A church without women sharing power simply becomes a church of men, by men, for men. These churches cut women out of the discussion entirely.
Men should not be the only doctrinal voice for a religion. If religious authority must be given, women need to be included.
Whitney Downard is a senior studying journalism at St. Bonaventure University, a small, private university in western New York. Born and raised in Utah, she loves skiing and fry sauce.
• photo by Scott Catron from Sandy, Utah, via Creative Commons