First of all, the decision to consolidate the quorums has the immediate effect of reducing the structural and perceived hierarchy of priesthood authority among men. Throughout the history of the church, men have had titles, quorum and priesthood designations that serve as milestones to measuring their spiritual progression. While we talk about the mission presidents who return home to serve in the nursery, men always have always had the potential to be called “president” or to move into High Priests Quorum. For women, there is one option: “sister” as the title, and Relief Society as the organization. The reduction in hierarchy in the male institutional structure helps to underscore what we say we believe: that all are alike unto God and that no one should aspire to a certain station or calling. It’s a healthy way to help reduce the attention we inherently put on male progression in the Church.
The change in quorum structure also means that there are no longer two male presidencies represented in Ward Council; there is now only one, on par with the single presidency representing the women’s Relief Society. Previously in Ward Council, an Elders Quorum presidency and a High Priest Group presidency have offered double representation of the men, sometimes overwhelming the single representation of adult women. Numerically, the reduction of men’s presidencies in Ward Council will now also bring the ratio of men to women in the meetings closer to parity. (It has been 3 women to about 10 men. Now at 3 women to 9 men, women will represent a quarter of the Ward Council participants.)
Language also will be effected. As Elder Oaks stressed in the Priesthood Session of conference (the name of which must now be changed, right?), “priesthood” is no longer a synonym for “men”. Being able to refer to all adult men in a ward as “the Elders Quorum” will help reduce our reliance on the term “priesthood” to describe men who previously were in both the Elders Quorum and High Priests. Elders Quorum will now serve as a convenient catch-all term, on par with “Relief Society” as a catch-all term for all adult women in a ward.
Involving the Young Women in a structured service opportunity is a significant advancement. As a Young Women’s president myself, I am aware that there are no built-in jobs for young women in the ward, in contrast to the way the young men serve as Aaronic priesthood holders. This will help direct our young women to be gospel producers, instead of just being gospel consumers, which has been the default position for that age group. It will also help them feel more connected to the older women of the ward, with whom they have had very little interaction previous to this. This is also in contrast to the young men, who attend opening exercises and Serve as home teachers with older men.
The most significant change from conference, however, is a somewhat obscure implication of the new ministering program. While ministering still maintains the structure of men overseeing families of the ward and the Relief Society overseeing women in the ward, the instructions to the effected leaders suggest something remarkable: when ministering brothers have a concern about a particular family, they are empowered and encouraged to speak with the Relief Society presidency about the people under their stewardship. This may seem like a small thing, but no where else in the structure of our church programs have adult male members been reliant on female leaders for guidance and spiritual support outside of the ward council. In this new cooperation between men and women to serve the needs of the members, men meet with and receive council from women. This directly shatters a truth that has been in existence for too long: that adult men in the church have never been under the ecclesiastical leadership of a women. Now, the Relief Society presidency is empowered to council men as they serve as ministering brothers, in addition to counseling women. This truly is a new dawn for the cooperative ministry between men and women in the church.
In 2012, as Sister Julie Beck left her presidency, There was quite a bit of commentary about her use of the word ministry. Our team at the Mormon Women Project picked up on her use of this word. I am delighted that it has now been introduced into the mainstream lexicon for our church. It seems to bring us closer to Christ’s mission and ministry, and to the cooperative ministries of genders that can only be a good thing for all of us.