Priesthood, Women, and Non-Agency

Two anecdotes: 1) Recently our bishop was teaching an Aaronic Priesthood lesson to a small group of young men that included a newly ordained deacon, the only deacon in the ward and the de facto president of the quorum. The earnest (and highly educated) bishop was zeroing in on the deacon, explaining that as the deacon’s quorum president he was one of only four people in the ward who hold the power to turn keys. 2) A (different) bishop was teaching a sharing time lesson in Primary in which some Aaronic priesthood holders were present. Speaking of Joseph Smith’s restoration of the priesthood, he said that the priesthood is the power to act in God’s name, which is perhaps the most common definition of priesthood in the church. He pointed to one of the priests in the audience and said “Matt has the power to act in God’s name, isn’t it great that Joseph Smith restored it?” I happened to be looking at my (9-year-old) daughter, and she was crestfallen.

Aside from the obvious problems of a) how this means the deacon in at least one sense trumps the Relief Society President, b) how easily adopted this kind of rhetoric is in all-male contexts, and c) how characteristically blind men are (myself included) to the way such rhetoric affects non-males, another problem strikes me: that of agency.

The common usage of agency in the Church is synonymous with abstract notions of freewill and choice, in other words, an intellectual capacity that involves discerning right from wrong and then acting accordingly. But this is not how anthropologists and professional sports (etc.) use the term. Agency, there, is the power to act, and free agency is the power to determine one’s own fate, as opposed to having other agents (people who act) make decisions and take action for you. David Bokovoy takes up this topic well and at greater length and concludes that a “man acting as an agent [is] one who is held responsible for a stewardship given to him by God.”

The gendered language here is not accidental (nor does it originate with Bokovoy). When agency is thus nuanced, it is clear that women are stripped of it. They have no power to act in God’s name, unless that agency is bequeathed them from a male with such agency. The stewardships of men and women are lopsided in the church, and therefore their agency is too. This is why my daughter was crestfallen–it was reinforced to her, once again, that the power to act in the name of God is something that, by virtue of her having been born female, she is excluded from. In this respect, she currently has no agency.

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