SALT LAKE CITY — An ongoing debate about the limited role of women within the Mormon faith will take its place alongside sermons and announcements during a weekend church conference that brings 100,000 members to Utah.
Women can hold many leadership positions in The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints, but they can’t be bishops of congregations or presidents of stakes, which include a dozen congregations.
The church’s highest leaders, called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, includes only men.
The two-day, general conference of the church brings members together to hear inspirational words from church leaders and to learn about new temples or initiatives.
Nobody outside the church’s inner circle knows what might be announced, but there is a buzz surrounding a demonstration planned Saturday by a feminist Mormon women’s group called Ordain Women.
To highlight what they deem as gender inequality within the faith, women are expected to join a standby line for tickets to an all-male meeting of church priesthood holders, said Kate Kelly, the group’s founder.
Church officials declined their previous request for tickets but announced recently that the session will be broadcast live for the first time. Church officials say the move aims to make the meeting accessible to all members around the globe.
The session is reserved for members of the priesthood, which includes most males in the church who are 12 and older. Session broadcasts were previously password-protected.
Kelly called the move an important step forward but said women want to attend the meeting.
“We’re hoping to demonstrate with our actions and our bodies that we are ready not only for the blessings, but the responsibility of the priesthood,” said Kelly, an international human rights lawyer in Washington, D.C., and the founder of Ordain Women.
The Mormon church has said the doctrine of the Church holds that men and women are equal, but in regard to the lay clergy, “The Church follows the pattern set by the Savior when it comes to priesthood ordination,” meaning women aren’t ordained.
The push for equality by Mormon women’s’ groups has escalated in recent years, fueled by growing online and social media communities that allow LDS women from around the country and world to unite and discuss the causes they want to champion. They celebrated a milestone at the previous general conference in April when a woman led a prayer for the first time in the 183-year history of the conference.
The movement began growing in the mid-2000s with the creation of the blog, “Feminist Mormon Housewives,” said Matthew Bowman, assistant professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and author of a book about Mormons.
That set off the creation of other blogs and websites, and more recently, Facebook groups. Ordain Women launched earlier this year and has a website with about 150 profiles of people who support its cause and a Facebook page with 1,000 followers.
“What you’ve seen is a digital creation of a community that has really become galvanized,” Bowman said.
Kelly said she and others have heard from church leaders that motherhood is the equivalent if priesthood. Her group disagrees.
“Fatherhood is the appropriate parallel to motherhood,” Kelly said. “Priesthood is separate and apart from gender.”
Kelly said she is hopeful church leaders will be persuaded by the faith, persistence and respectful tone of the women and let them into the meeting. If not, they will go to a nearby park and listen to the meeting on a radio.
It will be the third major action taken by the group in the past year. They previously organized a day to wear pants to church and a campaign called, “Let Women Pray” ahead of the historic leading of the prayer in April.
Bowman believes there is widespread support for a general push toward more gender equality in the church. But he said granting women entry to the priesthood is considered “far out there” by many church members and likely has only scant support among the church’s 14.8 million members worldwide. He doesn’t expect the church to allow them into the Saturday meeting.
“It’s very hard to predict, but I would lean no,” Bowman said, “because their request for tickets were turned down.”
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