If you haven't heard it yet, there is a new event on facebook that is gathering some steam. It's the radical idea that people should ask the church leadership why women can't pray in general conference and/or to ask that this change. The event can be found here.
Now some of you might be surprised to realize that a woman has never said a prayer at General Conference. Some of you might think that it is bad to contact church leaders about changes to policy/practice. Well, whatever your reaction, you're certainly not alone. There are already comments pouring in. Thus far some of the vitriolic comments towards anyone who would dare to write a church leader about changing a policy looks like it might be on track to match the vitriol from the Wear Pants to Church event. I wanted to try to hit some of the primary complaints I've seen from people against this idea.
"If you don't like the church then leave it and start your own."
This is extreme rhetoric. First, I don't believe anyone in this event said that they didn't like the church. In fact, I would guess that if they didn't like the church, they wouldn't waste their time and energy with such an event. It also seems to be lacking in a certain, Christian quality in the response.
"Women pray in the Relief Society Meeting, which is part of Conference."
Which isn't actually true. Well, it is true that women pray in the Relief Society Meeting, but it is not part of general conference.
"I pray in every single conference I attend. "Amen" is a powerful word."
Ok, I guess by that standard then women also perform priesthood blessings because they usually say 'Amen' at those too.
"There are way more men in the leadership than women, so it would be rare for women to pray, that's probably why."
Well, let's look at the math. We have the First Presidency (3) + Quorum of Twelve (12) + Presidency and Members of the first two quorums of the Seventy (let's aim high and say 150) + Young Mens Presidency (3) = 168 men. Then we have the Relief Society Presidency (3) + Young Womens (3) + Primary (3) =9 women. So for any given prayer the chance that a man will say the prayer is 168/(168+9)= 94.9% If we assumed only 100 for the Seventy then the chance that a man would say the prayer would be 92.9%. Let's even give this persons argument the benefit of rounding up yet again, and we'll say the chance for any given prayer is 95%. Now since the policy change in 1978 and the change to have female leaders sit on the stand in conference, there have been (excluding the conference in which it was announced) 64 General Conferences * 4 General Sessions at each of them * 2 prayers per session = 512 prayers. So if they are asking the leadership on the stand to pray the chances that men would say the prayer everytime (or that women would never say the prayer) is 95%^512 = 0.00000000039%. So the argument that it's just that there are fewer women doesn't work mathematically.
"If President Monson sees it fit for a woman to pray in General Conference then a woman will. I just think we should put our trust in The Lord and have faith that Pres Monson is receiving daily guidance from him."
On 20 Feb. 1885, Brigham Young spoke concerning Mormons who say the judgment of living prophets “is superior to mine, and consequently I let you judge for me." He said that such Latter-day Saints do not possess “the true independence of heaven," and consequently “will never be capable of entering into the celestial glory, to be crowned as they anticipate; they will never be capable of becoming gods.” Additionally Elder Packer said “I have learned that strong, impressive spiritual experiences do not come to us very frequently.” I'll address more of this below.
"You people are agitating and complaining that the Church needs to change and do somethings differently. It NEVER works like THAT. ALL 'inspiration' and 'revelation' comes from the top down. EVERY 'inspired' change and every 'inspired' program in this Church has ALWAYS started by DIRECT 'revelation' to the prophet from God and then it has gone from the prophet to the rest of the Church. It ALWAYS goes from the TOP DOWN, it NEVER starts at the BOTTOM and goes UP. It will NEVER happen any other way."
Let me dwell on this for the rest of the post. The official policies certainly are changed from the top down. But the idea, inspiration, or beginning of such change most frequently occurs from the bottom up. The Relief Society started after Joseph was approached to give his blessing on the women starting an organization to help give relief to the poor and needy. The primary program was started in Farmington, Ut. by Aurelia Spencer Rogers and other local sisters. It wasn't adopted church-wide until Eliza R. Snow Smith Young urged the church president to adopt it. Our church welfare system was started by Harold B. Lee when he was just a stake president in his own stake. Seminary, Family Home Evening, and Home Teaching all began as local programs in the Salt Lake Granite Stake.
Many members seem to want to deny our leaders their agency, by somehow assuming that when they got their current callings God took away their ability to make mistakes, or at least major mistakes. Instead they are often treated like inanimate objects, like God's fax machines that print out unfiltered messages from God. They have their agency, and the revelation and inspiration of God is filtered through them. It is a difficult calling with great responsibility that I don't envy. Do we think that we can't talk to our leaders, or ask them questions about non-eternal policies without being considered evil apostates?
“If we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the Spirit. Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things… How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?” -Dieter F. Uchtdorf 2/11/2012
What do you think Brigham meant when he said “weaken the influence they could give to their leaders”? Could it be helping to remove the “iron gates of what we think we already know”? If we have a testimony of Jesus, then we have the spirit of prophesy. Could we get a revelation before church leaders? I’ve talked to several people who talked of their spiritual confirmations that the Temple Ban on Blacks would be removed in their lives, while Apostles like Elder Stapley or Peterson said this wouldn’t happen until the end of the millenium. Now this doesn't mean that we get to change the church policy. That only happens top-down. But we can communicate with our leaders and perhaps, as President Young intimated, strengthen the influence we could give our leaders.
"The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve have determined that there is no scriptural prohibition against sisters offering prayers in sacrament meetings. It was therefore decided that it is permissible for sisters to offer prayers in any meetings they attend" (emphasis added)
Also remember Elder Cook's comments from 2011:
"From our earliest history both men and women pray, perform the music, give the sermons, and sing in the choir, even in sacrament meeting, our most sacred meeting." (emphasis added)
Is there any reason why this practice of not having women give prayers at General Conference shouldn't be stopped? I don't have an answer for that. Remembering Brigham's quote from earlier, let's look at this quote from President Gordon B. Hinckley. On the vastly more controversial issue of female priesthood ordination he said the following in an interview:
David Ransom: "At present women are not allowed to be priests in your Church... Is it possible that the rules could change in the future?"
Gordon B. Hinckley, "He could change them yes... But there's no agitation for that. We don't find it."
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that President Hinckley is saying that the church members don't want that to change, so why would they ask the Lord if they should change it? On the issue of women praying in General Conference however, we're dealing with church practice/policy which would only require an administrative decision to change and not a 'revelation.'
I can't help be think that as members respond to this effort with derision or vitriol, they're only giving fodder to anti-Mormons who argue that church members are not allowed to question their leaders. That said, I would call for patience, kindness, and understanding on all sides here, because only by such means should we try to persuade others. Maybe next General Conference I'll see what I had a dream about the night before the Fall General Conference in 2012... a woman giving the prayer.