SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Mormon Church issued a new essay Friday addressing the sensitive topic of women in the priesthood, clarifying that although women gave healing blessings in the early days they were never allowed to be priesthood holders.
The article comes during a time when some women in the faith advocate for the ordination of women. A leader of a prominent group leading that push, Kate Kelly, was excommunicated last year.
An accompanying essay also published Friday explains the religion's belief in a Heavenly Mother, calling it a "cherished and distinctive belief."
The essays complete a series of 13 articles published in the last two years addressing sensitive parts of the religion's doctrine or history. The series is part of a larger push by the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for transparency over secrecy when it comes to its history and beliefs.
Scholars and Mormon feminists called the papers noteworthy for dealing with subjects important to Latter-day Saints.
"These essays are the first time the church has acknowledged so openly that women, priesthood, and God are complicated questions deserving serious study and thought," said Joanna Brooks, editor of "Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings."
It was taboo two decades ago to even talk about Heavenly Mother, Brooks said.
The article on the priesthood addresses founder Joseph Smith's speaking of "ordaining women," when he formed a women's organization called the Relief Society. Smith was delegating women priesthood authority related to this organization only, the article says.
"Mormons sometimes used the term ordain in a broad sense, often interchangeably with set apart and not always referring to priesthood office," it says.
The article can be taken as a rebuttal to pieces published by historians, feminists and theologians who argue Smith did, in fact, bestow priesthood on women since 1843, and that modern church leaders are incorrectly withholding this privilege from women, said Patrick Mason, associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University in California and Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies.
Debra Jenson, chair of Ordain Women, said it was painful to read about women being able give healing blessings during the 1800s, since that's no longer allowed. But she called it "interesting and exciting" to read the articles.
"Anytime our leaders engage in topics our members are talking about, it's good," Jenson said. "It's exciting to see Heavenly Mother being discussed and being brought out in a way that we haven't spoken about her before."
She's not discouraged by the church's historical narrative about women never holding the priesthood, saying the religion's belief in ongoing revelation gives her hope. "Revelation can and will come," Jenson said. "All we have to do is ask."
The article points out that Mormon women hold other leadership positions and handle numerous important roles, such as preaching in congregations, participating in priesthood councils and serving proselyting missions.
"In these and other ways, women exercise priesthood authority even though they are not ordained to priesthood office," the article says. "Such service and leadership would require ordination in many other religious traditions."
In the Mormon religion, boys join a lower level of priesthood at the age of 12. That allows them to offer communion during worship services and collect money for the poor, among other things.
When they turn 18, men are "ordained" to hold another level of priesthood, giving them the authority to hold one of many leadership positions at the local or regional level or higher. It also grants them permission to name and bless children, heal the sick and baptize new members.
The majority of boys and men in the faith are therefore considered "priesthood holders."
The essay caps off a series that has also including articles about the faith's early polygamous days; sacred undergarments worn by devout members; a past ban on black men in the lay clergy; and the misconception that Mormons are taught they will get their own planet in the afterlife.