This past Sunday as Sacrament Meeting began, my 5-year-old whispered in my ear, “Mommy, why do only boys pass the sacrament?” It was a text book situation; the moment so many of us have faced and wanted to maneuver just right so as to pave the way for future faith and understanding.
I don’t share my studies and conversations on gender issues with my three daughters. With my oldest about to turn 10, they are still young enough that their experience with the gospel can be unencumbered by adult interpretations, and is, instead, infused with the wonder of childhood. (When my oldest recently attended a “beauty night” at Activity Days, I was happy I held my tongue because she had just about the most fun night of her young life.) But when questions arise, I try to answer in an age-appropriate, faith-affirming way that underscores the loving and expansive nature of the gospel. For example, last night the girls and I were discussing the Holy Ghost. The same 5-year-old asked, “Is the Holy Ghost a man?” which led us to a discussion of what it means for the Holy Ghost to be a “personage of Spirit,” and how the Holy Ghost works in each of us. The oldest then piped up, “The Holy Ghost could be a woman! It’s like a mom: it comforts and teaches and keeps you out of bad situations…” I have a feeling we have lots of fantastic conversations in store as these three grow!
But back to the question from Sunday’s Sacrament Meeting: what did I say? A few key guidelines raced through my mind before I answered. I did not want to use the word “role” because if I implied it’s the boys’ role to pass the sacrament, my daughter’s logical next question would likely be, “Well, what is the girls’ role?” Many feel comfortable answering that motherhood is that role. As comfortable as I am embracing the idea that motherhood is a transformational and divine experience for women, I didn’t want to go down the path with my young daughter of establishing that bifurcation – men get church administration and women get motherhood – so starkly. For one thing, she sees young boys passing the sacrament, boys who are close enough in age that they are relatable to her, whereas motherhood might seem discouragingly out of her reach. Also, the bifurcation of priesthood/motherhood is way too black and white, not to mention fraught with unresolved exceptions of single and childless women, for me to offer it as a fully wrapped answer with a neat bow on top.
After last conference, I suppose I could have said that girls’ role is to exercise moral authority. But of course this would have been a silly answer to give a 5-year-old for whom abstractions still mean little. I would love to be able to say to her, “The girls’ role is to welcome people to Sacrament Meeting” or pick the hymns or assign the speakers or arrange ward service projects or design covers for the programs… but in the moment, I couldn’t see a clear way to satisfy a 5-year-old’s desire to see herself or her sisters in a parallel role.
Also wanting to stay away from other abstractions like “authority” or “the power to act in God’s name on earth,” I sought for a concrete way to describe why the boys were up at the table. I thought about Elder Anderson’s statement from his recent conference talk: “A man may open the drapes so the warm sunlight comes into the room, but the man does not own the sun or the light or the warmth it brings.” I like the idea of couching church administration responsibilities in the paradigm of jobs to be done: there is a need and someone needs to fill it. While some may argue this approach strips out the divine mystery of priesthood power, or alternatively that it doesn't explain why girls can't do those jobs, Elder Anderson reiterates something I believe deeply: that we are at fault when we associate priesthood power with men. So “The boys have the priesthood” was also not an answer I wanted to give my 5-year-old either.
I was left with this: “Heavenly Father has asked the boys in the scriptures to do this job for us so everybody here can have a chance to take the sacrament and think about Jesus Christ.” It was important to me for her to know that young men are asked to perform this job in the scriptures and that there is an organizational logic to it; it wasn't something personal about her. No questions followed about what the girls’ “job” is, and she seemed satisfied.
I have spoken elsewhere about the response I gave another daughter a few years ago when she was old enough to understand greater abstractions and nuances: “Who really passes you the sacrament?” I retorted, when she asked the great sacrament question. “You do,” she realized. I had followed this exchange with an explanation of how beautiful I think the sacrament is as a communal ritual: there is a triangular relationship between God, the individual taking the sacrament, and the brother or sister sitting beside the individual to whom she is offering the healing blood and body of Christ. The bread and water are transformed by the power to act in God’s name into tokens of the atonement, but it is we who are offering wholeness to another. In a few years, my 5-year-old will be ready for this additional perspective which, rather than emphasizing exclusivity, instead highlights the expansive and unifying aspects of our practices.
What have you said to a daughter who has asked you why only boys pass the sacrament? What principles have guided your answers? Let me know in the comments below.
What I'm Listening To:
I read an article about pianist Yuja Wang in last month's Listen magazine, and I've been enjoying her highly dramatic interpretations of some pieces which I never thought I would be able to hear with fresh ears.
Lorde's album Pure Heroine. Her song Royals is playing a lot on the radio, but I'm loving the whole album.
Vampire Weekend's latest album Modern Vampire of the City. These guys make me homesick. In a good way.