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LDS Church responds to priesthood meeting request by activists

Thousands prepare for the Priesthood session inside the Conference Center in Salt Lake City Saturday, April 3, 2010.
Thousands prepare for the Priesthood session inside the Conference Center in Salt Lake City Saturday, April 3, 2010.
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News archives

SALT LAKE CITY — This Saturday, hundreds of thousands of women around the world will participate, either in person or via broadcast, in the annual general Relief Society meeting of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

An estimated 20,000 will congregate in the Conference Center for the meeting.

Seven days later, a much smaller group of women — probably somewhere between 150 and 200 — plan to approach LDS Conference Center ushers and ask to be admitted without tickets to the priesthood session of the church’s 183rd Semiannual General Conference. For the more than 70 years that the priesthood session has been conducted in the format that it follows today, men and boys 12 years of age and older have been exclusively invited to attend the session, often coming together as fathers and sons.

The women, who last week formally requested tickets to the Oct. 5 priesthood session, will not be admitted.

“It is the hope of the church that the priesthood session will strengthen the men and young men including fathers and sons, and give them the opportunity to gather and receive instruction related to priesthood duties and responsibilities,” church spokeswoman Ruth Todd said Tuesday in a letter to the group, "much the same way parallel meetings are held for sisters, such as the general Relief Society meeting.

"It’s for these reasons that tickets for the priesthood session are reserved for men and young men and we are unable to honor your request for tickets or admission."

Todd also invited the women to “view the live priesthood session broadcast, as well as the other general conference sessions, on, The Mormon Channel or BYUtv.”

This will be the first time the general priesthood session of LDS conference is broadcast live to a general television or Internet audience. In a pre-conference press release issued Tuesday, church officials indicated the live TV and Internet broadcast of the session is "part of a continued effort to make general conference proceedings more accessible to members around the globe."

"We are pleased that the church has demonstrated its ability to change to be more inclusive by making the session available through live broadcast," said Kate Kelly, one of the organizers of the action to request priesthood meeting tickets for women. "This is an important step toward a future where Mormon women will participate side by side with our brothers in all areas of church leadership and life."

However, the church's two decisions — to deny entrance to women and to broadcast the priesthood session live — will not curtail the planned action, Kelly said.

"We will be in the line for standby tickets to the priesthood session on Oct. 5 to demonstrate our continued willingness and desire to attend," said Kelly, who indicated the group will meet at City Creek Park at 4 p.m. to pray and sing and then walk together to the Conference Center to ask for admittance. "We are demonstrating our faith by standing at the door and knocking."

Besides, she noted during a telephone interview last week, "this isn't really just about going to priesthood meeting."

"This is about the ordination of women to the priesthood," said Kelly, an international human rights attorney in Washington, D.C., who is one of the founders of Ordain Women, an Internet-driven campaign that professes to be for “Mormon women seeking equality and ordination to the priesthood.”

"We consider ourselves to be prospective priesthood holders," she continued, "and we want to go to priesthood meeting so we can show our leaders that we are ready for both the benefits and responsibilities of the priesthood. That is our focus."

Kelly was born in Oregon and reared by parents who converted to the LDS Church. A lifelong Mormon, she is a BYU graduate who served in the Spain Barcelona Mission. Today she is the chorister in her LDS ward's Relief Society. She referred to those experiences as she explained why she believes LDS women should receive the priesthood.

“To me, agitating on the issue is a question of self-respect,” she said. “I respect and value the church and myself too much to be silent on this question. I truly believe that God wants us all to equally share the burdens and blessings of the priesthood. The ordination of women would put us all on equal spiritual footing with our brethren, and nothing less will suffice.”

“Equality is an interesting term,” said Sister Linda K. Burton, general Relief Society president, in a video posted last April featuring the leaders of three LDS Church auxiliaries talking about the role of women in church leadership. “It doesn’t always mean sameness. We are of equal value no matter where we are — in the church or in the home. In the home we are co-equal spiritual leaders. I think that’s an important thing that sometimes is misunderstood. We can have equality while having different roles.”

For the most part, Sister Burton said, “I don’t think (LDS) women are after the authority (of the priesthood) — I think they are after the blessings. And they are happy that they can access the blessings and power of the priesthood.”

The empirical research seems to support Sister Burton. For their landmark book, “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” David Campbell and Robert Putnam conducted two extensive surveys on religion and public life in America. They found that an overwhelming majority of LDS women — 90 percent — are opposed to priesthood ordination for women. By comparison, 52 percent of LDS men oppose priesthood ordination for women.

More recently, the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted a national survey of Mormons in America. It found that overall 87 percent of Latter-day Saints — 90 percent of LDS women and 84 percent of LDS men — are opposed to women being ordained to the priesthood. The number climbs as high as 95 percent among those who claim a high degree of religious commitment. Even among those who claim a lower degree of religious commitment, 69 percent are opposed.

Kathryn Skaggs, who writes her widely read blog, A Well-Behaved Mormon Woman, from her home in Murrieta, Calif., said she believes she speaks for that vast majority of Mormon women when she expresses frustration "that this small element within the church who are pressing for the priesthood use the media to draw attention to themselves, as if they speak for all Mormon women."

"They don't represent us," Skaggs said in a telephone interview. "That's not to minimize those who have these passionate feelings about women being ordained to the priesthood. But my personal church experience suggests that most of us are at peace with how the Lord has chosen to establish his kingdom upon the earth. And there's a bit of resentment that the beautiful messages of conference might be overshadowed by this small group that doesn't even represent the feelings of mainstream Mormon women.

"I just really have a hard time feeling good about it," Skaggs continued. "They are taking the attention away from the reason we have general conference in the first place: to listen to what living prophets have to say to us. Instead, they are trying to get the living prophets to listen to them. That just seems wrong to me."

Writing on, BYU professor Margaret Blair Young, well-known for her detailed work on the history of black Mormons, said she would not be surprised to see more privileges extended to women in the near future. But, she observed, "this will not happen through press conferences.”

“For all who seek change of any kind in the church, I urge patience and faith,” Young wrote. “Cling to the things you value and don’t forget them as you seek positive change. We are not the Church of the Infallible Prophet, nor the Church of Your Particular Issue, but The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We are a community, still learning lessons in loving one another and providing support for each other in our various journeys.”

For the Ordain Women movement, Kelly says, that journey won't end with the church's decision not to admit them to this October's general priesthood meeting.

"We operate on the Lord's time," she said. "We are not demanding anything. We are respectfully requesting that the brethren petition the Lord and ask if it is time that women are given the priesthood.

"Of course we believe it is God's priesthood," she said, responding to a question that is often asked of her by Latter-day Saints who do not approve of the Ordain Women movement. "If we didn't believe that, then why bother? But we all know the priesthood has been expanded over time. Christ expanded it to the Gentiles. In 1978 it was expanded to all worthy males. We see this as just another expansion whose time has come."

And so, she says, "Ordain Women will remain intact."

"We will continue to seek ordination through action and discussion," she said. "We plan to move forward in creative, faithful, courageous ways."

Which Skaggs says she understands and respects, in a way.

"I think it's very natural for LDS women to ask why the order of the church is the way it is," she said. "I think we've all asked it in one way or another, at one time or another in our lives. But most of us have received the witness that this is God's living church on the face of the earth, and we are willing to accept that this is the way the Lord would have it be. Just knowing that that's his will, it makes it easier to say, 'Thy will be done.'

"So I'm not going to be upset or frustrated or angry, because I know and trust that this is the Lord's decision," she continued. "I don't have to know why. I just have to know that this is the way the Lord has laid it out, and continue to believe and exercise my faith in him and his living church."