Recently, in an opening prayer in a sacrament meeting of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the woman offering the prayer thanked Heavenly Father for Heavenly Mother. No one seemed to think much of it. It struck me how much had changed over the past couple of decades, and how much change in the church may be coming regarding women.
There was a time when a mention of Heavenly Mother in a prayer would have raised eyebrows. It might have led to a private discussion with the prayer-giver about the inappropriateness of talking about Heavenly Mother. However, that has changed.
So have other church practices and programs regarding women. The church has created female advisory councils to area presidencies. Women now serve as witnesses to baptisms. The Relief Society, the Primary, and Young Women are no longer called auxiliaries to the priesthood; now, they are simply called organizations. Increasingly, people talk about women holding the priesthood not through their husbands but because of the temple endowment.
However, I sense we are seeing only the beginning of change regarding women. And I am happy to see that. It will only help the church.
A former student of mine left the church a few years ago because he wanted his daughter to see herself as equal to her brother and didn’t feel the church was conveying that message. Even though I attempted to dissuade him from leaving, I could see his point.
When a girl in Primary looks at the wall in her Primary room, she is likely to see photographs of 15 church leaders – the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. All are men. When a young woman looks at the stand in sacrament meeting, she sees the bishopric – again, all men. Even when a female leader participates in a ward or stake council, she is vastly outnumbered by men. I have been in many all-male leadership meetings in the church at the ward and stake level (and I know they happen at the general level when the First Presidency meet alone or even when they meet with the Quorum of the Twelve) when I wish there were female voices in the room.
However, as I mentioned above, I see more change coming. Women will take on expanded roles in the church in the future. It is likely current male-specific roles will become gender-neutral. As the definition of what it means to hold the priesthood evolves, maintaining male-specific priesthood-related roles will seem less relevant. For example, it does not seem that much of a stretch to go from saying that women hold the priesthood, as mentioned above, to saying that women can hold priesthood roles.
One reason this is likely to happen is the fact that the evolution of roles within the church is not divorced from societal change. Our society has accepted positions for women that were unlikely a century ago. Increasingly, women are becoming CEOs. Today, there are 41 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Twenty years ago, there were three. Today, 26 nations have women as heads of state or government. Seventy-five years ago, there were none. In the U.S., nearly half of President Biden’s cabinet are women – the largest number in history.
These numbers are not yet at parity. However, as they draw closer to parity, women in leadership roles in society will become commonplace. And, if roles remain the same in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the treatment of women will become viewed as anachronistic, and increasingly that may be a sore point for investigators and even members. Yet, that will not happen.
However, the issue may be timing. Will there be many more people like my former student who will decide that the church is not changing fast enough and leave now? Will there be young women who will turn away from the church before they feel they are included at all levels of church functioning?
These are questions that go well beyond references to Heavenly Mother and may well determine the near future of the church.
Richard Davis, Orem, is the author of “The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Politics.”