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Excommunicated Mormon: I'll appeal
03:07 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Do Mormons support admitting women to their church’s all-male priesthood? It depends on how you ask, according to a new study.

When Mormons were asked if they personally “believe that women who are dedicated members of the church should have the opportunity to be ordained to the priesthood,” 10% said yes.

But when asked if they would support female ordination if church leaders received a “revelation allowing” female priests, 77% agreed, according to a new survey shared with CNN.

That is, many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seem ready to ordain female priests, but only if church leaders say so. The online survey polled 48,984 active Mormons.

The study was conducted by the Mormon Gender Issues Survey Group, a grass-roots group of academics from across scholarly disciplines, many of whom are affiliated with the Mormon church. It examines a controversial issue within church circles. In 2014, the church excommunicated Kate Kelly, a human rights attorney, who helped found a group called Ordain Women.

The Mormon church believes “the lord has directed that only men will be ordained to offices in the priesthood” and that leaders do not have the authority to change God’s will. Church spokeswoman Kristen Howey said that without examining the new study in detail, she could not determine if it was “agenda-driven or even accurate.”

Michael Nielsen, a professor of social psychology at Georgia Southern University and spokesman for the survey group, said previous poll questions on women’s ordination were “foreign in an LDS context” and out of sync with Mormon doctrine, which holds that church policy is guided by divine revelation.

As Debra Jenson, spokesperson of Ordain Women, explains it, Mormonism “operates with a living canon and an evolving theology” that bases many church policies not only on personal practices, but also on prayer and inspiration from God.

Margaret Toscano, a professor of literature at the University of Utah, said this creates a “culture of obedience” in which most Mormons believe changes in church policy should “come from above.” This facet of Mormon practice, she believes, makes Mormonism as a religion susceptible to change, something she says is reflected in the study. Toscano, a former member of the Mormon church, was excommunicated in 2000 for advocating for women’s ordination.

Not everyone, however, believes this survey’s question is an accurate measure of Mormons’ opinions.

Kathryn Skaggs, the founder of Mormon Women Stand, a group that supports the church’s stance on the priesthood, said the way the survey is crafted is “exploiting a very sacred tenet of the Mormon faith … a devout belief in modern prophets and the revelatory process.” She called the study’s finding of support for ordination “absurd.”

In Mormonism most men become ordained as priests and are then eligible to ascend the church hierarchy. Women are not allowed to follow this path, instead serving in organizations known as Relief Societies.

Interestingly, the new study found that women are less likely than men to support female ordination. When asked if they believed women should have the “opportunity to be ordained to the priesthood,” 7% of women supported the idea, and 73% of women said they would support a change in policy through revelation to church leaders, compared to 86% of men.

“It doesn’t surprise me but it saddens me,” said Jenson. “You’re taught from a very young age inside Mormonism that the answer is I don’t want that.”

Toscano said there is a distinct theological and historical backing for female ordination, yet she agreed that the study’s insistence on revelation identifies a key element of Mormonism, saying “Most people who are active in the church, they need that final piece.”