Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Authority (Part 9: Priesthood Quorums and Presiding)

Now that we have discussed some characteristics of priesthood in the LDS universe and looked at the unusual modern concept of priesthood keys, let us turn to some related topics.

Priesthood Quorums
Temple ordinances, we are told, like most other ordinances in the Church, must be performed under the specific authority of priesthood keys. As pointed out in the previous post, priesthood keys are a rather confusing topic, partly because they do not pertain only to the performance of ordinances. They also allow certain individuals to preside over the whole Church or certain segments of it. But what, we might ask, do priesthood keys have to do with priesthood quorums? The answer may be surprising. Indeed, in certain ways it is almost as if the keys governing ordinances and the keys for presiding over quorums are different sets of keys, both of them of course entirely symbolic in nature.
Priesthood keys in the modern Church are generally said to be exercised within the parameters of a priesthood quorum—sort of. This is fairly straightforward with, say, a deacons quorum president. He presides over a quorum of up to twelve deacons because he holds the priesthood keys for that quorum. But this pattern is not so simple in higher levels of the hierarchy. A stake president, for instance, presides over the stake quorum of high priests because he holds priesthood keys pertaining to that quorum. But he also presides over all members of the stake, most of whom do not hold the priesthood. So priesthood keys do not govern just members of a priesthood quorum. They can govern all Church members who live within a certain geographic area. But there are limitations. The deacons quorum president, for instance, does not preside over all twelve- and thirteen-year-olds within the ward boundaries.
Setting these questions of presiding aside for the moment, let us look more closely at priesthood quorums. A priesthood quorum is, at present, a body of men or boys within a particular geographic area who hold the same office in either the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood. In the twenty-first-century Church, however, we must ask how these groups function and how they differ from other groups within LDS wards, such as the Relief Society or the Beehive class.
The elders quorum in my ward meets weekly, discusses gospel topics as outlined in a Church-produced manual, and engages in various service functions organized by the elders quorum presidency. The Relief Society in my ward meets weekly, discusses gospel topic as outlined in the same Church-produced manual used by the elders quorum, and engages in various service functions organized by the Relief Society presidency. The only priesthood-related function specifically directed by the elders quorum presidency is the home teaching program. But this is not an ordinance. In fact, there are no ordinances in the Church that the elders quorum is uniquely responsible for. And the Relief Society has a program similar to home teaching. So there is no appreciable difference between the two organizations.
The Aaronic Priesthood quorums are specifically responsible for one ordinance—the sacrament. But a priesthood quorum is not necessary to perform this ordinance. The deacons could receive assignments to pass the sacrament, the teachers to prepare it, and the priests to bless it through direct invitation from the bishop, without the intervention of a quorum presidency (although the bishop is the priests quorum president). In other words, the quorum organization itself is superfluous to the performance of the ordinance of the sacrament. There is no necessary connection between quorums and ordinances, which is why I suggested above that the keys for presiding and the keys for performing ordinances seem quite distinct.
So why do we need quorums? Apparently for the same reason we need an organization for women and classes for young women. Organizationally speaking, there is no appreciable difference between priesthood quorums and parallel female groupings. Priesthood is connected to ordinances, but these can and do take place without the involvement of quorums. Some quorums, in fact, have no direct connection with any ordinance. Elders and high priests may give health blessings, but these are performed upon request on an individual basis and are not organized by the quorum presidency. They may also baptize and give the gift of the Holy Ghost, but these are in no way connected to priesthood quorums. Again, the purpose of the quorum appears to be unrelated to the primary purpose of the priesthood as depicted in ancient scripture, which is ritualistic in nature, not instructional or administrative. Given this fact, we might well ask what purpose priesthood keys bestowed on elders, teachers, or deacons quorum presidents serve. Since those keys do not specifically relate to the performance of ordinances, they serve only to allow the president to preside over the group, which is no different from what a Relief Society, Laurel, Mia Maid, or Beehive president does without keys. And since these keys are metaphorical anyway, I ask again what would be the practical effect of simply erasing this word from Mormon vocabulary?

An Irreconcilable Situation
In essence, we have presidents in the Church who preside with the priesthood and we have presidents who preside without it. This fact presents a very difficult conundrum. In essence, we must ask what the connection is between priesthood and presiding. In the ancient world, there was either no connection or, at best, an inconsistent one. But in the modern Church, presiding is one of the primary and necessary functions of priesthood, a function made possible only by our unique understanding of priesthood as an abstract principle rather than as a ritualistic office. How this plays out in the family creates tensions that are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile, and we must wonder how much of the male-dominant aspect of family governance is strictly cultural and how much is based on some sort of eternal pattern. The Church seems of two minds on this question, as illustrated by the conflicting message sent by the Proclamation on the Family—that the father presides and that the husband and wife are equal partners.
Of course, in the early years of the Restoration, there was no talk at all of equality in marriage relationships. Women had few rights in society—in terms of property ownership and voting rights, for instance—and the Church was very patriarchal in every way. And when polygamy became a public institution, in which one man could have multiple wives but the reverse was not true,1 there was no way to construe the relationship as equal. It was not an equal partnership of one woman and one man—if one man had ten wives, then each wife had, in effect, one-tenth of a husband. But since the Church abandoned polygamy and moved closer and closer to a somewhat hypothetical ideal of equal partnership in marriage, the patriarchal rhetoric has dissipated even though we still insist that the husband presides in this theoretically equal relationship.
Personally, I have been very reluctant to use the term preside in my family. If I preside, that means I am the president, the one who presides. Preside, from the Latin, means literally to “sit at the head of,” and president is derived from the present participle of the Latin verb.2 But what does that make my wife? Vice president? Not if we are truly equal partners. Co-president? Well, apparently not, because according to Church dogma the wife does not preside in the family unless the husband is absent. If the husband is present, he presides, which means he presides over the wife too, which means they are not really equal partners, unless we come up with a special definition of equal. This dilemma seems to place marriage partners in an irreconcilable situation, and there is no comfortable way to spin this into something it is not.
According to Elder L. Tom Perry, “There is not a president or a vice president in a family. The couple works together eternally for the good of the family. . . . They are on equal footing. They plan and organize the affairs of the family jointly and unanimously as they move forward.”3 If this is truly the Church’s understanding of family governance, then it needs to officially move away from the language of “presiding,” because partners cannot really be equal if one presides over the other. But there seems to be no inclination to do so. In the same talk, Elder Perry, quoting from a 1973 pamphlet published by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, included the following declaration: “Fatherhood is leadership, the most important kind of leadership. It has always been so; it always will be so. Father, with the assistance and counsel and encouragement of your eternal companion, you preside in the home. It is not a matter of whether you are most worthy or best qualified, but it is a matter of [divine] appointment.”4 So which is it? On this point, the Church cannot have its cake and eat it too. One spouse cannot preside over the other if both are equal.
My wife and I discussed this conflict, and we came to the conclusion that the only way I really exercise this presiding prerogative in our family is in calling on people to pray, mostly at the dinner table. We decided that the notion of being equal partners trumped the idea of the husband presiding, so we now take turns, a week at a time, in asking someone to pray. In all other situations, we were discussing options and making important decisions as a team anyway, so this change in our household management methods was far from disruptive. But in more than a symbolic way, it does bring us closer to the ideal.
There is no real one-to-one correlation between marriage and the way authority is exercised in the institutional Church, but we can draw some insights from this personal example. We are often told by Church leaders that women are equal to men in the Lord’s eyes, but that they have different roles. This may be true. My wife and I have chosen different roles, some of them culturally derived, some of them perhaps biologically determined, but in terms of authority, we are attempting to share presiding duties. In the Church, although men and women are said to be equal, they are not really, because women are denied the opportunity to preside over wards, stakes, and the Church as a whole. So, this is not really about different roles. It is about one gender having an open door to higher supervisory positions and the other gender being limited primarily to lower-level supervisory positions in the institution.
It is interesting to note that the word preside does not appear at all in the Old Testament, New Testament, or Pearl of Great Price. It appears only once in the Book of Mormon, when Alma consecrates priests and elders “to preside and watch over the church” in Zarahemla (Alma 6:1). But it appears thirty-eight times in the Doctrine and Covenants. Similarly, the word president appears only five times in the Bible, all in the sixth chapter of Daniel, referring to an office in the Persian government. It appears only once in the Pearl of Great Price (Article of Faith 12, referring to worldly government officials) and not at all in the Book of Mormon. But it appears fifty-four times in the Doctrine and Covenants. Preside and president are words that arise from and require an organizational hierarchy. A president is “an official chosen to preside,” and to preside is “to occupy the place of authority.”5 The connection between these two words in the early instructions given through Joseph Smith can be seen in a revelation given on November 11, 1831, which later evolved into part of what is now section 107 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Here, we read, “‹6›{t/T}hen cometh the high Priest hood, which is the greatest of all: ‹7› wherefore it must needs be that one be appointed of the high Priest hood to preside over the Priest hood: ‹8› & he shall be called President of the high Priest hood of the Church; ‹9› or in o other high words the Presiding high Priest hood over the high Priesthood of the Church.”6 The difference in usage between ancient and modern scripture once again suggests that the current LDS view of priesthood and presiding is a modern notion that originated in the nineteenth century. While the patriarchal nature of society persisted from ancient times to more recent times, in the past few decades cultural norms have shifted decidedly in favor of women’s equal rights. The Church’s rhetoric has also shifted to accommodate this societal change, but the patriarchal nature of priesthood has remained unaltered.
Whether this reflects some eternal necessity, we do not know. In spite of all that has been said about Mother in Heaven,7 nothing—let me repeat that—nothing has ever been revealed about her. Perhaps this is because no one has asked persistently enough to obtain this knowledge. Or perhaps God has his own reasons for remaining silent. But we do have the Prophet’s efforts to give authority, after the pattern of the priesthood, to women, and we do have the perplexing word priestess that surfaces here and there in our doctrine. I will discuss this term in the next post. What is obvious is that there are enough inconsistencies in our doctrine and definition of priesthood that there is plenty of room for both inquiry and discussion.
Priesthood is certainly more than just institutional authority. Multitudes of effective priesthood blessings testify that there is a power in the priesthood that God honors. But just because there is power in the priesthood doesn’t automatically mean that we understand it very well, that we always bestow or use it appropriately, or that we shouldn’t be asking questions about it—lots of questions. As President Kimball so capably demonstrated in the years leading up to the June 1978 revelation that ended one particular priesthood ban, if we don’t ask questions, and don’t ask persistently, we likely won’t get any answers. And no answer is not necessarily an answer. Certainly, enough unanswered questions exist to allow us to at least explore some possibilities for significant change. To simply close off all discussion does not really resolve anything.
1. In the earliest days, Joseph Smith did marry already married women, but this practice did not prevail after the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley and eventually acknowledged publicly their practice of plural marriage.
2. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. “preside” and “president.” See also note 12.
3. L. Tom Perry, “Fatherhood, an Eternal Calling,” Ensign 34, no. 5 (May 2004): 71.
4. Perry, “Fatherhood,” 71, quoting The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Father, Consider Your Ways: A Message from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (pamphlet, 1973); reprinted in Ensign, June 2002, 16.
5. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam Webster, 1990), s.v. “president” and “preside.
6. Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Woodford, and Steven C. Harper, eds., Manuscript Revelation Books, facsimile edition, first volume of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2009), 217.
7. See David L. Paulsen and Martin Pulido, “‘A Mother There’: A Survey of Historical Teachings about Mother in Heaven,” BYU Studies 50, no. 1 (2011): 70–97. This article runs the gamut on what Church leaders have said about Mother in Heaven. All of it is simply conjecture. None of it is revelation. Significantly, the most definitive statement is by George Q. Cannon: “There is too much of this inclination to deify ‘our mother in heaven.’ . . . Our Father in heaven should be the object of our worship. He will not have any divided worship. . . . In the revelation of God the Eternal Father to the Prophet Joseph Smith there was no revelation of the feminine element as part of the Godhead, and no idea was conveyed that any such element ‘was equal in power and glory with the masculine.’ Therefore, we are warranted in pronouncing all tendencies to glorify the feminine element and to exalt it as part of the Godhead as wrong and untrue, not only because of the revelation of the Lord in our day but because it has no warrant in scripture, and any attempt to put such a construction on the word of God is false and erroneous.” Paulsen and Pulido cite George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon, ed. Jerreld L. Newquist, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Zion’s Book Store, 1957), 1:135–36. This sobering little reminder is significant, because Cannon is right. We really do have no revelation from God on this subject, and we have no revelation telling us why he has been so silent about his supposed female counterpart. So, without such a revelation, we really are shooting in the dark here.

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