Saturday, 4 August 2007

Define preside . . .

Since it has been almost two months since anyone has posted, I thought I would post something that has been percolating in my mind for a while: the definition of the word preside.

Yesterday at work I realized that I have only ever talked about my feminist leanings with people who are also sympathetic to the feminist cause. Well, the topic of feminism arose and I found myself having to describe, define, and defend some of my opinions. I tend to be an emotionally charged person, so it was rather difficult to attempt eloquence and to not get flustered. I felt like things went fairly well, and it was an enlightening conversation. Luckily, I was accompanied by a fellow feminist friend named Katherine.

While discussing the Proclamation to the World, Katherine and I were discussing problematic vocabulary. I feel particularly sensitive to the word preside. So, my co-workers and I tried to come up with a more concrete definition. Do we (as a church) really know what is meant by the charge given to men to "provide and preside"? I find preside to be a somewhat empty word-- one that is tossed around without any type of consensus on the implications. Here are some possible implications we discussed:

1. Much as President Hinckley presides over the First Presidency and the apostles, the husband/father presides over the family.
a. President Hinckley holds the Priesthood keys and the authority to use them. A father holds the Priesthood keys giving him the responsibility to give blessings-- both of comfort and of healing-- to his wife and children.
b. When a decision is made among the apostles and First Presidency, a unanimous vote is the only way in which something is made final. President Hinckley cannot use his position as presider to overrule decisions or to be "the final say." This is further discussed in number 2.

2. A woman and man are to make decisions together. I have heard it said that if a couple is in an argument, and no consensus can be reached, then someone needs to have the definitive decision, and this is what it means to preside. To me, this is not equality.

3. I have also heard it said that, "well, someone needs to be in charge, or everything would be chaos!" I find this statement fallacious. While there does need to be a head of a family, there is no logical reason for the head not to consist of both the husband and the wife.

4. A stake and a family are similar, but not the same. As a stake president presides over his stake, a father presides over his family much in the way I already discussed with President Hinckley. A stake, however, does need a firm and single head. Counselors work in the absence and alongside the stake president, but this is the way in which a husband and wife are different from a stake presidency. A woman should not function as a counselor, but rather as a co-president with her husband.

5. Another work friend said she asked her husband what he thought preside meant, and he said he thought it meant to protect. I am much more comfortable with this word. I find the word protect to connote more of a nurturing aspect. As women are to nurture the family, this seems much more balanced-- both mother and father can and should nurture.

So there are my five definitional statements about preside. What have I left out? On what items have I committed an oversight or an irrational comparison? (Honestly, I want to know what you think on my five statements.)

One very problematic issue I wonder about it is, where is the disconnect between doctrine and culture? As one of my male co-workers pointed out, men are constantly instructed to not exercise unrighteous dominion. They are chastised for not recognizing the women in their lives as equals. If the doctrine encourages equality between men and women, how does the culture so often misinterpret words like preside to mean dominate, abuse, manipulate, etc. While I know this is not a universal problem, I know it is a common problem. So, where is the disconnect between the culture and the doctrine? I wonder if the church clings too tightly to the old-fashioned, traditional views from before 1960 because we are too afraid of being tainted by modernism. I really don't know the answer, and I don't know the solution. I often hope for a change of discourse in how we describe gender roles. I would much prefer a substitute word for preside-- I do find it slightly overused and therefore nearly empty in meaning. I am afraid using such a word is more damaging than helpful, and maybe a new shock of words would bring some more life in to old-news principles. But change is very slow coming in the church. What do you think are some possible solutions to this problem? Or do you think I am off-base and over-sensitive (this is entirely possible)? What does preside mean to you?


Catherine M. said...

I enjoyed this thought process immensely. I love the proclamation and am always struggling to make sense of its individual words and meanings.

I agree with 1 and 5. I've also found that in my marriage I often need to chill a bit and take less control. I get hyper-nurturing (controlling) and need to give my husband the space to make his own meaning and sense of our family and follow his own intellect and inclinations to his own conclusions.

For me preside means just that. Let the man be his own man while still being an equal marriage and family partner. I also try to council with him more as I'm tempted to make big decisions without worrying about his opinions.

Monica said...

Yes, this comment is coming way after the fact, but such is life.

While I don't have a problem with the word "preside" necessarily, I do have a problem with the way that "priesthood" is used by many members of the church.

First, men ARE NOT THE priesthood, men HOLD the priesthood. The priesthood is the power of God, not a collective of individuals. This is something that is outlined for missionaries in teaching people of other faiths about the priesthood power. The word priesthood still gets thrown around all over the place, however, as describing the people rather than the power. It is somewhat of a pet peeve of mine.

Second - and this gets to the term "preside" more specifically - men and women make very specific covenants in the temple that relate to how men and women work together in the family, and I think a lot of answers about what it means for the husband and father to "preside" are found in those covenants. I am not going to go into that here for obvious reasons, but I encourage anyone who comes up against questions of family roles look to their temple covenants first.

Of course, there are some other things that can be said. Courtney's comparison in #1 to the First Presidency is excellent. In marriage, men and women act as equal partners, and men preside in as much as they hold the priesthood keys for their families. This is more than just protecting. It is acting in the place of the Savior at the head of the family for each family and the members of it.

Husbands and wives counsel together concerning their families. Just as a husband should not simply "have the final say," it doesn't work for a wife to just make decisions on her own either (just as Catherine mentioned she is working on) - that is not working together as equal partners.

The proclamation on the family says, "By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families." The biggest thing for me in the above statement is " love and righteousness." A husband who is exercising unrighteous dominion, or who is abusing his spouse or children is not presiding, but rather controlling, and is in direct violation of the laws of God.

That said, I don't believe a change of discourse would correct this kind of issue. It is not the word "preside" that causes people to fall into this trap - just as the word "priesthood" in and of itself does not cause people to use it incorrectly. In fact, I believe that the word 'preside' acts as a reminder that the husbands role in the family is directly linked to the priesthood and his righteous use of it in his home. He is able to preside because of the priesthood, and to use different terminology leaves that connection out and in a way divorces the role of the husband from his priesthood responsibility. Of course, as long as Satan strives to lead the hearts of men astray, he will attempt to pervert the ways of the Lord in small ways, attempting to provide justification for unrighteous behavior. I believe that this is precisely what happens with the word "preside" and those who misuse it, whether they be men or women. Yes, I believe women also misuse church terminology to justify their own part in not being an equal partner with their husbands. Letting your husband preside does not make you subservient to him. Rather, it gives him the opportunity to serve you and your children as a representative and servant of the Savior in your home.