At a recent gathering of 21,000 Mormon women and girls, church officials all but avoided the elephant in the room: growing pressure from vocal members to expand women’s roles. Instead, messages at the General Women’s Meeting, which took place on 26 September, were about faith, happiness and purity.
While it refuses to budge on the big issue of women’s ordination, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon church) has made a few concessions to its feminist dissenters.
In 2014, the women’s session was designated an official part of the church’s General Conference, whereas before it was considered a separate event. In August of this year, the Mormon church appointed three women to council positions previously held only by men, but women still lack full access to leadership roles.
Kate Kelly, who was excommunicated from the Mormon church in 2014 for her feminist activism, called these recent shifts “cosmetic changes”.
The LDS General Conference continues this weekend and for the first time since 1906, there are three vacancies on the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the church’s second-highest governing body.
All new appointees will be men.
Women’s ordination isn’t the only issue driving some Mormons to question their faith. Following the legalization of same-sex marriage, the Mormon church publicly reaffirmed its opposition to “homosexual behavior” and same-sex unions. Former Mormons also lament a church culture that aggressively discourages dissent.
As dissatisfaction grows, increasing numbers are seeking out a lesser-known relative of their church as a refuge: the Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS).
Unlike the Mormon church, Community of Christ has ordained women since 1985, and more recently has made steps toward LGBT inclusion. After over 150 years of divergence, the two churches can scarcely be recognized as cousins.
After Mormon prophet Joseph Smith was killed in 1844, most members of his church chose to accept Brigham Young as their new leader and eventually followed him west to Utah. Members who had chosen not to follow Young remained scattered across the midwest. They officially established a new church in 1860 and designated Joseph Smith III, their deceased prophet’s eldest son, its leader.
This new church was anti-polygamous, and defined itself primarily in opposition to the Mormon church’s practice of polygamy.
“This is complicated by the fact that there was a historic argument on the part of the Reorganized church that Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy,” said Kathleen Flake, chair of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia. “In the 1970s, it became historically unavoidable to acknowledge that Joseph Smith had practiced polygamy, and that Brigham Young had not invented it. As more historical information came out about Joseph Smith’s legacy, the Reorganized church began to identify more with traditional Protestantism.”
The church’s 2001 name change reflects this shift, as well as the church’s developing focus on peace and justice. The move back toward Protestantism also provides a partial explanation for Community of Christ’s willingness to evolve when it comes to social issues.
Robin Linkhart, a lifelong Community of Christ member who now serves as a President of Seventy, a high ministry office, points out that the two churches have vastly different structures. In the Mormon church, all major decisions come from the top down. In Community of Christ, while the church president is recognized as a prophet, members also assemble and vote on proposed changes in doctrine and organization.
Both churches share foundational religious texts: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. (The Mormon church also uses a collection of Joseph Smith’s writings called the Pearl of Great Price, while Community of Christ does not.)
Both churches believe in continuing revelation, or the idea that God continues to reveal divine principles today.
However, the LDS version of the Doctrine and Covenants, which contains God’s revelations, has had few substantive changes since Joseph Smith’s death. The Community of Christ version, on the other hand, has been added to constantly and provides for a number of doctrinal changes, including women’s ordination and full participation for gay members.
But with transformation comes dissent. Schisms have developed within the church at times of change, particularly over the issue of women’s ordination.
“It really was a hard time,” said Linkhart, recalling her personal experience. “We lost half of our local congregation. They were going to try to change from within, and attended for a while, but they just all left. It was tough in a lot of areas, but we worked through it.”
Linkart was first ordained in 1996. She was a young mother when the church decided to allow women into the priesthood in 1985, and saw first hand the reluctance of some spiritual leaders.
“Our pastor really struggled with ordination for women when it was first approved. He went through a time of understanding the rightness of it, and he did eventually get to that point, but I also learned later on that he had some bias. He felt that young mothers had enough to do already so they shouldn’t be called for priesthood,” she said.
The church has not achieved complete gender parity, though there are women serving at all levels of leadership. Since 2007, Becky Savage has served in the First Presidency as a counselor to the church president, Stephen Veazey, the highest office a woman has ever held. A woman has yet to be named prophet.
In the Mormon church, boys and young men in good standing enter lay priesthood offices as a rite of passage, a sort of spiritual coming of age. In Community of Christ, this lay priesthood does not exist – there are only official priesthood offices, to which members are “called” by the leadership.
Perhaps most significantly, the temple ordinances that are so sacred in the Mormon church do not exist in Community of Christ. Of these, the sealing ordinance is especially central to the question of priesthood.
In the sealing ceremony, a husband, wife, and any children born into their marriage are bound together for eternity. “A sealing is a very high priestly ordinance,” said Flake. “When Latter-day Saints say the most fundamental unit of the church is the family, they’re not speaking sentimentally, they’re speaking theologically.”
The Mormon church conceives of these priestly families as “councils led by persons with separate but equal roles,” said Flake. In other words, there is a theology of gender difference at play, which creates a conundrum: is it possible to maintain distinct gender roles without subordinating one to the other?
Full equality for women in the Mormon church was what Kate Kelly sought when she founded the group Ordain Women in 2013. Kelly references the “separate but equal” paradox in response to the common LDS defense that motherhood is the priesthood equivalent for women.
“I think we’ve seen pretty clearly in US and world history that separate but equal is not equal. Saying that there are different spheres is just a way of saying that one group has power over another group. The appropriate parallel to motherhood is fatherhood, not exclusive leadership power,” said Kelly.
Kelly points out that Community of Christ is “tiny” compared to the Mormon church; it has 250,000 members worldwide compared to a Mormon church membership of over 15 million. But it has become attractive to disaffected Mormons, particularly in Salt Lake City.
Linkhart, who oversees Community of Christ’s Western USA Mission Field, lives in Colorado but says she spends about 75% of her time in Salt Lake City due to growing interest among “Latter-day seekers”.
“In 2012, our congregation in Salt Lake had dwindled down to about six active people,” she said. “They would meet the first and third Sunday of every month. Now we have a full slate of classes and worship every Sunday, and our numbers are running between 50 and 100 in attendance at each service.”
Kelly says that Community of Christ did not interest her after her excommunication, but she does remember visiting the Community of Christ temple in Independence, Missouri, as a young girl.
“There were paintings of women performing ordinances, because they have the priesthood,” she recalled. “I distinctly remember one of the docents saying to me, ‘Don’t worry, someday that will change in your church, too.’ And I remember being really shocked by that.”
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