Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Reviving the Anointed Quorum: An Idea

In Joseph Smith on Mormon Women and the Priesthood, Fiona Givens argues that, contra some assertions, that Joseph Smith did not necessarily envision granting women the priesthood. Instead, the Relief Society was intended to be an autonomous organization within the Church, parallel to the Priesthood and collaborators in the administration of the Church. As the Relief Society was meant to be an effectual (if not actual) priesthood, Givens implies that restoring the Relief Society to its autonomous position would resolve the problems that lead some women to call for ordination in the Priesthood.

I disagree with that implication. Joseph and Emma's historical vision boils down to a separate but equal status for the Relief Society. But human history has shown over and over again that "separate but equal" is anything but equal. The reason why “separate but equal” schemes don't work is because there is always an unequal distribution of power between the parties being kept separate, and it always works against the party who is declared equal. For example, during the Jim Crow era, the problem wasn't just that the white majority didn't ensure the facilities being kept separate were maintained equally. Jim Crow laws worked because the white majority devised various workarounds to the 15th Amendment that effectively deprived African Americans the power to remedy the inequities.

We can see this dynamic working in the history of the Relief Society. During the preliminary stages of the Relief Society's organization, Joseph said his intent was to “organize the women under the priesthood after a pattern of the priesthood” (emphasis added). As Givens noted, Joseph instructed the Relief Society that “If the sisters needed the prophet's instruction," they were to "ask him [and] he will give it." And notably, the Priesthood shut down the Relief Society, possibly because of the conflict between Joseph and Emma Smith over polygamy.1

Therefore, restoring the Relief Society would not give women the role of full collaborators in the Church. The Relief Society never gave women the status of full collaborators in Church affairs to begin with. Being full collaborators in Church affairs requires having power, and the Relief Society was subject to the Priesthood, even in its original vision. The Priesthood retained the prerogatives of power while giving the Relief Society the illusion of equality. So long as the Priesthood retains the power, the Relief Society can never be truly autonomous, nor can women ever be equal collaborators in Church administration. The power differential between the Priesthood and the Relief Society must be addressed for this to happen.

If a separate but equal status for the Relief Society doesn't address the power differential between it and the Priesthood, what could? I have an idea. I don't pretend to have fully fleshed out the idea and all its implications, and therefore wouldn't call it a proposal. But if the basic idea is sound, I'm sure others could take it up and work out the details.

My idea is to revive the Anointed Quorum. The original Anointed Quorum existed for the purpose of ensuring the general membership received their temple ordinances. Once that purpose was accomplished, the Quorum was disbanded. For our purposes, the most significant point that should be noted is that the Anointed Quorum was composed of both men and women. Though intended for a specific purpose, the Anointed Quorum is the only governing body in LDS Church history where women were even theoretically made full collaborators with men.

This time, the Anointed Quorum would be vested with the authority to govern general Church affairs. It's membership would be composed of members appointed in equal numbers by and from the Priesthood and the Relief Society, subject to the law of common consent. The Priesthood and the Relief Society would be truly autonomous in the governance of its own affairs, subject only to the general policies set by the Anointed Quorum. The Anointed Quorum would have the power to proclaim official Church doctrine (subject to the law of common consent), administer Church finances, appoint Church courts, and otherwise set policy and procedure governing Church administration.

Women will never be full collaborators in Church governance unless and until the power differential between the all-male Priesthood and the female membership is resolved. The first and most obvious way to accomplish this is to extend ordination to women. Another alternative is to find some way to reorganize the Church's governing structure to ensure women have equal power with the Priesthood in administering Church affairs. Reviving the Anointed Quorum offers just such a possibility.
1. In another conversation, Don Bradley disputes the polygamy theory, noting the reasons the Relief Society stopped meeting in 1844 are not clear. It is not my intent to delve into a historical analysis about why the original Relief Society disbanded beyond noting it is unlikely it would have happened without the Priesthood exerting pressure on it.