LDS women’s leader whose ‘priesthood’ speech ignited an Instagram debate responds

Relief Society counselor J. Anette Dennis writes on Instagram: “Please know we hear you.”

After nearly two weeks and 17,000 Instagram comments, the Latter-day Saint leader whose March 17 sermon on women and the priesthood touched off a firestorm has broken her public silence.

J. Anette Dennis, first counselor in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ global women’s organization known as the Relief Society, took to the social media platform to address those who attended the worldwide broadcast in which she spoke as well as those women who pushed back online against her remarks.

“Thank you for reaching out and taking the time to share your feelings,” Dennis said. “As we read through the comments, we were moved by some of the experiences you’ve had. As a member of the General Relief Society Presidency, I can assure you that we and our church leaders are listening and learning from the things you have shared with us.”

She concluded: “Please know we hear you, we need you, and we care.”

(Screenshot) Latter-day Saint Relief Society leader J. Anette Dennis responds on Instagram to those who commented on her "priesthood power" sermon.

The comment — while in many ways simply an echo of a response written by the church itself and one offered by Relief Society General President Camille Johnson to The New York Times — represents a rare instance in which a top church official directly replied to a debate set off by his or her own remarks.

Not everyone is exactly celebrating Dennis’ statement.

Writing on X, formerly known as Twitter, Emily Jensen, web editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, stated: “Saying that you are a member of the General Relief Society presidency but not a [church] leader is the problem right there.”

The talk that started it all

In her address delivered on the 182nd anniversary of the founding of the Relief Society, Dennis explained that Latter-day Saint women who have made covenants in one of the faith’s temples in a ceremony known as the endowment or been set apart to perform a volunteer assignment (known as a “calling”) are “endowed with priesthood power directly from God.”

Dennis then continued, stating, “There is no other religious organization in the world that I know of that has so broadly given power and authority to women.”

Latter-day Saint women, however, cannot be ordained — unlike in a number of other faiths — and hold no priesthood offices.

The fallout

The church shared the latter quote in an Instagram post that women immediately flooded with comments, politely but firmly pushing back on the sentiment behind the statement.

“I’ve watched as Mormon women have been very clear about what helps them feel included in the church,” scholar and writer Rachel Hunt Steenblik responded, “and they’re chastised for it.”

In an interview on The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast this week, Utah therapist Julie de Azevedo Hanks emphasized the need for shared definitions for the conversation regarding women’s roles in the church to continue.

“We need to clarify what priesthood power and authority we are talking about,” she said. “… A lot of women feel like, ‘Yeah, I have power from God, but what can I do with it in the structure of the church?’ Not a lot.”

Appearing on that same episode was Amy Watkins Jensen, who created the Women on the Stand letter-writing campaign in the wake of women’s leaders being removed from the stand at Latter-day Saint worship services in the Bay Area.

She said she was “incredibly encouraged” by the responses she saw both on the church’s official Instagram account, and her own, @womenonthestand.

“I’m not just hearing from women, I’m hearing from men, too,” she said. “I honestly don’t think there’s a path forward unless we can do this in partnership with men, unless we can help men understand why it’s just as important for them.”