There are several hot topics that come up on a regular basis in the Church. One of those is women’s relationship with the priesthood in the Church. Concerns over equality in policy making, involvement in the life of the Church, and quite a few other things factor into this issue. Given that women comprise half (or more) of the membership of the Church, it is of huge importance to all members.
One notable voice speaking about women and the priesthood is Wendy Ulrich, who recently published a book on the subject entitled Live Up to Our Privileges: Women, Power and Priesthood (Deseret Book, 2019). Ulrich is president of the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists, a visiting professor at Brigham Young University, and an author of several books for Latter-day Saint audiences. She recently shared some of her insights into the topic of women and the priesthood in a 10 questions interview with Kurt Manwaring. What follows here is a summary of her remarks with some commentary, and I encourage you to read the full text of the interview here.
In the interview, Wendy Ulrich begins by discussing how there are several different perspectives among women in the Church about the priesthood. On one end of the spectrum, “some women in the Church assume priesthood is something men have that they aren’t especially interested in” for various reasons. On the other hand, “some women are convinced that women will never be full and equal partners in the Church unless they are ordained to the priesthood as men are.” In between are some who “take at face value comments from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles about women having priesthood authority or priesthood power, but they are not sure what that looks like in a practical way.” Her own perspective is that “the privilege of participating in the Lord’s work with authority and power is gender-neutral.”
Her comment on participating in the Lord’s work is based on how she understands what the priesthood is. When asked “what is a definition of the priesthood that ‘clarifies what men have and women do not’?”, she responded:
To be honest, I’ve never really found such a definition. The common definition of a priest is someone authorized to perform the religious rites of a religion, and by that definition LDS women serving in the temple are priests.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks stated at general conference in 2014 that women who perform any priesthood task under the direction of one holding priesthood keys do so with priesthood authority.
Elder M. Russell Ballard has further stated that men and women are both endowed with priesthood power.
Early apostle Orson Hyde equated priesthood with governance, but women function in many governance and leadership roles in the Church just as men do, including over mixed-sex groups like Primary children and teachers.
Other apostles have equated priesthood with the power of God to create, resurrect, and redeem, which gives priesthood a much grander scope than mere earthly ritual or administration, but Doctrine and Covenants 138:38-39 and 55-56 strongly suggests that women were among those chosen as leaders in the premortal world, and Abraham 3:22-24 uses the similar language to describe those who assisted in the work of creation, implying that women were involved there as well.
I’ve concluded that we could probably define priesthood, paraphrasing the definition given by Joseph F. Smith, as the authority and power of God delegated to men and women to do God’s work in the earth for the salvation and exaltation of the human family.
Defining the priesthood in a way that fully grasps both the similarities and the differences between the roles of women and men in the Church is difficult. The major difference that Ulrich brings up is that men hold specific offices in the priesthood (and thus serve in certain roles in the Church) while women do not hold those offices. The emphasis in the interview, though, is that both men and women have access to the authority and power of God to work for the salvation and exaltation of humankind.
As an aside, while reading Wendy Ulrich’s remarks, I was reminded of an interesting Exponent II post from several months ago. In the post, Trudy Rushforth discussed recent rhetoric about women having access to the priesthood in terms of two major viewpoints about Christian priesthood. The first viewpoint, most prominently displayed by the Catholic Church, is that priests must be consecrated or ordained by someone who was himself ordained in a linage that can be traced back to the ancient apostles. In this view, priests have the authority to perform things that regular people cannot. The second viewpoint, modeled by many Protestant churches, is the “the priesthood of all believers,” where all Christians have full and equal access to God and therefore have full and equal ability to act and minister as priests. In general, Latter-day Saint priesthood has followed (in an expanded sense) the Catholic style of priesthood, with men tracing their priesthood line back to ancient apostles through Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and being able to perform ordinances like baptism and confirmation, the sacrament, etc. only after ordination. Rushforth argued, however, that recent remarks by general authorities about women’s relationship to the priesthood tend to follow the lines of a “priesthood of all believers” by teaching that women have the priesthood in their lives (in the ways Ulrich discusses in the quotation above). Trudy cleverly labeled this women-focused approach to the priesthood “a priesthood of half the believers,” and noted that she felt it was problematic for the Church to try to have it both ways (men having a Catholic-style priesthood and women having a priesthood of all believers) because it muddies the water on how we define the priesthood. Wendy Ulrich seems to have a more positive view of the situation than Trudy Rushforth, but Ulrich’s remarks in the interview do highlight how difficult it is to pin down a good definition of the priesthood in the Church today. It’s definitely something that needs more attention, and I’m interested to read Wendy Ulrich’s book to see her perspective on the subject more fully.
In any case, teaching that women do have access to the priesthood in various ways is an empowering concept. In the 10 questions interview, Wendy Ulrich stated that:
I hope we can talk together about how we all can grow in priesthood power to complete whatever the work is we have personally been authorized to do in building the kingdom of God.
For example, the work we do together in councils is the governance work of the priesthood. The work we do together in temples is a major part of the ritual or ordinance work of the priesthood. The work we do in feeding people and helping them feed themselves, in teaching the gospel, in creating community, in being confirmed with the gifts of the Holy Ghost, in sealing eternal families—all of this and more is the work of both men and women as we participate in God’s work of saving the human family.
As we listen to each other with compassion and curiosity and speak up with honesty and good will, neither dominating nor staying silent, we can come to the unity required in all Church councils.
Women and men can work together through the priesthood to build the kingdom of God on earth in powerful ways.
There’s a lot of great things in Wendy Ulrich’s interview, much more than I have covered in this post. For more insights into the priesthood, such as women’s relationship to offices of the priesthood, how God’s nature relates to the topic, and differences between priesthood power and priesthood authority, read the full interview here.