SALT LAKE CITY — A small activist women's organization is detracting from thoughtful discussions about women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a church spokeswoman said Monday in a letter to the group.
The letter, signed by Jessica Moody "on behalf of the church," also says the church is unable to fulfill a request made by the "Ordain Women" group for tickets to the semiannual general priesthood meeting next month, because the meeting "is designed to strengthen men and boys as they receive specific instruction about their roles and responsibilities."
"Women in the church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for priesthood ordination for women and consider that position to be extreme," the letter continues. "Declaring such an objective to be non-negotiable, as you have done, actually detracts from the helpful discussions that church leaders have held as they seek to listen to the thoughts, concerns and hopes of women inside and outside of church leadership. Ordination of women to the priesthood is a matter of doctrine that is contrary to the Lord’s revealed organization for his church."
Ordain Women spokeswoman Kate Kelly said she was disappointed the letter didn't come from a church leader but remains hopeful.
"The fact the Public Affairs Department is responding gives us hope our leaders are willing to engage in a dialogue," she said.
In October, a week after 20,000 LDS women attended the church's annual Relief Society meeting, about 150 women with the Ordain Women group gathered outside the general priesthood meeting and approached the stand-by line for men without tickets. One by one, the women approached an usher, then left when denied entry.
Kelly said Monday — Ordain Women's one-year anniversary — that the group will repeat the process on April 5, despite the church's request in Monday's letter that the group reconsider those plans.
"We're going to continue to ask and knock as we are told to do in Matthew 7:7 ("Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you")," Kelly said. "The only thing we're going to demonstrate is that we're ready for the blessings and responsibilities of the priesthood. We’re going to continue to gather, ask and to knock as planned.”
If Ordain Women does demonstrate again, the church's letter asked the group to move its activities off of Temple Square to adjacent free-speech zones.
"Activist events like this detract from the sacred environment of Temple Square and the spirit of harmony sought at general conference," the letter says. "Please reconsider. ... As fellow Latter-day Saints and friends of the church, we invite you to help us maintain the peaceful environment of Temple Square and ask that you please follow these details in your continued planning."
Kelly said the group doesn't feel like it belongs in the free-speech zones, provided by the city for protestors who demonstrate during the church's semiannual general conferences in April and October.
"We feel as faithful, active Mormon women we have nothing in common with people who oppose the church and want to protest against it," she said. "The church is its members. We aren't against the church, we are the church."
The church's letter said LDS leaders are listening to women and responding.
"The recent changes you have seen, most notably the lowering of the missionary age for sisters," it says, "serve as examples and were facilitated by the input of many extraordinary LDS women around the world."
Other changes in the past two years include new leadership roles for sister missionaries, the inclusion of more women in congregation leadership meetings known as ward councils and prayers by women at semiannual general conference meetings.
On March 1, the New York Times described the younger mission age for women as "the biggest gender change" in the church in memory.
The story says " the standard image of a Mormon missionary, a gangly young man in a dark suit, was suddenly out of date."
Ordaining women to the priesthood, as the letter says, is contrary both to church doctrine and the view of the vast majority of Latter-day Saints, especially women.
The Pew Research Center surveyed American LDS women in 2011 and found that 90 percent opposed the ordination of women to the priesthood, a higher percentage than men in the church who felt the same way.
Ordain Women, described as "a band of Mormon feminists" by New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Laurie Goodstein in their recent story, drew media attention specifically because it is different from the norm, the reporters said when they appeared on a radio show on KUER last week.
Goodstein characterized Ordain Women's demonstration last October as "kind of a stunt protest." She said her reporting showed church leaders were listening to women — "taking a sounding" — but said, "It's not that the church would make changes in response to a bunch of agitators who do not seem to represent the mainstream of the church."
The Times story reported that the missionary age change has tripled the number of women missionaries and described the mission leadership changes that engage many of them.
Those leadership opportunities are consistent with what LDS women and girls experience elsewhere in the church, Goodstein said.
"This church, more than most," she said, "already has a whole scaffolding of leadership roles for women, at every age, and in fact quite demanding leadership roles. In fact, a lot of the Mormon women I interviewed said, 'I learned leadership from the church. I learned how to speak at a young age in front of a big group of people. I learned how to organize, I learned how to take responsibility.'"
Goodstein's co-author, Kantor described three groups of LDS women.
"We all know there is a large group of women in the church who are totally satisfied with their roles, who really don't want any change at all, express tremendous satisfaction and fulfillment," she said. "We also know there is the small but highly visible group of, you could call them 'out Mormon feminists,' who do things like stage protests at Mormon general conference."
A third group of mostly younger women remain opposed to ordination for women but express interest in greater participation. For example, Kantor said, they ask whether a Relief Society president might sit on the stand on Sundays the way a congregation's bishopric does.
Kelly admitted Ordain Women isn't a large group but hopes church leaders are listening. She felt Monday's letter didn't clearly indicate it was from church leaders, though it said Moody wrote "on behalf of the church."
"We should care for all in the flock," Kelly said. "As we learn in Luke 15, even if 1 in 100 has concerns or questions, that's who the shepherd should minister to. We feel church leaders should minister to what is a small but growing group that wants to see full equality in the church."
Many LDS women in the majority have expressed frustration over Ordain Women's positions. Others bristle at the publicity it generates.
"Women are denied nothing by not being ordained to the priesthood," said Carol Solomon, a mother of eight who teaches Relief Society lessons in her LDS ward in Provo. "We are not left out. Women continue to have access to all the ordinances, rights, privileges and blessings of the priesthood. I have access to revelation just like a man does. In my home I have equal authority in my family."
Solomon, 66, has a master's degree in special education, taught and worked in the public school system for 23 years, served as a school principal and now works at BYU, where she coordinates the English Language Learning symposium and related national development grants while managing ELL teacher training projects.
In Relief Society, one of the largest women's organizations in the world with more than 5.5 million LDS members, Solomon said "we're a sisterhood set apart by the priesthood to act with the priesthood to support the growth of women in the church and provide others with relief and comfort."