ST. GEORGE — Nancy Ross sat adjacent to Ordain Women leader Kate Kelly, as Kelly opened an email that stated she’d been excommunicated from her lifelong church for apostasy. Ross, a mother of two, Dixie State art history professor, and devoted Mormon said experiencing this type of church discipline with Kelly was one of the most devastating experiences of her life.
“It was like walking through a nightmare where you really don’t believe it is happening. How do you console someone when they have just been shut out of heaven?” Ross said, “When their eternal family has just been torn apart?”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially states that church discipline is an inspired process designed to help members be purified from sin and return to the church, and receive its full blessings. Apostasy, according to the Mormon church, is 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.
Almost a month after Kelly’s excommunication, Ross, the spokesperson, social media committee chair and one of eight members on the Ordain Women executive board, holds back tears and trembles in her Dixie State office as she describes her complex and confusing feelings since her organization has moved into the public eye.
Before Kelly was excommunicated, Ordain Women had attracted primarily local media-only attention, principally regarding their efforts to get into men-only priesthood meetings. But, it wasn’t until Kelly’s excommunication that they truly moved into the media limelight. Now reports have proliferated coming from many prominent national and global publications like the New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and Al Jazeera.
The sudden pressure put on Ross since then has been intense.
The excommunication effect
In Ross’s personal life, she has received kindness from members inside and outside of her local ward, she said. She’s received messages from people who don’t necessarily agree with the Ordain Women movement but still express love and compassion.
However, at the same time, her ward members have complained to her local ecclesiastical leader, her bishop, behind her back, she’s been harassed online, and sent hate mail.
Although she’s continually saddened by news that loads of her fellow women’s rights activists have given up hope on the institution, she can’t give up hope, she said, her faith won’t allow it.
“I’m not leaving, not willingly anyway.”
When ward members complained to her bishop, a council was set up with her and her husband to talk about her involvement with Ordain Women, she said. Her Bishop told her that he had received a number of emails from other members inside and outside of her local ward.
This was upsetting and saddening to her, Ross said.
“I realize that my ideas for doing the right thing might look different from other Mormon’s ideas …. But, it’s very hard to have people look at you and think that you’re a terrible person and you’re involved in some evil thing. I’m not just one of those people who doesn’t care about the opinions of others. I’ve grown thicker skin,” she said, “but I do care, and that’s really painful.”
Despite her discomfort, her bishop’s counsel went well, she said.
“My bishop is a good guy,” Ross said, “He was willing to listen and really hear what I had to say.”
Though she is unsure if there will be further action against her, she said, for the time being, there is no issue, and she is sincerely grateful for that.
Long time equality activist
Cedar City resident Nadine Hansen was also in Salt Lake City with Kelly and Ross the weekend of Kelly’s excommunication. Hansen is still in regular communication, almost on a daily basis, with members of Ordain Women – specifically members of the executive board.
After Kelly was excommunicated, Hansen, a mother, grandmother, wife, and lawyer, wrote the statement of support for Kelly, which in turn went to Kelly’s bishop. This statement – similar to a legal brief – was sent to appeal the bishop’s decision. Since then, Kelly has announced that she is submitting an appeal to the next level of authority, her stake president, to try and contest her excommunication.
Hansen is another lifelong churchgoer, who has defended social equality as a lawyer, and an activist since the equal rights movement in the 1970s.
Unless women are ordained into the priesthood, they will not have a voice in the current church system, Hansen said. Currently, only men can hold the priesthood and therefore only men have official governance in the church, she said.
A statement from the governing leaders of the church, the First Presidency, released on June 28, said that both men and women have equal access to the blessings of the priesthood, but only men are ordained to serve in priesthood offices.
Because only men can hold the priesthood, she believes that women don’t have an equal voice in church governance, Hansen said. Although women do have a voice, she said, it’s a permissive voice which men permit them to have.
“There’s nothing that gives (women) an internal right to be there without question.”
Although she appreciates the wonderful men who ask women what they need, Hansen said, until women are actually at the decision-making tables, women’s needs are going to be overlooked.
Ross wants women to be decision-makers as well. She believes that advocating for equality is the right Mormon thing to do and her advocacy is directed by her faith, she said.
Ross prays constantly for, and has received spiritual guidance regarding, involvement in Ordain Women, she said.
“I’ve had a lot of little spiritual experiences, and a lot of ongoing confirmations that let me know that this is what I should be doing. I’ve always tried to let God point the way and … I’ve really tried to follow through – so this is where I am today.”
But the doubt still blares, often inducing stress and sleepless nights for Ross.
“I’m always questioning myself if I’m doing the right thing – because doing the right thing is really important to me.”
Not a mutiny
Doing the right thing means being part of a movement that Ross believes is not taking people away from the church, but keeping fringe Mormons inside the church.
Ordain Women and other feminist groups, despite what many people think, provide a very large support community that helps people navigate difficulties, and stay in the church, she said.
Women’s rights activists are not fighting against the church, Ross said, it’s quite the opposite, they are asking to have a bigger role in it.
Both Ross and Hansen believe that there are signs in Mormon history of women holding much more authority, and in some instances there’s signs of women actually holding the priesthood. But, this authority has been discontinued, or just conveniently ignored.
Both Ross and Hansen highlighted two principle examples of this, among many others:
- Emma Smith and other women holding the priesthood during the Joseph Smith era
- The prophetesses, like Deborah and other women who had recognized spiritual authority in the Old Testament of the Bible
So the theology can already support gender equality, but the outward manifestations of the practice of the Mormon church have not always supported gender equality, Ross said.
“There are a lot of people who view Mormonism as essentially needing a gendered hierarchy – and that can’t change. But that’s not my belief, and I know that there are a lot of other people out there who share my belief.”
Moving forward post excommunication
Although Ordain Women’s most notorious leader and founder, Kate Kelly, is planning on moving to Africa this summer, the organization and movement will continue fighting for equality. Both Ross and Hansen plan on continuing their considerable roles within the movement despite sometimes feeling like outsiders.
“The internet is full of comments – just leave – we don’t want you anyway,” Ross said. “Well, if I didn’t have faith, then I would have left, and if I didn’t have belief, I’d be long gone, but I do. I believe that (the church) will do the right thing.”
There are many reasons besides faith that keep feminists inside the church, Hansen said. The church is their family, it’s their heritage, it’s their friends, and it’s there social structure.
“It really is a part of you, it’s a part of who you are, it’s what made you who you are,” Hansen said, “you don’t just walk away from that.”
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