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Pivot point possible for female clergy

Published 11:19 am Thursday, June 26, 2014

Religion’s next rendezvous with the concept of equality is taking center stage this week.

Kate Kelly, an international human rights lawyer and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was excommunicated from the church for furthering the idea that women play a role in the organization. Her onetime bishop had emailed her to tell her he’ll weigh his decision, one that’s expected any time now. By Monday evening, that mouse-click became a trumpet wail.

“Today is a tragic day for my family and me as we process the many ways this will impact us, both   in this life and in the eternities,” she said in a statement.

Religious denominations generally don’t pay much attention to the competition, like smartphone companies do when the latest accessory hits with the public or when a software upgrade doesn’t work. So, there won’t be a rush to change policies based on what the Utah Mormons (a much better name for their NBA team, too) decide about this inconvenience to their teachings.

Still, it’s as good a time as any to trace where women stand in religious circles.

Excommunication is not common in the Mormon faith; about 10,000 to 20,000 of LDS’ 15 million  members get the ax each year, said Matt Martinich, a church member and membership-watcher to  whom The Associated Press attributes that guess.

In 2013, Kelly founded Ordain Women, which advocates for gender equality in the faith. Its ultimate goal is having women allowed in the lay clergy. Kelly says she hasn’t spoken out against church leaders or the doctrine, and plans to keep identifying herself as Mormon.

“I don’t feel like Mormonism is something that washes off,” Kelly said at a vigil Saturday in Salt Lake City reportedly attended by 200 supporters. “That identity is not something that they can take from me.”

Women can hold many leadership positions in church, but aren’t allowed to be bishops of congregations or presidents of stakes. Stakes are made up of up to a dozen congregations, known as wards. The church’s highest leaders, called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, are also all men. Kelly is accused by the Mormon church of apostasy, defined as repeated as public advocacy of positions that oppose church teachings.

The church says only men serve in the lay clergy as prescribed in “the pattern set by the Savior when it comes to priesthood ordination.”

The Catholic Church hasn’t budged on the issue of women in the priesthood, even as Pope Francis has put forth a more forgiving view of homosexuals and, on some level, contraception. Last summer, the pontiff encouraged women to take part in the church on the local level but said the robed life’s exclusivity to men is set in stone. “The door is closed,” he told reporters in July 2013 while he traveled. “But, let me tell you something, Our Lady was more important than the apostles, bishops, deacons and priests. Women play a role that’s more important than that of bishops or priests.” In a separate speech, Francis said the church would be void of “maternity, affection, tenderness.” Women’s groups have taken him to task for ignoring past findings by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which in various manners has interpreted church law, that found no scriptural or theological issues ordaining women.

The role of women in the religious life has been varied in other Christian denominations. The Episcopal Church in the United States, part of the larger Anglican Communion, began ordaining women in 1977. The Methodists did it earlier, in 1956. Of the numerous churches in the Baptist faith, it’s the Southern Baptist Convention that’s been the subject of the most press. They don’t support it, but other Baptist groups do. The Pentecostal church in Germany ordains women, in contrast with its cousins in other countries.

The Presbyterians and Lutherans are split — in one nice concise thought, some branches do and some don’t. In this digital age, fed by minimal attention spans, there are searchable lists to see where they are on the topic.

What happens with Kelly in Utah isn’t likely at all to shape policies in other faiths. I’ll predict there’ll more people than I can already quote who’ll tell me that a ‘church’ is but sticks and bricks, while ‘faith’ is a matter of the heart.

Danny Barrett is a reporter and can be reached by email at danny.barrett@vicksburgpost.com or by phone at 601-636-4545.