SALT LAKE CITY – On a day when the Mormon church announced its membership has hit 15 million – a three-fold increase from three decades ago – the ongoing debate about the role of women within the faith carried on.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ President Thomas S. Monson kicked off the two-day conference that brings 100,000 members to Salt Lake City by announcing the latest membership milestone from one of the fastest-growing churches in the world.
“The church continues to grow steadily and to change the lives of more and more people every year,” Monson told about 20,000 members seated in a three-story auditorium in Salt Lake City. “It is spreading across the Earth as our missionary force seeks out those who are searching for the truth.”
Monson, considered the prophet of the church, said Saturday that there are now 80,000 missionaries around the world – up from 58,500 a year ago. The historic growth was triggered by the church’s decision to lower the minimum age for missionaries, which Monson announced during this same conference a year ago. By allowing men to go at 18, instead of 19, and women at 19, instead of 21, a wave of new, younger missionaries have joined older ones that were already planning to go.
The biannual general conference brings members together to hear inspirational words from church leaders and to hear church announcements.
Many of the speeches come from the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, which is the second-highest governing body of the church.
An afternoon speech by D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum put the spotlight on the role of women in the faith a mere hours before a feminist women group called Ordain Women would ask to be let in an all-male priesthood meeting to highlight what they perceive as gender inequality.
Christofferson said having women at home remains an essential part of society and cautioned against blurring feminine and masculine differences.
“Some feminist thinkers view homemaking with outright contempt, arguing it demeans women and that the relentless demands of raising children are a form of exploitation,” Christofferson said. “They ridicule what they call the ‘mommy track’ as a career. That is not fair or right.”
Earlier in the day, Carole M. Stephens, first counselor in the General Relief Society presidency, said both men and women are given “priesthood power” when they go to Mormon temples but that the two genders have different gifts and strengths.
About 200 people joined the Ordain Women demonstration Saturday afternoon, marching from a nearby park to a standby line outside an all-male priesthood meeting only to be told again they wouldn’t be allowed in. The group had previously been denied their request for tickets.
The church issued a statement, saying: “Millions of women in this church do not share the views of this small group who organized today’s protest, and most church members would see such efforts as divisive. Even so, these are our sisters and we want them to among us and hope they will find peace and joy we all seek in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The women still stood in line with the hope that church leaders will recognize their commitment to the cause and pray for a revelation that would allow women in the church’s lay clergy. Women can hold many leadership positions in the LDS church, but they can’t be bishops of congregations or presidents of stakes, which include a dozen congregations.