Almost a year ago, I wrote a post about how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' teachings on women in marriage and in the workforce have evolved. I cited, among several other things, Ensign articles from 1973 and 1982 on the so-called "patriarchal order of marriage". Then I said, "Now here's a fun fact. If you type 'patriarchal order of marriage' into a standard search engine, these two Ensign articles about it will be among the top results, if not the top results as they are for me. If you type 'patriarchal order of marriage' into the Church website search engine, they won't even show up. I'm sure this is intentional. I'm sure people behind the scenes made a conscious decision to distance the Church from this teaching that 'will continue throughout time and eternity'. I do agree that because these articles appeared in the magazine they need to be on the website for the sake of honesty, but not in such a way as to actually influence people's marriages. I think they should just include a disclaimer on each explaining that the contents do not accurately represent the current teachings of the Church. But such a blunt acknowledgement that the Church's teachings have changed would make a few heads explode."
I probably had nothing to do with, but can't prove that I had nothing to do with, the disclaimer that did appear on one of these articles last month: "Editors’ note (Jan. 2022): Articles in the magazines archive may reflect practices and language of an earlier time. More current messages from the magazines on the relationship between husbands and wives include 'Spiritual Treasures' and 'Achieving Oneness in Marriage.' See also 'Marriage' in Gospel Topics."
The choice to put a date on the Editors' note, instead of treating it as timeless, is an interesting one. The Gospel Topics essays don't have dates, which makes readers a little bit less likely to question why the Church waited until 2014-15 to be so transparent. In this case the editors would have made themselves look a little better by not calling attention to the fact that this disclaimer came almost 49 years after the article. So this is a little piece of transparency that I wouldn't have expected or demanded, but I applaud them for it. Note, however, the careful phrasing - only "practices and language" have changed, not doctrine, because doctrine never changes, because the stuff that changes was never doctrine. (This useless circular definition is why I rarely even use the word "doctrine" anymore.) Of course, it's very clear that Brent L. Barlow thought the views expressed in his article were eternal truth, so we can learn a valuable lesson from that, can't we? I do also want to point out that the "language of an earlier time" in this instance refers pretty exclusively to the Church's language, not society's. To my knowledge, church leaders invented the phrase "patriarchal order of marriage" (though of course the general idea of male dominance in marriage predates them by a very long time), and the definition of "preside" has not changed in the rest of the English-speaking world since the 1970s like it has within the Church.
Evil liberal feminist apostate Jana Riess writes in her report of the disclaimer, "I’m not sure if this correction is a one-off or the beginning of a more mature relationship with our own history. I hope it’s the latter. Considering how important many Latter-day Saints claim our own history to be, there is a kind of historylessness that arises whenever things get uncomfortable. What I mean by that is that some people assert the Church never changes despite abundant evidence that it does, or they even go to great lengths to hide the reality of those changes." Yes! This frustrates me so much - this cultural amnesia, this constant pretense that all of the Church's teachings are eternal and unchanging when two minutes of Google searching demonstrates otherwise. It should not be the most difficult thing in the world for a "true and living" church that believes in getting truth "line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little" to embrace the constancy of change, but that's not the paradigm I got from church growing up or the predominant one I encounter at church today of "The Church is true because it doesn't change." The implication, and sometimes the explicit claim, every time I'm taught about gender roles in a church setting is that they've always been the way they are now and always will be. And that's not true.
The other article, by Elder Dean L. Larsen of the Seventy, didn't get a disclaimer, but it doesn't need one as urgently, since it opens with the sentence "These comments on the importance of the patriarchal order in marriage represent my personal views." And it isn't as egregiously sexist as the first - but maybe that makes it worse. The first article probably influenced both of my grandmothers in their respective marriages, and that pisses me off, but it's so out of sync with society's current values and the Church's current teachings that women or men stumbling upon it nowadays are far more likely to laugh in disbelief than actually consider giving heed to its counsel. Elder Larsen's article is much softer, much nicer. He presents his views as a moderate and reasonable alternative to a domineering young fiancé's "misunderstanding of the patriarchal order, for there could hardly have been a greater distortion or misrepresentation of the actual conditions that must prevail within that order." As I said in my previous post: "I think that if a principle looks sexist and can easily be misunderstood or warped to be sexist, the most obvious explanation is that it's just sexist. And in that case, we should recognize it as such and reject it instead of splitting hairs about why it's not really sexist."
Since becoming a feminist, I notice things that I wouldn't have given a second thought before, like the fact that men in the Church often have different titles based on their callings - Elder, Bishop, President - while every woman is referred to by virtually everyone as "Sister" even if she's in one of the few leadership positions available to her. This stood out to me again last Sunday when President Bonnie H. Cordon of the Young Women organization spoke to my stake. And I don't mean to single out my stake president, who's a phenomenal guy, who agreed with me when I complained about my bishop's anti-working-mothers rant, who was just talking the way virtually everyone else in the Church talks. But I just noticed that he was introduced as "President", and he, following protocol, introduced both of his own counselors as "President" even though they aren't, and then he introduced the speaker as "Sister Bonnie H. Cardon [sic], president of the Young Women." So that rubbed me the wrong way, but I let it go and enjoyed her delightful presentation. But then, then something interesting happened. At least it was interesting to me because I care about these things. At one point toward the end, she referred to herself in the third person, and she said "President Cordon". Not Sister Cordon. President Cordon. There's no way that wasn't a conscious choice on her part. People don't call her President Cordon, so at some point she must have decided that she wanted to think of herself as President Cordon.
Of course I can understand why President Cordon and various other Young Women, Primary, and Relief Society presidents, general or local, wouldn't want to make a big fuss about being addressed by the titles to which they're entitled. It would seem egotistical. Indeed, titles shouldn't be a big deal, and many of us in the Church could stand to tone down our worship of men with Elder or President in front of their names. The issue is one of equal dignity and recognition. There is no reason at all not to refer to a female president as President. Further, this would be a very simple cultural change to make without any structural or procedural changes. I'm sure people disagree on whether the change would be trivial and superficial or whether its symbolic significance would have a widespread ripple effect on attitudes of equality overall - but in either case, the change is too simple and obvious to justify not making. It would be like how the Church News now gives equal emphasis to the announcements of temple presidents and matrons - the latter have been included since at least the 1970s, but not mentioned in the headlines - and on that note, Rick Satterfield's definitive temples website now lists the matrons as well as the presidents of all the temples, and that's because I made the suggestion to him late last year and then collected most of the names for him, so I have made a tangible difference somewhere at some time.
As far as what President Cordon actually said, it was good stuff about trusting God and so on. She asked us to think about what title we would use to introduce Jesus to someone, and this is awful, but I picked one that was meaningful to me at the moment and now I can't remember it. (Edit: Now I remember that I picked "Shepherd" because I desperately want Jesus to guide me.) Then she asked how we think Jesus would introduce us, what attribute He would highlight. And I picked "patient." Anyone who knows me very well is probably rolling on the floor laughing at that, but let me explain. God has kept me waiting on His promises for a very, very long time, and I've made a heck of a lot of progress at trusting His timing and being cheerful and not yelling at Him when He disregards my suggestions. Jesus would focus more on that progress than on my continued shortcomings. He sees the best in people. President Cordon also talked a lot about the opportunity to become an FSY (the successor to EFY) counselor this summer, and I'm thinking about it, since I will be in between my Masters degree and whatever I'm going to do next. On the one hand, my experience teaching five (going on seven) classes of college freshmen would seem to be great preparation. On the other hand, blog posts like this one will probably disqualify me.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.