For months, LDS feminists have been asking top Mormon leaders to address directly the question of female ordination.
On Saturday, church leaders finally did, and the answer was no.
Though the "blessings of [God’s] priesthood" in the LDS Church are available to both men and women, priesthood offices are reserved only for men, the church’s all-male ruling councils reaffirmed in a rare joint statement posted on the church’s website.
The statement, signed by the Utah-based faith’s governing First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, went on to define "apostasy" as "repeatedly acting in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the church or its faithful leaders, or persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine."
The 15 men were clearly responding to this week’s disciplining of Mormon feminist and Ordain Women founder Kate Kelly, who was excommunicated by her lay leaders in Vienna, Va., for pushing to open up the faith’s priesthood to women.
But Kelly cheered Saturday’s statement, calling it "monumental" and "an extremely positive step."
"We’ve been asking for a response from church leaders and they responded," Kelly said Saturday.
The fact that LDS priesthood offices are reserved for men, Kelly said, is "an accurate reflection of current practice, but it doesn’t say women will never be ordained or anything about women’s roles or connection to the priesthood."
The officers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she said, "left that wide open for the future."
Moreover, they defined apostasy as "people who speak out against leaders of the church, or those who teach false doctrine," she said. "Given that I have always sustained leaders of church, and Ordain Women doesn’t teach any doctrine — let alone false doctrine — this clearly exonerates me. I am not guilty of either of those charges."
Kelly led hundreds of women as they walked to Salt Lake City’s Temple Square in October 2013, and again in April, asking for tickets to the all-male priesthood session of the church’s semiannual General Conference. Each time, they were turned away. She also had helped set up a website, ordainwomen.org, where others could tell their stories and show support for the movement.
The word "apostasy" does not appear in the letter Kelly’s LDS bishop, Mark Harrison, emailed to her, although it was the charge lodged against Kelly when he called for Sunday’s disciplinary council.
Instead, the letter said she was being disciplined for "conduct contrary to the laws and order of the church."
Saturday’s statement, Kelly said, gives her reason to hope that when she appeals her case to the First Presidency, her bishop’s decision might be reversed.
Kelly was also encouraged by what the leaders said about questions.
Church members "are always free to ask such questions and earnestly seek greater understanding," the leaders reiterated, but they added, "we feel special concern, however, for members who distance themselves from Church doctrine or practice and, by advocacy, encourage others to follow them."
That’s a "great step in the right direction," Kelly said. "Now questions [about women’s ordination] can be asked in every ward and every branch in every place in the world.
"The prophet of the church," she pointed out, "said it’s OK."
Few other Mormons read the statement in the same way.
LDS sociologist Armand Mauss sees it as significant that the statement was made by high officials and not by the church’s public affairs department. He also thought the leaders provided a "more explicit and complete operational definition than we have seen before of what constitutes ‘apostasy’ in controversial episodes."
But Mauss, of Irvine, Calif., thinks not many Mormon feminists will be satisfied by distinctions between the "blessings" and "offices" of the priesthood.
For the more "insistent of today’s feminist advocates," Mauss said, "the ultimate decision-making power in the offices of the priesthood is precisely the main issue."
On the other hand, he said, knowing that "simply asking questions does not constitute apostasy will be reassuring to many church members, especially those who have been raising questions of their own recently, whether or not in sympathy with the OW movement."
Dan Wotherspoon, host of the "Mormon Matters" podcast, is not so sure the leaders’ statement is all that comforting to other questioning Latter-day Saints.
The statement "lacks a sense of compassion and feel for the very real levels of pain and uncertainty that are currently being felt among wonderful, faithful Latter-day Saints who have been open-heartedly and with great hope and a sense of spiritual call engaging vital questions," Wotherspoon said in an email. "I don’t know if its intent is to discourage Ordain Women and the discussions of the Bloggernacle [Internet community] from continuing their important work. If so, I hope they will reconsider."
The "Mormon Matters" host also worries that the leaders’ final paragraph may suggest that any "counsel" given by a local LDS leader is more like a "command," making anyone an apostate who doesn’t agree.
"The wording is ambiguous enough that without further clarification," Wotherspoon said, "I fear many leaders may feel emboldened to believe that their ideas — regardless of how studied they are or are not, and whether they were specifically arrived at through a revelatory process — are God’s full will now and forever."
It could even lead to more disciplinary actions against members, he said, "something I do not think the First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve intend."