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Mormonism's doctrine of Heavenly Mother is more than a feminist wish it is a "cherished and distinctive belief," built on LDS scriptures, taught by church authorities, celebrated in song and embraced by the faithful.
But for activists seeking female ordination to the all-male Mormon priesthood, that goal will have to remain a wish, according to the final two LDS Church-approved Gospel Topics essays posted Friday.
Mormon women never were intended to hold ecclesiastical office in the priesthood, the essay on founder Joseph Smith's teachings on priesthood, temple and women says, but they can preach, pray, lead and participate in local and churchwide councils even priesthood ones alongside men.
"This is a welcome day," says Joanna Brooks, a Mormon writer and scholar who teaches at San Diego State University. "Never before have questions about women, God and authority been addressed so forthrightly by our church."
The articles show "it is OK to talk about, think about, question, study and pray about Heavenly Mother and women and the priesthood. They clearly signal it's OK to study our history openly and vigorously and ask hard questions and consider future possibilities."
Brooks, who recently co-edited a volume, "Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings," hopes the essays "dispel stigmas and encourage Mormons to embrace the rich possibilities of our faith."
The two pieces spell out the roles of women by looking to the 185-year history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Latter-day Saints' understanding of the nature of priesthood and keys grew as a result of revelations received by Joseph Smith," one essay says. "An 1832 revelation taught that the greater, or Melchizedek, priesthood held 'the key of the knowledge of God,' and that in the ordinances of the priesthood, 'the power of godliness is manifest.' "
The essay acknowledges that Smith "ordain[ed]" women and said they would "preside over the [Relief] Society. He also declared, 'I now turn the key to you in the name of God.' "
In the 19th century, "Mormons sometimes used the term ordain in a broad sense," the article adds, "often interchangeably with set apart and not always referring to priesthood office."
" ... Neither Joseph Smith, nor any person acting on his behalf, nor any of his successors conferred the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood on women or ordained women to priesthood office."
Smith also permitted Mormon women to perform "healing blessings," something that only LDS male priesthood holders now can do. But the practice, which eventually faded away, was based on faith, the essay says, not priesthood.
"The relationship between Latter-day Saint women and priesthood has remained remarkably constant since Joseph Smith's day," it says. " ... Men and women continue to officiate in sacred ordinances in temples much as they did in Joseph Smith's day."
The essay on women is "not surprising," says Andrea Radke-Moss, who teaches history at Brigham Young University-Idaho, "it certainly is a step ahead of where we were a year ago."
She was "relieved" to note what isn't in the documents "no speculation about why women aren't ordained, no gendered folklores like gender essentialism, or separate-but-equal rhetoric, no motherhood equals priesthood equivalencies. "
While the essay declared that Mormon women don't hold priesthood office, Radke-Moss says, "there is nothing that says it won't ever change."
She was troubled, however, by the article's failure to acknowledge male authority over women in all aspects of female participation in the 15 million-member, Utah-based faith.
"At no institutional or familial organization in the church do women ever have a purely side-by-side relationship with men," she says, "at least in word and liturgy."
This remains the fact despite a strong belief in a male and female deity.
Mormons believe every person is a "beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents," the Heavenly Mother essay reads, and, "as such, each has a divine nature and destiny."
"While there is no record of a formal revelation to Joseph Smith on this doctrine, some early Latter-day Saint women recalled that he personally taught them about a Mother in Heaven," the article says. "The earliest published references to the doctrine appeared shortly after Joseph Smith's death in 1844, in documents written by his close associates."
The most "notable expression of the idea" appears in a poem by early LDS women's leader Eliza R. Snow titled "My Father in Heaven" and now sung by Mormons worldwide in the beloved hymn "O My Father."
The text declares: "In the heav'ns are parents single? / No, the thought makes reason stare; / Truth is reason truth eternal / Tells me I've a mother there."
The essay is fairly short and offers few details about Mormonism's divine mother.
"As with many other truths of the gospel, our present knowledge about a Mother in Heaven is limited," it says. "Nevertheless, we have been given sufficient knowledge to appreciate the sacredness of this doctrine and to comprehend the divine pattern established for us as children of heavenly parents."
The article does include this caution about praying to a Heavenly Mother.
"Latter-day Saints direct their worship to Heavenly Father, in the name of Christ, and do not pray to Heavenly Mother," it says. "In this, they follow the pattern set by Jesus Christ, who taught his disciples to 'always pray unto the Father in my name.' "
Debra Jenson, chairwoman of Ordain Women, a group seeking LDS female ordination, applauds the essays for treating the topics in a "much more nuanced and complicated way than ever before," but questions remain.
If Heavenly Mother is the model for Mormon women living today and is the being they hope to reunite with in the eternities, Jenson says, "we are desperate to know more about her."
The issue of female ordination is inextricably connected to a female God, she says, "you can't untangle them."
The nature of Heavenly Mother is waiting to be "revealed," Jenson says, "but maybe we are not ready to receive it yet in a church that doesn't treat women equally."
LDS leaders have stated that information from the Gospel Topics' essays designed to confront some of the stickier aspects of Mormon theology and history, from the former priesthood ban for black males, for instance, to the Mountain Meadows Massacre will be incorporated into Mormon curriculum, so the mentions of a Heavenly Mother and women's issues may increase.