“Women’s Liberation in the Saints’ Church” by Carolyn Raiser

So back in the day many feminists in Community of Christ didn’t want to be let into the priesthood; they saw it as an authoritarian structure that would only be reluctantly giving power to women. Some feminists advocated for an approach which sought to eliminate the way we ordained folks (basically switch to a charismatic priesthood model).

In the early 1970s a magazine was created called “Courage: A Journal of History, Thought, and Action”. This magazine was produced by liberal faculty of Graceland, and provided a platform for liberal theology to be discussed after the Herald decided to start steering clear of controversy. A history of this magazine can be read here.

There is one article that particularly struck me, “Women’s Liberation in the Saints’ Church” by Carolyn Raiser, (vol. 3, no. 1 (1972), page 44.) It took a while for me to hunt this article down, but this is it! It provides a fascinating glimpse into feminists’ relationship with the church and the priesthood prior to D&C 156’s canonization.

In light of the First Presidency and Council of Twelve’s inaction on formalizing an official policy to recognize the God-given rights of LGBT folks, I think the message is just as applicable today as it was back then.

“Women’s Liberation in the Saints’ Church” by Carolyn Raiser

Why do women want to be in the priesthood? Some women involved in the emerging women’s rights movement within the church would answer, “We don’t!” These women feel that priesthood has lost any valid function it may have had and now exists as an authoritarian structure fostering unquestioning, unthinking obedience to the voice of the priesthood as the final authority.

Many women’s liberationists, if they want anything in the church, want a move away from the authoritarian structure which stifles and strives to rule like a heavy-handed parent and a move toward a freeing structure which encourages people to participate on the basis of talents, abilities, and desires. They want a structure in which an able woman with counseling abilities will be able to do “ministerial” counseling instead of having her offer rejected by a presiding elder because she is not in the priesthood. They want a structure in which women with proven editorial abilities will not be passed over as editors of church publications because they are not priesthood members.

These women’s liberationists also hope for the development of a more accepting, loving relationship within the church community. They long for the acceptance of all kinds of people with all kinds of life-styles and philosophies, instead of officially condoned rejection because someone does not fit the one mold. These liberationists want to destroy the specter of old men tormented by secret inner voices which mock them witht their own feelings of worthlessness. Not being in the priesthood, they were made to feel somehow unacceptable and had no way to serve or be a meaningful part of the institution which they loved and which had partially destroyed them by its callousness. The church of the liberationists’ dreams would willingly and carefully restructure itself so that all kinds of people, male and female, young and old, priesthood member and nonpriesthood member, would be actively involved in every aspect of a church life which had as its reason for existence caring about people and the world.

Yet with that kind of growth and development process as the dynamic goal, women who want such change get tangled up in the means. Which is the best strategy? To push from a relatively powerless position in the church power structure for rather drastic changes in that structure? Or, since priesthood is the key to the power structure of the Saints church, with all administrative offices and most other positions being filled by priesthood members, should women concentrate on priesthood for women and hope that enough women with less authoritarian-centered personalities get into key positions from which they can lead reform drives?

The first way has much to recommend it to an idealist because in order for women to have a voice given their present powerless condition, almost a majority of them would have to coalesce into a grassroots movement which would also draw in some liberationist males. Such a movement would resemble a class-conscious people’s movement, which idealistic revolutionaries always hope will emerge. It could indeed put significant pressure for change upon the church leaders in many ways. Children’s Sunday school classes would fall apart if women refused to staff them. Congregations couldn’t meet their budgets if women didn’t have bake sales and bazaars. The world church could not meet its budget if women refused to give tithes and offerings. Preachers’ voices would echo in empty sanctuaries if women refused to go to church. The existing structure would simply collapse should women refuse to participate.

The more practical women, however, recognize the difficulty in winning numbers of church women to a grass-roots movement. They are also very much aware of the follow-the-leader mentality which the church ahs nurtured in its members and see opportunities to use that mentality for their advantage. These women may tend toward wanting women in the priesthood and administrative positions, not as means or evidences of equality but as means to the completely different ends mentioned above. Their chances of ultimately succeeding with a women-in-the-priesthood strategy are relatively good, since the social climate is moving increasingly toward acknowledgement of women’s claims for equal rights and status. The church will have to abandon its outdated restrictions on priesthood or lose most of its talented, creative, and professional women, who simply will no longer abide its chauvinistic structure and attitudes.

However, the danger lurking in this latter strategy resembles the realized danger of the early twentieth-century feminists who stopped with winning the vote. Women might be tempted to stop if they win access to the priesthood, thereby foresaking the struggle and helping to perpetuate the system they had hoped to refashion.

Should enough women’s liberationists within the church stay in and keep trying, the future shape of the church might well be determined by the strategy they and their liberation-minded male co-workers choose to use and by how well those strategies are carried to fruition.

Carolyn Raiser