Everyone is Wrong
I have observed with more than passing interest the saga of Kate Kelly’s church discipline. When I first heard that she was to have a disciplinary council, I took the news rather personally. I empathize greatly with Sister Kelly, and am a moderately active participant in both the bloggernacle and jabbernacle (the written and spoken portions of online LDS activity). In addition, I think that Kate raises issues that are both valid and important. I think that it is quite clear that women are marginalized in the LDS religion. It’s deeply ingrained in our culture as can be seen from the fact that women have only just started being allowed to pray in General Conference, women have traditionally not been the final speaker in sacrament meeting, ward budgets regularly are imbalanced against girls and women, and the list goes on, including some troubling moments in the LDS church’s most sacred sphere, and of particular interest here, the fact that a council of three men determined Kate’s religious fate, whereas if she were a priesthood holder, it would be a council of 15. In no circumstance would a woman be part of the panel of judges.
For myself, let me be clear: It is my personal belief that the LDS church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was well on his way to giving women the priesthood. Mormon theology is wonderfully progressive in its treatment of woman: We believe in a female deity, we believe that Eve didn’t sin and screw everything up for everyone. We have apostles saying things like this (in 1914, for Pete’s sake):
“Woman shall yet come to her own, exercising her rights and her privileges as a sanctified investiture which none shall dare profane… When the frailities and imperfections of mortality are left behind, in the glorified state of the blessed hereafter, husband and wife will administer in their respective stations, seeing and understanding alike, and co-operating to the full in the government of their family kingdom. Then shall woman be recompensed in rich measure for all the injustice that womanhood has endured in mortality. Then shall woman reign by Divine right, a queen in the resplendent realm of her glorified state, even as exalted man shall stand, priest and king unto the Most High God. Mortal eye cannot see nor mind comprehend the beauty, glory, and majesty of a righteous woman made perfect in the celestial kingdom of God.” –James E. Talmage, Young Woman’s Journal 25 (October 1914): 600-604
Yet, in applying that doctrine, I believe we have fallen far short of the mark. I personally support female ordination to the priesthood, but I do not pretend to know God’s will on the matter. To be completely honest, I haven’t even asked Him. But I do think we have failed in the church to create a space where difficult questions, such as those posed by Sister Kelly, can be adequately and safely addressed.
In the wake of Sister Kelly’s excommunication, there have been primarily two reactions: 1) Anger, coupled with fear and name-calling; and 2) Smugness, coupled with arrogance and name-calling. I believe that both of these positions come primarily from that heady combination of ignorance and fear that seems to be as prevalent during the ‘information age’ as it was during the ‘dark age’.
What then is the sequence of events that led us to where we are today? I will attempt to lay it out based upon what evidence I can gather, and taking all parties at their word to the extent that there is no direct conflict. On June 8, 2014, Kate Kelly received an email from Mark Harrison, the bishop of the Virginia ward in which she had, until recently, been living. This email informed her that she was facing potential excommunication on the grounds of apostasy. Subsequent to the June 22 hearing, a letter was emailed and mailed to Kate informing her that they had decided to excommunicate her. The letter outlines a number of communications that had taken place prior to the disciplinary hearing:
- 12/13/13 meeting with Stake President and Bishop, where Kate was ‘urged … to dissociate yourself from Ordain Women’.
- March and April 2014, Stake President informally confirmed prior urging.
- March 17th, Church Spokeswoman Jessica Moody sent a letter to Kate and OW, asking them not to come to General Conference seeking admission to the priesthood session.
- On May 5, 2014, Kate was put on probation (which limited some aspects of her participation in the church) with the intent that she would discontinue her involvement with OW.
The Letter also points out a few other relevant facts: Kate was offered an opportunity to appear at her hearing via video, or could have rescheduled the council to a date when she could have attended in person.
In setting out the basis for the decision, the letter from Brother Harrison states that the issue was not Sister Kelly’s belief that women should be ordained, but rather that she has “persisted in an aggressive effort to persuade other Church members to your point of view and that your course of action has threatened to erode the faith of others.”
While the letter of excommunication doesn’t use the word ‘apostasy’, it seems clear that is the basis for the action. ‘Apostasy’ is defined by the church as: “1. Repeatedly act in clear, open and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders; 2. Persist in teaching as Church doctrine information that is not Church doctrine after they have been corrected by their bishop of a higher authority…” It seems fairly plain that Kate did act in clear, open and deliberate opposition to the Church by her repeated appearances at General Conference Priesthood Meeting, particularly after having been asked not to. The Six Discussions (essentially missionary discussions arguing in favor of female ordination) also may have been in violation of both #1 and #2, particularly if the timeline above is accurate.
Kate’s critics suggest that she didn’t really want a dialogue but rather had drawn a line in the sand, as evidenced by this statement, “The ordination of women would put us on completely equal spiritual footing with our brethren, and nothing less will suffice.” Whether the ‘nothing less’ she is referring to is ordination, or ‘equal spiritual footing’ is an important ambiguity to this statement.
For her part, Kate has stated that her agitation on the issue is based upon self-respect and her personal beliefs: “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.”
She also seems to take issue with the suggestion that she had conversations as described in her letter of excommunication: “It’s just not true. Point out the emails. I have all my phone records. There aren’t any [communications].” However, the letter, as I read it doesn’t say there were telephone calls or email, but merely that Stake President Wheatley ‘again reminded you of the counsel given in December.’ This sounds more like an informal statement made perhaps merely in passing.
Ordain women also has repeatedly stated that they have tried to have some sort of meeting with LDS church leaders, but have never been responded to.
The excommunication of one member of the church has no precedential value for me. In this case, a bishopric in Virginia thinks that Kate crossed a line. While I understand that there is some indication that the act against Sister Kelly was at least influenced from higher up the totem pole, ultimately I don’t think the ‘Church’ has spoken through this action, and I will not change how I act based upon it.
In order to deal with my own emotional reaction: I have asked myself two questions: First, what if Sister Kelly, instead of advocating a position with which I agree, advocated something else, such as plural marriage? What if she had put forth compelling historical and scriptural arguments in favor of polygamy and had managed to get a sizeable number of people to agree with her, or had found a group of like-minded people and organized themselves and perhaps stood outside of temples politely asking to be allowed in to be sealed to their spouses? Would I feel the same upset about her excommunication? Probably not.
Second, and perhaps more importantly for me, what if Kate Kelly really received spiritual confirmation that women should be ordained to the priesthood and that she should work toward that end? What if her bishop ALSO received spiritual confirmation that she should be excommunicated? Is such a thing possible? To me, it is. In Daoist philosophy, the concepts of yin and yang are seemingly opposite forces that are, in fact, complementary. Everything has aspects of both within itself. In Mormon Scripture, echoes of this concept are found in 2 Nep 2:11 “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things…Wherefore all things must needs be a compound in one”. Note that the opposition is in all things, not an opposition to all things. Without the opposing forces of good and evil within ourselves, we do not learn, progress, or even live. Could it also be that in order for life and progress to occur that the seeming contradiction of Sister Kelly’s witness to promote female ordination and Brother Harrison’s witness to excommunicate Sister Kelly are both true? Both real? Both necessary?
Then there are other questions: Could Sister Kelly have ‘agitated’ differently? Was she less than completely open about the discussions she’s had with local church leaders? Could Brother Harrison have chosen a different sanction? Could he have forwarded Sister Kelly’s records to her new ward to that she could appear in person without having to travel across the country? Was he less than completely open about some pressure to act against Sister Kelly coming from above?
Maybe. I don’t know, and that’s the ultimate point: I don’t know whether Kate Kelly is a modern day Joan of Arc, or a sophisticated apostate who is seeking a personal agenda without caring what she may damage along the way. I don’t know if Brother Harrison is a modern day Solomon (before the bad part), or a savage misogynist. What I do know is that she is my sister, and I am to love her, even if she’s wrong. He is also my brother, and I am to love him, even if he’s wrong.
That is why everyone is wrong. We presume to know the hearts and minds of the players in this modern Mormon drama, and take upon ourselves the mantle of judge, and in so doing we tend to overlook the possible culpability of the side we support. Perhaps we should overlook everyone’s culpability and just do what we know we are supposed to do.
 Perhaps of the sort Mormon Women Stand had: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/lifestyle/57968474-80/women-church-mormon-lds.html.csp