Stunted and Misshapen by the Priesthood

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The concern I closed my last entry with was this:

I began to wonder if it was the fact that I DIDN'T have the priesthood, and therefore DIDN'T have a certain respect for it, that has made me willing and able to call these guys by their first names. I wonder if men respect the authority of the priesthood more because they have it.

In 2002, Sunstone published an essay of mine in which I recount standing up in a zone conference and saying to my second (as opposed to my much cooler first) mission president, when he got Melchizedek on our asses and started issuing punitive, brutal directives, "President ___________, why are you doing this? This is stupid. It's wrong."

This was analogous to a private standing up during a briefing by a colonel about a military mission and saying, "Why are you commanding us to do these backasswards things? This is stupid. It's wrong."

In other words, it was a big fucking deal. Now, to my mission president's credit, although he responded by shutting down the meeting in order to shut me and everyone else up, he also admitted right then and there that I was RIGHT, and he never said another word about the horrible policies he had once wanted to institute.

We discussed the incident later, when I apologized. As I wrote in the essay,

Even though I felt that what I'd said was right--and as I realized upon reflection, he hadn't contradicted me after I said what he was doing was stupid and wrong; what he'd said was "You're right, Sister"--I still knew that the rule I had broken by saying it was simply too important. "I'm so sorry, President," I said. "I was wrong to disagree with you, and I'm sorry I made a scene."

"Well, mostly I was hurt," he replied. "I thought that you of all people understood me better than that. You should have known that it had nothing to do with you. When those elders started nitpicking about how to keep the rules in the most precise way possible, you should have just ignored them and me and sat and read your scriptures, and then when it was all over, you should've just gone about your business the way you wanted to. I know why you do what you do, and I wish you would've trusted my motives a little more too."

But how could I have understood him as well as he wanted? I know now that any person or institution that requires unquestioning obedience forfeits not only the right to be understood, but the possibility of it: understanding can happen only after questioning, comparison, exploration. Men in the Church, I was told often enough, were in authority over me; I should not try to be on an equal level with them. But exerting the authority of the priesthood seemed to render men not larger and stronger, but stunted and misshapen, unworthy to demand from me the mutual respect and understanding I felt ought to exist between me and other women, who were my equals. The good relationships I achieved with men occurred when they sought to minimize their authority, not when they sought to enlarge it as President Bertram had done that day. (emphasis added special, for this blog entry.)

I realize that the process of leaving the church differs for everyone who goes through it. But I confess that I have never understood a certain deference to or interest in the priesthood. It's not just what Jonathan points out in this comment, that the priesthood is largely administrative; it's that seems to hurt all but the strongest, most moral of men--same as political power. I don't know if there's something extra pernicious about the priesthood itself (I'm perfectly willing to believe that there is), or the sense of entitlement it so often involves.

This sense of entitlement plays out not only in the fact that men with positions of authority feel they have the right to tell others how to live, to chastise or excommunicate them when they misbehave, to ask about the details of sexual activity--you name any of the conventional ways priesthood leaders "exercise" that authority. It's also obvious in the ways that even men who see the limitations of the priesthood still focus on men's concerns, at the expense of women's, and privilege men's voices to the exclusion of women's. This is something I've written about repeatedly: Even at Sunstone, there are more straight men participating in panels on how to make life better and more just for gay members of the church (admittedly, a very important topic) than there are men on panels about how to improve the lives of women (which should also be an important topic). Furthermore, most of those panels ostensibly about the concerns of gay members of the church (though there's rarely a mention of lesbians) are filled entirely by men. Gay men often feel entitled to claim and retain the privileges of the priesthood at the expense of their wives' happiness and well-being. It's fucking INFURIATING.

I know, I know--most of these guys are NICE guys, and they can't be expected to understand certain things about others' experience, because (as a member of my family told me) empathy is just too difficult to strive for. (This was before political conservatives turned empathy into a liability.) That's a position I critique here.

I don't have priesthood envy, mostly because I don't think the priesthood is good for people. This is not to say that I don't want to see gender equality and parity--I do, not only in the church, but everywhere else. But I really doubt that extending to women the priesthood, at least in its current form, is going to help with that. I think it would be better to abolish the priesthood, or to reinvent it. I realize that's never going to happen, but I still think it would be a good thing.

The thing is, Jonathan is right that "Women in the church can heal others, perform ordinances and miracles" but what he doesn't acknowledge is that HUMAN BEINGS can do these things--in and out of the church. We don't need these old gits in Salt Lake City or Rome or wherever to give us permission to develop our potential as human beings.

So what I want to know is this: why, even after we realize that, do we defer to them? Why does it often take time and work, beyond merely leaving the rejecting the doctrines of the church (which theoretically should be enough, right?), for people to feel they are the equal of the person who, however blameless or generous or honorable his (and it's virtually always a HE) motives in wielding this coercive authority and acting on behalf of a repressive institution, is, nonetheless, wielding coercive authority and acting on behalf of a repressive institution?

That's the first question. And the second is, Does holding the priesthood make it harder or easier to question and/or reject the authority of the priesthood?

2 Comments

I currently think that it is easier to question or reject as a priesthood holder (but maybe that’s just because I am one?) If I had never been a priesthood holder, I may always wonder, maybe there’s something there that I don’t know about, kind of like a secret clubhouse for kids – no girls allowed. If you don’t know what they’re doing, you want to be let in, but once you're let in, it doesn’t matter anymore, because they aren’t doing anything. It’s just fun to have a little club. From outside the clubhouse, most kids think the club is cool and even want it to be cool. But most of what makes it cool to those who are in the club is the fact that there are so many not allowed in the club. If everyone were allowed, it wouldn’t be cool anymore, because there’s no substance to the club.

So when you’re ordained and nothing changes, and they tell you that you have the priesthood and it’s the most important thing in the universe but you don’t feel anything, you start to question what this whole thing is all about. I remember feeling this way even as a young TBM teenager after being ordained a priest. Of course they try to tell you that if you don’t feel anything or it “doesn’t work” when giving blessings, then it’s your fault and you aren’t worthy enough. And that’s how it will forever perpetuate because almost everyone can be made to feel guilt about their life and so that is always the excuse during the 99% of the time nothing amazing happens. ‘Oh, nothing happened during that blessing? Keep repenting.’ The other 1% when something happens, it is attributed to the power of the priesthood (but never to the worthiness of the individual). It’s like when something good in the world happens, people always attribute it to God. But if something bad happens, then it was of course people that screwed it up.

Not that any of this makes it easy to stand up to someone in authority over you and tell them what you think...If this were done, I think any type of consequence would be more severe for someone holding the priesthood.

Thanks for this comment, GMA. It supports ideas in a post I had already written. My server has been misbehaving lately, and I've taken to composing my entries in my word processing program, then loading them as quickly as possible onto my blog and hoping for the best.... It took me seven and a half hours, for instance, to be able to publish your comments. I started trying at 7 a.m. and didn't success until almost 3.... Anyway, the point is, you help me argue a point I think is important.

Not that any of this makes it easy to stand up to someone in authority over you and tell them what you think...If this were done, I think any type of consequence would be more severe for someone holding the priesthood.

I think you are right.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on June 17, 2009 6:46 AM.

Men with First Names and Sweaty Palms was the previous entry in this blog.

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