Jaime Harker is professor of English and the director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Mississippi, where she teaches American literature, LGBTQ literature, and gender studies. She has been a part of the Restoration most of her life and now finds herself affiliated with Community of Christ.
Jaime is passionate about equality and justice in her religious community. She today writes about her relationship with and perspectives on priesthood in Community of Christ.
I can’t remember the first time I heard the word “priesthood.” It was everywhere—in every church service, Sunday School lesson, primary activity, and our own weekly Family Home Evenings. What I knew: all men in the church had it, though they had some kind of pecking order among them. No women would ever have it. There I was, a second-class citizen from the moment I came to consciousness. As Sonia Johnson famously wrote in her memoir From Housewife to Heretic, I was born into a tradition that was never really mine.
Priesthood: the authority to act in God’s name. The ability to channel the power of God. No one had it but white Mormon men. So I suppose I had that in common with every person in the world who was not a white Mormon man (and the priesthood ban on Black men was a scandal, one even my father opposed): I was dependent on their largesse for access to God’s power. It was only when I got older that I understood the hubris of this claim.
I heard many stories about how this came to be: Joseph Smith, ordained by John the Baptist (for the lower Aaronic priesthood) and then by Peter, James, and John (for the Melchizedek priesthood). Only those who could trace their ordinations back to Joseph Smith, and thus back to John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John, had priesthood. I can’t remember how old I was when I discovered that every Mormon man, on ordination, was given a card which traced that line of authority back to Joseph Smith, usually accessed through your father. Authority. Power. If you, as a woman, wanted access to that power, you had to submit. First to your father, then to church ‘authorities,’ and finally to your husband.
People tried to justify it. Priesthood holders were supposed to be “benevolent,”and in church, people quoted Joseph Smith about the problem of “unrighteous dominion” (I may still be ableto quote that verse from memory, even now). But everyone agreed, at church, that righteous dominion was totally okay. Exemplary, even. The way of God, who was (and I heard this more times than I can count) a God of order. Translation: get in line. I still remember a Sunday school lesson by a member of the Bishopric (a counselor to the pastor), asking us to evaluate reasons why only men have the priesthood. One, which he endorsed, said it was a question of “law and order.” I disagreed that this was a valid explanation. He said, “What would happen if the country had a Democratic president and a Republican president at the same time?” I replied, “That may explain why it has to be one or the other, but not why it is men and not women.” What this says about his view of marriage—that if there isn’t one clear boss, chaos will prevail—is revealing. And what it says about his view of women.
I was always a feminist, from a young age. I knew something was terribly wrong about this state of affairs. It took some years for me to articulate all the reasons why. Because there was, looming over everything in this Mormon world, the priesthood. God’s power. Joseph was chosen, and he said only men could have it. This was the real keystone of our religion. If Joseph was wrong about that, he was wrong about everything, and (everyone around assured me) he was not wrong.
I encountered priesthood as something that was not meant for me, something beyond my control or understanding. Something that made our happy life, in our happy church community, possible. Something fixed, unchangeable, divine. And male.
I didn’t know then what I know now: the notion of priesthood expanded exponentially just in Joseph Smith’s lifetime. His own views changed dramatically. He had to go back and rewrite one of the foundational moments of creation: from he and Oliver Cowdery baptizing each other, with internal authority, to both being ordained by John the Baptist. His young church started off more egalitarian and gradually became less and less so, more governed by a fascist order.
I was confused by priesthood. On the one hand, since that was the fundamental structure of the church, it was clear to me that women needed access to it. “Ordain Women” was the most public campaign for this position, but it had been bubbling for decades. A fellow missionary told me that, in his ward in Washington, D.C. (the same one that both Sonia Johnson and Kate Kelly attended), that a woman wore a button to church every week that read “Ordain women, or stop baptizing them.” That sounded right to me.
Of course, Mormon women are not all downtrodden and abject. My mother, for one, wasn’t cowed by men, and my father would debate with me about everything from politics to priesthood for hours, without once telling me to shut up and submit to his authority. But priesthood elsewhere was used to end arguments and shut down conversation and dissent. From “when the prophet speaks, the debate is over,” to my father ultimately making the decisions. My mother cried and cried over our departure from Seattle—and about their immigration from Canada, for that matter—but she didn’t have veto power. She went with my father to Germany when he was called to be a mission president (a “call” helped along by some General Authority connections) when she had massive trouble with mobility and no expertise in German to make even the simplest requests at the grocery store, and no one, in the family or the church, ever thought that her needs, physical and emotional, should take precedence over my father’s duty. She shocked the missionaries in the mission home when she joked that she could become an apostle. They didn’t take it too seriously, though. She was under my father’s authority, and they were sure he had things under control.
That was true of me, too, growing up, though I didn’t realize it until later. I was outspoken for a Mormon girl—not as outspoken as I am now, but very outspoken for Mormon communities—and no one seemed really bothered by it. I thought, at the time, that meant I was in a supportive community that didn’t try to crush people who thought differently. But now I think it was my father who gave me a measure of protection. He was well-regarded, in multiple leadership positions, including pastor of the congregation. They didn’t take my feminism seriously. They were sure it was just a phase—that I would attend BYU, get married, and live under the ‘protection’ of the priesthood.
Yeah, so they were wrong about that. Obvs.
I have held three mutually exclusive ideas about priesthood, usually simultaneously. One was that women should have equal access to priesthood. If that is how power is wielded, then women, queer people, and people of color need to have it. That was one of the things that first drew me to Community of Christ, their ordination of women. The first time I attended a CoC service in Pittsburgh, I heard a woman’s voice giving the sacrament prayer, and it gave me something I had longed to hear my whole life: women in the seat of power. These broader fights over ordination are worth having, because they challenge the internalization of second-class status that so many of us, raised in a patriarchal church, suffer.
But a second idea also percolated in my brain: priesthood isn’t a real thing. That is, no one has exclusive authority to administer God’s power. The gifts of the spirit belong to all of us, already. We can be touched by grace anywhere, in every religion, beyond Christianity, and in no religion at all. Priesthood tries to monopolize what is universal, and does enormous damage in the process.
And then a third idea, the most scandalous: I don’t need to ask anyone to give me the priesthood because I already have it. This may have first come to me at the moment I stood in an endowment ceremony and was told that I was wearing the robes of the priesthood, named a queen and a priestess. Because I went through the temple to become a missionary, not to get married, that notion of priesthood as ‘borrowed’ from one’s husband wasn’t part of that ceremony for me—not as explicitly, anyway, as for the soon-to-be-brides who had to reveal their “secret” name to their husbands to pass through the veil into the celestial room. Eve still got blamed and didn’t speak at all after the fall in the endowment ceremony, but I still had that feeling of standing in a room with the robes of the priesthood on my shoulder.
But honestly, my sense of priesthood didn’t depend on anyone else. I felt—sometimes, in flashes and feelings—that I had the kingdom of God within me already. At my best, I still feel that way. Once, when I was a missionary, I sat in one of the interminable morning training sessions with a district leader telling me that I should be grateful to be a missionary, because I was so much closer to God now than I was back at home. He explained this through a flow chart (drawing on a white board with a blue pen): at home, we worked through bishop, stake president, 70, apostle, and president. Here, the flow chart was shorter: district leader, AP, mission president, president. Didn’t we feel closer to God without as much filter? No, I told him: I feel exactly as close to God here as I did at home. Because there is one step—me to God. (Is that why they transferred me out of that district, I wonder? Or was it after they had instituted a series of ridiculous training sessions, “finding fun week,” teaching fun week,” when I asked if this was “righteous pressure fun week”? “Righteous pressure.” They loved that one. But I digress.)
Priesthood: reform, reject, claim. Those seemed to be the choices. But what is priesthood, anyway?
Community of Christ wrestled with these questions, and many others, for decades from the 1970s through the 1990s. I didn’t know a lot about what was then known as RLDS (the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) growing up. When we drove to the Kirtland temple in Ohio as part of the Mormon Trail (a heritage tour and an epic, multi-family road trip), I noticed the adults being both reserved and hyper polite with the guides, who were RLDS. I didn’t really know anything about the RLDS church; later, I knew they rejected polygamy and I knew they ordained women.
What I didn’t know, until fairly recently, was what a long, fearless inquiry the denomination made in that transition. Women’s ordination, in some ways, though perhaps the most visible, was not the most radical thing they were considering.
Let’s start with Courage 1. Courage was a journal from the early 1970s organized by a group of faculty at Graceland College, who wanted to explore complicated issues and create a space for radical inquiry and new directions, without self-censoring for fear of reprisal. They consider everything: the actual history of polygamy in the RLDS movement; open communion; questioning the need for rebaptism; liberation theology; and the ordination of women 2. Future Community of Christ president Grant McMurray, then a Graceland historian, published in the journal. And many essays considered the question of women’s ordination.
Courage is amazing. It is so fearless, so radical, so willing to question every bedrock assumption about what a restoration tradition is supposed to be. I was involved with a number of progressive faculty at BYU in the 1990s, and hardly anyone there did anything remotely as radical as Graceland was doing in the 1970s.
There was one essay that really spoke to me: Carolyn Raiser’s “Women’s Liberation in the Saints’ Church.” This was her opening paragraph:
“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.” 3
Wow. Never once had I heard anyone affiliated with a restoration tradition—certainly not within even the most radical LDS intellectual communities—reject the notion of priesthood. And yet here was an article unambiguously discarding it. No matter who “held” priesthood, the very notion of “priesthood” was the problem, by placing members under its control, breeding passivity, complacency, obedience.
I read that paragraph, and everything in me said “YES!” Did I actually pump my fist, or just imagine it? She said the thing that even Mormon Women’s Forum wouldn’t say. Priesthood is the problem.
Mind you, women were not ordained in the RLDS church in 1972, when Raiser published this essay. It would be another twleve years before the RLDS church ordained women, and for many, that was a step too far, causing the departure of “restorationist” branches who rejected the ordination of women. 4 Kate Kelly was excommunicated in 2014 simply for advocating for the ordination of women in the LDS church, not even ten years ago. But in 1972, for Raiser, the ordination of women did not go nearly far enough.
I love the vision Raiser outlines for what feminists wanted the church to be.
“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. . . . 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.” 5
Honestly, that is my vision for church too—not just Community of Christ, but of any church I join: a church to which we can bring our whole selves, which nurtures all without regard for status or identity or appropriate priesthood calling.
Raiser discusses two options: one, which she terms the practical one, seeks to add women to the existing system; two, the radical option, deconstructs and reimagines the entire system.. She acknowledged the difficulties option two faced, but warned the ‘safer’ option was not necessarily the better one: “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 forsaking the struggle and helping to perpetuate the system they had hoped to refashion.” 6
Community of Christ took the practical solution. It was not necessarily the easier solution, mind you; interviews with that first generation of ordained women detail how traumatizing it was to have, for example, an entire congregation stand up and leave when a woman rose to preach. And the schism women’s ordination caused in the community is still not healed 7. Still, Raiser’s warning was also prophetic—by adding women to the existing system, larger questions about the hierarchical nature of that system were at best deferred, at worst suppressed in a systemic bout of boundary-patrolling.
Community of Christ did, however, continue to reflect about beliefs and practices that once were considered sacrosanct. This reflection came in articles, books, symposia, and public sermons, by church leaders (including theologians and histories as well church officials at the highest level) and faculty at Graceland College. The courage, systematic investigation, expansive historical and theological knowledge, and meticulous explication of sacred text in this body of work models the best qualities of Community of Christ. As a denomination, Community of Christ demonstrated an embrace of difficult questions and an openness to change that is exemplary, up to and including the very name of the institution. These conversations, I argue below, have laid the groundwork for more pointed ruminations on the nature of “priesthood” itself.
I can’t possibly do justice to this robust body of work in a short essay (the bibliography at the end of this essay is more comprehensive). Below, I discuss a few of what, to me, are key theological transformations that grew out of what Community of Christ would call the discernment process.
One True Church?
This was the decisive move that laid the groundwork for everything that follows. Starting in the 1960s, Community of Christ leaders began conversations with other Protestant denominations and began to consider their connection to the broader Christian community. A key moment, was when a facilitator asked the then president of the RLDS church, W. Wallace Smith, “If you had to choose, would you follow Jesus or Joseph?” When Smith answered “Jesus,” the new trajectory of the church became clear. 8 It is undoubtedly connected to the decision to change the name of the denomination from “Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” to “Community of Christ,” suggesting one community among many. This shift culminated, one might say, in Community of Christ’s membership in the National Council of Churches.
In practical terms, this allowed members of Community of Christ access to a robust tradition of Christian theology and history, which contextualized sacraments in the church that many had taken for granted, without diving into their roots. It led to multiple symposia, hosted at Graceland college; theological ruminations by a number of folks in the church, including Graceland professors, those in leadership roles, and the Community of Christ theologians; a required theology degree for priesthood holders in the church; and an increased willingness to apply those same tools of historical inquiry to Restoration history. This last trend allowed historians to acknowledge that Joseph Smith did practice polygamy, the denial of which (up until then) had become a bedrock belief of the denomination. It also allowed some CoC scholars to acknowledge that whatever else the Book of Mormon is, it is not an authentic ancient document discovered and translated by Joseph Smith. 9
This connection to the broader Christian community also meant that Community of Christ no longer claimed to be the “one true church,” that is, the only church on the face of the earth holding the “keys to the kingdom.” It is hard to overstate what a sea change this represented. That had always been the primary justification for the church, in both LDS and RLDS traditions. By 1994, apostle David Brock would write that “I am uncomfortable with images of Zion that are surely still sung and preached there. I can no longer view that experience [of his baptism] as proof that I belong to the true church or that RLDS priesthood are the only priesthood having authority (or full authority) to administer sacraments leading to salvation” (11) 10. This shift also precipitated an existential crisis of sorts. In that same volume, Authority, Membership, and Baptism, Anthony Chvala-Smith (who is the current theologian of Community of Christ) acknowledged as much in his keynote address.
“Whatever else RLDS baptismal theology has conveyed in the past, it always was the principal way of summing up who we thought we were: the one, true church, restored to original perfection, having the only priesthood divinely authorized to perform valid sacraments, apart from which salvation is impossible (Doctrine and Covenants 83 and 104). But if we are no longer that, who are we? What meaning does the term “restoration” still have? Why should anyone belong to us? Do we have any reason for independent existences as a denomination? Does our past have any further claim on us? (17)”
If we are no longer that, who are we? It is a remarkably raw and vulnerable question, one with which Community of Christ continues to grapple. Considering what is distinctive about the tradition became a central focus, and one emerging answer (as I discuss below) is the idea of prophecy and continuing revelation. But an equally important answer had to do with what Community of Christ shares with other Christian churches.
Community of Believers: Communion and Baptism
The immediate consequence of this embrace of the larger Christian community was a reckoning with both communion and baptism. Both were originally signs of Christian fellowship, and only later became associate with membership in particular congregations. Authority, Membership, and Baptism is a remarkable archive of the debate surrounding rebaptism. Anthony Chvala-Smith,in his keynote address “Old Wine in New Skins,” provided historical context for the debate in his keynote, which he titled “the rebaptism controversy of 255-257 C.E.” (18). He contrasted an “ecclesiocentric” model as one that centers the institution of the church with an “theocentric model” as one that locates authority “primarily in the gospel itself; that is, authority is located primarily in the faith of the church, and not in the church itself, which preserves and proclaims the faith” (23). That placement of authority in faith and not institution is key to his argument, and key, I think, to Community of Christ’s ultimate decision not to require rebaptism for membership.
Bruce Lingren outlined five different models for understanding sacraments, providing a depth of nuance and theory to the question of rebaptism. He started by quoting feminist theologian Rosemary Ruether: “When we speak of remaining ‘in’ the Church, we need to be clear about what exactly we remain ‘in’ and what we are loyal to…. Loyalty then needs to be to the people and to the gospel. Institutions should be called to become servants of the people through the gospel, instead of seeking to substitute themselves for the community and for the Holy One and trying to make themselves the object of our loyalty” (37). Like Chvala-Smith, he separates faith from institution, refusing to grant any one institution to ‘own’ the gospel. Church as sacred community, the next-to-last model he considers, “tend[s] to see the sacraments in terms of remembrance. While the Holy Spirit may work through that remembrance, the acts involved in the sacraments themselves often are seen as not having any specific saving power by themselves. Thus, the sacraments, in this model, are often seen as being an occasion through which the Holy Spirit can do its work” (Lingren 37). The final model, church as sacrament, frames the church in more mystical and idealistic terms.
“The church, then, is a sacrament, a sign that expresses the grace of God in Christ in tangible form. We recognize that the church does not always signify this grace particularly well. Yet we also recognize that the visible activities of the church are expressions, however imperfect, of an inner spiritual reality just as all human activity reflects an attempt to reflect that same spirit. . . . The advantage of such a view of sacrament is that it recognizes the imperfect nature of our actions, but also the deep spiritual mystery that lies behind all life. . . . Through the church we live through the medium of sacrament, a medium through which the mystery that is the grace of God in Christ continues to find concrete expression in the world. The institutional model views sacraments primarily in terms of their outward forms. The community model emphasizes sacraments as a remembrance of that which we already know. Seeing the church as sacrament allows us to openly acknowledge the mystery that is in life without the institutional sense that the term ‘mystery’ is being used as a weapon against us by those in power. . . . The focus of the sacrament is on the participant rather than on the officiant, as is the more extreme form of the institutional model. (38-39).”
Grace may be experienced by ritual but is not the cause of a particular ritual, in other words. By focusing on the participant rather than the officiant, Lingren places spiritual power in the community of believers, not in the priesthood holder.
I cannot recommend this entire issue enough; both William D. Russell and Shandra K. Newcomb question established wisdom in profoundly radical ways. One can see, reading this thoughtful and detailed reflection, why Community of Christ established universal communion and stopped requiring rebaptism. The community of believers, they acknowledged, exceeded the boundaries of their own denomination.
A Prophetic People
Grant McMurray’s leadership of Community of Christ was astonishing, not only because he began as a firebrand dissenter at Graceland College (who published in Courage and insisted on unvarnished restoration history), but because he was the first prophet-president who was not a direct descendent of Joseph Smith. For me, his most lasting contribution was the notion, expressed in his 1996 sermon “A Prophetic People,” that Community of Christ need to evolved from being “a people with a prophet” to a “prophetic people.” 11
Like so many other changes in Community of Christ, this idea was circulating long before it became canonized as scripture. In 1988, Elbert. A. Dempsey, Jr. published The Power of the Prophetic with Herald House, CoC’s official publishing house. 12 It is a careful analysis of the prophetic tradition in the Old Testament, and it makes the case, quite persuasively, that the priestly and the prophetic are separate functions, frequently in opposition to each other. The priestly is frequently aligned with the power of the state, but the prophetic never is, and its main function is to challenge the injustice of the state and the rigid traditionalism of the priesthood.
Though Dempsey doesn’t say this explicitly in the book, this concept is a direct challenge to the structure of Community of Christ, which combines the priestly head of church with the prophetic in the office of Prophet-President. Prophets, Dempsey contends, are outsiders, and they must be, to avoid cooptation or corruption by those in power. Priests and prophets are both important, but they are not the same thing. “Priestly writing has value,” Delbert insists, in its preservation of tradition and history, and the “unity and stability” it provides (203). But the priestly, he continues, “is comfortable. It does not stretch people uncomfortably with new notions” (203). The “great teachings of Jesus and the instruction about Zion in the Doctrine and Covenants were once prophetic experiences, but today they have been absorbed into the priestly tradition” (203).
These teachings, he concludes, “are a firm and powerful base on which to build our future” (203), there is a danger “when people believe this tradition is the last word. They will merely be a priestly people; they will be denied the power of the prophetic if they arrogantly assume they have THE truth or that their tradition is a closed canon” (203-204). A priestly people versus a prophetic people: the priestly, Dempsey, can impede the prophetic.
Priesthood of All Believers: an Alternative
Let me start by stating my position, unequivocally: I believe “priesthood,” as a practice developed by Joseph Smith, is inextricably linked to his abuse of power. He began this movement out of a much more egalitarian motive, similar to Methodism (which influenced him profoundly early on, as it did Emma Smith, who took her sons to a Methodist church after Joseph’s death). They wanted to purify the church and ‘restore’ it to its primitive Christian roots, including a more egalitarian, democratic approach to community, in which multiple people were prophetic and the gifts of the Spirit were open to all (including an unschooled 14-year-old boy). Very early on, however, Joseph Smith consolidated his authority over the young church through priesthood: first, through claims that he had been ordained by John the Baptist (though early accounts describe he and Oliver baptizing each other), and then, as he evolved the idea of a “higher” priesthood (influenced by Sidney Rigdon), through claims of an ordination by Peter, James, and John. Joseph Smith merged all roles—prophet, seer, and president; steward of spiritual and temporal gifts—into one unassailable seat of authority, and he purged the membership rolls of anyone who challenged that unquestioned authority, including the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. Far from simplifying ecclesiastical roles to those of the primitive church, he kept expanding them into ever more elaborate hierarchies and ceremonies, finally in the secretive Council of Fifty.
Priesthood was how Joseph Smith established polygamy, by using his authority to groom and bully young girls into marrying him, by using his associates as pimps, by humiliating his wife as he married her friends behind her back and forced her to accept the unacceptable with the carrot and stick approach: damnation if she refused, guaranteed salvation if she accepted. The concept of priesthood was how he coerced ‘consent.’ If you are horrified by Joseph Smith’s vile behavior and reject his abusive version of polygamy—as I do, and as Community of Christ has always done (in rejecting polygamy, that is)—you must reckon with the central enabling factor of priesthood in polygamy. Polygamy is, in a sense, the fruit of the poisonous tree: that tree is priesthood itself, as Joseph Smith created it.
But that is not the only way to understand priesthood. Indeed, so overbearing has the Joseph Smith version of priesthood been that I didn’t realize how different often-cited Biblical sources are when read without that lens. I noticed this when listening to my friend, a Methodist minister preach at the Methodist campground (sound familiar, Community of Christ friends—reunion,anyone?), explicate this text from the New Testament: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9, KJV). It struck me for the first time, listening to the verse in a different context, that this notion of priesthood is collective, not individual. The whole point of this book is to outline why priestly intersession is no longer necessary; the community of believers represents what, in the past, had been delegated to priests.
This was a common notion in Protestant communities, going back to Martin Luther: the priesthood of all believers. They rejected the idea that any church had sole possession of the keys necessary to salvation; the believed that God’s grace was available to everyone. J.F. Fesko explains in an essay on this topic, “The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers states that all believers in Christ share in his priestly status; therefore, there is no special class of people who mediate the knowledge, presence, and forgiveness of Christ to the rest of believers, and all believers have the right and authority to read, interpret, and apply the teachings of Scripture.” 13 It is a notion of community; together, an egalitarian group of believers accesses priesthood—that is, God’s power and God’s grace. A vision of Zion.
You can see traces of this notion in early restoration history, especially in early notions of “common consent,” manifest in the parliamentary procedure of resolutions at CoC world conference. You see “the priesthood of all believers” manifesting itself in Community of Christ’s evolution in the last four decades: the development of guiding principles instead of a fixed dogma; in open communion and a recognition of baptisms in other Christian faiths; in the shift from a hereditary “Prophet-President” descended from Joseph Smith to a leader chosen collectively; and most especially, in Grant McMurray’s call for Community of Christ to shift from a people with a prophet to a prophetic people.
But the legacies of priesthood are also present. Grassroots movements, such as Harmony’s resolution to produce permanent policies for the ordination of LGBTQ+ people, nearly a decade after it was supposed to have been accomplished, are not appreciated and often dismissed, and leaders of such grassroots movements are often denounced as troublemakers or worse. Notions of purity and gatekeeping still structure priesthood calls, and have contributed to the stalling of full queer inclusion in Community of Christ (a topic I have written about elsewhere); hierarchy still allows “the priesthood” to determine which resolutions are heard, who receives priesthood calls, and who is disciplined or silenced. Fruit of the poisonous tree indeed.
The priesthood, I contend, is preventing Community of Christ’s evolution as a “prophetic people,” because it depends upon hierarchy, obedience, and submission to authority—all qualities that suppress the prophetic in the larger community of believers. A reimagination of priesthood in Community of Christ is long overdue.
Priesthood of All Believers: a Service
After multiple theological discussions, including on a podcast, Evan Sharley decided to organize a communion service entitled “The Priesthood of All Believers.” She intended it as constructive boundary-pushing, to discuss the ways that priesthood in Community of Christ is needlessly hierarchical and exclusionary. Many in the church have had strong reactions to this service. She has been accused of undermining Community of Christ, violating church law, leading others to sin, defying God’s will. She has been called a troublemaker; one person even suggested she was risking excommunication. She has been reported to those in authority and had multiple conversations with church leaders.
I have found this response astonishing. As I discuss above, notions of “the priesthood of all believers” has been circulating for decades. The church no longer requires rebaptism and open communion; it no longer claims to be the one true church; it explicitly calls for the community of believers to be a “prophetic people.” Why is this service a step too far?
Priesthood. I believe that’s the cause. When you talk about priesthood, you cannot help but be enmeshed in boundary policing and hierarchy. Ask the leaders and go through the ‘proper’ channels, Evan has been told. Submit. You have no right.
How many times I was told that, over and over, castigated for my pride, commanded to submit to the order of heaven. I remember a key moment, as I was separating from the LDS church, when I decided to attend the “priesthood” session of General Conference. Kate Kelly led a group of women to ask to be admitted at the Tabernacle; those images of women weeping as they were denied entry went viral. They went away.
I didn’t ask permission. I just showed up, in shorts and sweatshirt, at the local church where the satellite link streamed in the service. My heart was pounding—this was such a refusal of the status quo. I walked in and sat on a pew at the back of the chapel. Over a hundred men, in suits, turned their heads around and stared at me, stunned. I stared back.
Here’s the funny thing, though: they all talked about me, and were outraged by me, but not one of them came back and told me to leave. Not even the pastor. I wouldn’t have left had they asked, but there were over a hundred men there. If they had wanted to, they could have carried me out and locked the door, and I couldn’t have done anything about it. But they didn’t. They were so accustomed to the way things were that they didn’t know how to defend their privilege when someone didn’t take it for granted. I stayed a while, decided it was fairly boring, and left during the closing hymn.
I realized that day that I had been doing all their work for them: obeying their rules, staying within the boundaries they drew, enabling their “priestly” authority. Without my assent, they had no power. And didn’t know how to claim it. But that day, I learned how to claim my own authority.
I don’t know how it will feel, on January 15, to say the words that I was taught were never mine to say. I suspect it will be an emotional service. What I know is that I don’t need anyone’s permission to open myself to the divine. A prophetic people know that, too.
I learned about Courage, as I did all of what I discuss below, from my friend Evan Sharley. Evan joined Community of Christ in 2021, through Beyond the Walls, a global congregation based in Toronto, and she has been studying ever since. Every time she finds a new book or article or periodical, she shares it with me. She is, in a real sense, the theological muse of this essay. She also is a terrific writer and theologian in her own right, as you can see on her blog and her website.
For more on Courage, see Russell, William D. “The Rise and Fall of Courage, an Independent RLDS Journal.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 11.1 (1978):115-119.
Carolyn Raiser, “Women’s Liberation in the Saints’ Church,” Courage: A Journal of History, Thought, and Action 3, no. 1 (1972). All quotations are from this transcription.
For more on women’s ordination, see Howlett, David and Nancy Ross, “Women’s Ordination in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: Historical and Sociological Perspectives.” Mormon Studies Review 9 (2022): 15-26.
See citation 3
See citation 3
See the following episodes from the Project Zion Podcast:
- “ES 75 | Women’s Ordination in Community of Christ | Denominational Ministry“
- “ES 76 | Women’s Ordination in Community of Christ | Interfaith Ministry“
- “ES 77 | Women’s Ordination in Community of Christ | Changes“
Project Zion Podcast “11 | Jesus or Joseph?”
To be more precise, Community of Christ does not require any particular attitude toward church history and encourages members to make up their own minds; for more, see the statement on church history here.
Brown, Richard A., editor. Theology volume 2: Authority, Membership, and Baptism. Independence, MO: Graceland/Park College Press, 1994.
“A Prophetic People” by W. Grant McMurray at World Conference Sermon, April 21st, 1996
Dempsey, Elbert A. The Power of the Prophetic. Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1988. All quotations refers to this edition.