The feelings are still raw and confused, but over the weekend I tried – and I’m sure I’m not alone – to make more sense of why Kate Kelly, the founder of Ordain Women, has been requested to appear at a disciplinary council on June 22nd. I’d like to offer my thoughts on what this action means for us members in our local, weekly experiences at church.
As I’ve tried to look at the situation with dispassionate eyes, I see two approaches. I can, on the one hand, see her discipline as a silencing of women’s voices in the Church. Because of her national notoriety and her particular platform, the action against her—despite the fact that it is carried out at a local level—can be perceived as a representative condemnation of any who seek to question why things are the way they are for women in the Church. There will be many in the months and years ahead who will see the action this way. They will say, “See? Any discussion about women in the Church is apostasy.” That will happen because the one represents all: for many, her specific case will not be separated from the conversation in which she was participating.
But there is another way to look at the situation: to separate the platform of her advocacy from the tactics of her advocacy. In other words, separate the conversation she was participating in from the way she was participating in it. If we use this approach, we can see her discipline as a specific caution against tactics that promote different doctrine (on any subject) than what is being taught from the pulpit in our day, and then recruiting others to rally around that new doctrine too. If we take this second approach, Kelly’s disciplinary council is not a condemnation of the conversation about women but a caution for those of us involved in it to choose a different strategy.
I choose this second approach because I believe that our general Church leaders are committed to increasing the ways we see, hear, and include women at church, and that they are supportive of women’s participation at church as a subject for conversation. I do not believe that the missionary age change, apostles’ wives sitting on the stand at conference, female general officers’ photos appearing in the conference Ensign, etc. happened solely because of the efforts of member-fueled activism. I also believe that addresses like Elder Ballard’s 2013 BYU education week talk, “Let Us Think Straight,” and Elder Oaks’s 2014 general conference address, “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood,” demonstrate that our general leaders are thinking deeply about the doctrine surrounding priesthood. Whether or not this actually means they’ve prayed about women having the priesthood, as Ordain Women requested, we do not know. But I think it is clear that changes in practices and policies at the general level demonstrate an awareness and encouragement from our highest leaders to be thinking about how we can more comprehensively include women in church administration.
That said, there is nothing I would love more now than an action from our general leadership that continues to demonstrate their dedication to seeing, hearing and including women. Continued changes in policy and practice, such as the ones we’ve seen over the past few years, would help us as members understand that it was Kelly’s tactics that drove this tragic situation, not the conversation.
What is it specifically about her tactics that separated her participation in the conversation from those many others of us who also care about women in the church? I believe the answer comes from understanding that our prophet and apostles take very seriously their calling to keep our doctrine pure. The scriptures are rife with examples of what happens to communities when they do not have checks in place to keep their belief systems from modulating in different directions. In one extreme example from the Book of Mormon, the Zoramites, who had once honored the Nephite truth, went so far as to pray on the Rameumpton. Having a centralized body responsible for keeping doctrine pure is at the very heart of what makes us different from so many other denominations today and why saying we have a living prophet on the earth actually means something. Trying to change that doctrine and recruit others to a vision of changed doctrine goes against one of institution’s central purposes.
I did not think that Ordain Women tried to change doctrine or recruit others to that changed doctrine when it staged its actions during the priesthood sessions of general conference. As much as I was uncomfortable with the action, I did not see them usurping the right of the apostles to teach truth to the members of the Church. They were just asking, trusting in our beloved principle of continuing revelation. However, it was on May 15, 2014, that I believe the tide changed for Ordain Women and for Kelly specifically. It was on that day, the 185th anniversary of the Priesthood restoration, that Ordain Women launched a series of six discussions on the topic of women’s ordination with the stated purpose of effecting “change through faithful agitation.” Readers were encouraged to form discussion groups and use the six discussion packets to lead conversations about the symptoms of patriarchy, the history of the priesthood, the power of revelation, and more.
An examination of the discussions shows there is lots of wonderful material in these discussions. Rich quotes from former prophets and male and female leaders suggest, as Elder Oaks did in the last priesthood session, the universal nature of priesthood power. But I had to look no further than their physical layout to recognize that these six discussions were very deliberately attempting to supplement, if not replace, official church sources. First of all, there is the name: six discussions. Anyone out of their teens remembers when the missionary lessons were the “six discussions,” and by naming their pamphlets such, Ordain Women assumed a position of converting members to their own way of thinking though an explicit missionary effort. Also, the layout of the pamphlets uses a similar font and typographic structure as our official church manuals, also suggesting that these discussions are to be honored and used similar to official materials. (For better or for worse, church manuals are used today as a way to distribute the officla doctrine to the church body, so a new manual could be perceived to be a direct usurpation of the canonical communication.) The discussions included a promotional flyer, guidelines to promote the discussion groups through social media and guidelines for starting a group, suggesting a usurpation also of official church meetings. Most startling to me, however, was the cartoon graphics in each pamphlet: at the beginning of each, there is a cartoon that is clearly meant to depict Kelly’s distinctive glasses and hair and she is teaching a group of smaller cartoon women. The effect is to suggest that Kate Kelly herself believes that the eternal structure of God’s kingdom is not currently administered correctly by our prophets, and, in the form of a church manual, she is recruiting others to this new doctrine.
As much as I respect Kelly’s quick mind, her emphasis on continuing revelation and her thick skin in the face of fierce public condemnation, I suspect that it is the publication of these six discussions that took her over the edge from a thorn in the side to someone who actually posed a threat to the purity of our doctrine and the unity of our community under that doctrine.
But if Kelly’s discipline is, in fact, as I am suggesting, not founded merely in allergy to any and all discussions about women at church but rather to her specific tactics, what does that mean for the rest of us who still deeply care about increased involvement for women? How can we continue the conversation without being dismissed, if only by members, as apostates ourselves?
Just last week, in my professional life, I was responsible for presenting to a client about why they should change the name of their product. The name of their product is steeped in history and sentiment and the client has deep emotional attachment to it. But the name has a negative impact in the hearts and minds of the people they are trying to reach, and it really needs to be changed to grow the product the way the client wants. My job was to convince the client the name needs to be changed, in the face of this deep heritage. I had to tread very carefully.
Going in with a presentation that told my client, “Your current name is wrong. You have to change it now,” wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I had to understand why they had connections to the heritage name, prove dispassionately what a new name could do for their product, and show them through research that their audience was ready to embrace a new name. We even designed basic logos with new name suggestions that we had tested with a sample audience, to give the client an opportunity to simply try on what a new name might feel like, and whet their appetite to the creative process we could go on together if we do rebrand their product. Even still, I know the process will take a long time if they choose to pursue it at all.
I believe a similarly careful approach with women in the church will still work to bring about changes in the way women are included and heard. We have to say, time and time again if necessary, “This is what respecting women’s influence looks like,” just as I had to show my client what a new name might look like. I know the arguments: the change is too slow; we’ve been proceeding this way for decades and little has happened; policy changes don't mean anything. It might seem obvious to me that my client's product needs a new name; it might seem obvious to you that women need to be more comprehensively used and respected. But I believe there is a new fervor—not only among a few activists but among the mainstream body of our entire people—that makes a cultural shift now attainable if we commit ourselves to keeping this conversation going. A cultural shift might not be as comprehensive as what Ordain Women was going for, but I believe it is a path that will give us a more solid foundation for female ordination, if that does in fact come some day, and for more positive church experiences if it does not. A mentor once told me, “Never be more than three steps ahead of the people you lead.” I believe those are wise words, even if sometimes I want to be five steps ahead. So let’s all be wise leaders. Let’s not let the conversation be silenced.