Tracing Tradition: Women’s thoughts on religious roles

by Dawn Otterby, photos by Nick Carpenter

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Kate Kelly was excommunicated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in June 2014. It was not lack of faith, but Kelly’s desire to become an ordained member of the Church that ultimately led to her expulsion. As the leader of the Ordain Women movement, Kelly led peaceful protests and implemented social media campaigns with the goal of persuading LDS church officials to give women the priesthood. Her plan backfired, however, when Kelly received a letter from the Church explaining that she was no longer a member and scolding her for “eroding the faith of others.”

The LDS church is not alone in its refusal to recognize men and women as religious equals. Religions such as Missouri Synod Lutheran, Jewish Orthodox, Islam and Roman Catholic do not allow the ordination of women. Several prominent U.S. religions do ordain women. Methodists, Episcopalians, Evangelical Lutherans and Reformed Jews are among those who recognize women as pastors, ministers or rabbis. So why do women continue to be part of religions that deny them ordination?

Melinda Fonda, a senior at Utah State University, was baptized into the LDS church when she was eight and sealed in the temple when she was 19. Although she is a firm believer in gender equality, Fonda thinks the Ordain Women movement is missing the point. “I feel like the whole of our church is about revelation and I mean I get that they want it but protesting about it isn’t going to do anything,” Fonda said. “Our whole thing is about God and His revelations and if He hasn’t given it to us yet, then stop whining about it.”

The LDS church teaches that men and women have been given different but equally important roles. According to mormon.org, prior president Gordon B. Hinckley said: “Women do not hold the priesthood because the Lord has put it that way. It is part of His program. Women have a very prominent place in this Church. … They have their own offices, their own presidency, their own board.”

Fonda agrees with Hinckley. Her role as designated by the church is clearly different from that of her husband, Brandon, but nevertheless valuable. “In our church, men are the head of the house. Men are the patriarchs,” Fonda said. “I am the right hand to my husband kind of like Christ is the right hand to the Heavenly Father.”

The LDS church teaches that in order to obtain the highest salvation, men and women must be sealed in the temple and remain worthy of their vows. “I feel like I’m just as equal in helping him attain that,” Fonda said. “Brandon can’t get there without me and I can’t get there without him. The only difference is he has the priesthood.”

Unlike the LDS priesthood, which is bestowed upon all worthy males over the age of 12, Catholic priests are required to be male and unmarried. On catholic.org, former Pope John Paul said the Catholic Church supports equality in every way but clarified that the all-male leadership was not inequality but God’s plan, a tradition that would not change.

April Eyler said her view on Catholicism is a little different than the average Catholic. Currently a junior at USU, Eyler was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools including Juan Diego Catholic High School in Salt Lake City

“For me, I think it’d be awesome for women to be priests if they feel that’s what they are called to do,” Eyler said. “Right now, the highest you can get in the church is being a nun and it isn’t the same.” Nuns have a lot of authority within Catholic schools, Eyler said, but not when it comes to the inner workings of the church.

Although Pope Francis agreed with Pope John Paul saying the church will never ordain women, Eyler thinks it’ll just take more time. “How long did it take to get same-gender couples to be welcome in church?” Eyler said. “I feel like women might get there someday.”

Eyler said the church’s male-dominant structure is something she rarely thinks about. “Personally, I’ve never had a problem with it,” Eyler said. “I mean, I’m Catholic and this is how the Catholic Church is. If it changes or evolves, I will too. If you can’t handle it, don’t be Catholic.”

The Missouri Synod Lutheran Church again points to distinct responsibilities rather than inequality as an explanation for why only men are ordained. This church teaches that while men are required to be the spiritual leaders of the church, women are tasked with assisting them in every possible way.

Rebecca Heimbuck, whose husband serves as the pastor for Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Logan, Utah, views her duties as a pastor’s wife as a role within the church. Heimbuck was raised in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), a more contemporary Lutheran branch that ordains women. When her future husband decided to become a pastor, they started to examine the differences between Missouri Synod and ELCA.

“At the time, I viewed Missouri Synod as the religion of my grandmother,” Heimbuck said. “They didn’t have contemporary worship and they didn’t allow women to be pastors.” But after further investigation, Heimbuck started to see flaws in the ELCA’s teachings. “They had opened the Bible up for interpretation and when we start to interpret the Bible and we start to put it in our terms, I just don’t think that’s right.”

Heimbuck realized that the traditional values were not old fashioned, but God’s design. “If there’s one thing we believe in and we follow, it’s the true word of the Bible,” she said, adding that this means men are the pastors.

Regardless of religion, Fonda, Eyler and Heimbuck agreed that while the organization of their churches may be gender-biased by society’s standards, the teachings are not. In each of these religions, both women and men are encouraged to study and learn about their faith. They’re also encouraged to become leaders depending on their roles within each church.

“We’re not treated as less—at least, I’ve never been,” Eyler said. “Hopefully no woman belongs to a religion that makes her feel like men are better than her.”

 

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