Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Obstacles to Change in the Church: Democracy vs. Theocracy

One of the big themes that emerged during the Circling the Wagons Conference 10 days ago, as initially expressed by Carol Lynn Pearson in the Friday afternoon workshop, was “we are the change we seek.”  At various times and in various ways, a number of the speakers and presenters at the Conference encouraged gay Mormons and their allies to stay in the Church and bring about change (i.e., with respect to the Church’s treatment of LGBT persons) from the ground up.

On Monday, I wrote about some of the “stepping stones to change” that could possibly occur.  But I think it would Pollyannaish in the extreme to ignore the very real obstacles to change that exist within the LDS Church, speaking of both its institutional leadership as well as its general membership.  In this and subsequent posts, I’d like to explore some of these obstacles.

Perhaps the most significant obstacle to change within the institution of the LDS Church is that it has a top-down authoritarian structure.  During the course of the conference, Jimmy Creech shared some of his frustration over the way in which his own United Methodist Church has dealt with same gender-loving people.  On Sunday morning, the Rev. Canon Mary June Nestler of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah described the struggle that her church went through to end discrimination against LGBT persons and welcome them into full fellowship within the church. 

It was fascinating to listen to both of these religious leaders describe their own personal efforts to bring about change within their respective traditions.  It was inspiring to hear Jimmy Creech explain that he has worked and continues to work to bring about change in his own denomination, despite 25 years of frustration and being stripped by that denomination of his ministerial credentials, because he loves the church and because there is so much that was good about his church.  He wanted to work to make it better, to remove the stain of bigotry left by the church’s official treatment of same gender-loving people, and he knew that his efforts – along with those of other like-minded Methodists - would and will eventually bring about change in that denomination.

In the case of Rev. Nestler, it was intriguing and also inspiring to hear her describe the national conference at which the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson (the first openly gay bishop within the Episcopal Church) was approved.  She made a comment about the approval process being somewhat “messy,” but she emphasized a point that Latter-day Saints should both appreciate and ponder, i.e., that the movement of the Spirit was manifested in the debates and the eventual outcome.  In other words, to Episcopalians, God’s will is made manifest through his people, not necessarily to his people.

Why should Latter-day Saints be able to appreciate this point?  Because this is official LDS doctrine with respect to the founding of the United States of America and, in particular, the writing of the U.S. Constitution:  God worked through the men who were engaged in hard-knuckle negotiations during the drafting and adoption of the U.S. Constitution in order to bring to pass His will:  a divinely-inspired document that would facilitate both the Restoration and the spread of religious freedom around the world.

Why should Latter-day Saints ponder this point?  Because if God is able to bring to pass and make manifest his will through a secular political process, why cannot He do the same through an ecclesiastical political process? Hmmm …

Inspired as I was by the comments of Jimmy Creech and Rev. Nestler, I knew that the exhilarating and very human process they were describing could never take place in the LDS Church.  Doctrine and questions of how Mormons as a religious community should address various social issues are never discussed, let alone debated – at least not “officially.”  Mormons are told what to believe and are told  how they should treat their neighbor. 

In fact, Latter-day Saints are admonished from time to time to be nicer, more tolerant and more open-minded (e.g., some of President Hinckley’s comments in this regard).  From time to time, the Church announces a position on an issue, e.g., with respect to immigration, but this is the hierarchy’s position, not a stance that has been discussed and debated within the general membership of the Church.

Rev. Nestler pleaded during the course of her comments at the Interfaith Service for gay Latter-say Saints and their allies to stay in the Church so that they could be agents for change.  But Mormons are not Episcopalians or Methodists or Presbyterians or even Baptists.  The LDS Church’s “polity” is a theocracry, not a democracy.  There is no movement of the Spirit among the general membership; rather, there is a pronouncement of the Spirit from above.  Validity and truth exist only through the pronouncements of the Brethren; certainly not in the unwashed masses.

In this respect, being an LGBT Mormon (or an ally) is very much akin to being a liberal Democrat in Utah.  You may have the right to speak your mind and work for change (which is not entirely true within the Church context, as will be addressed in a future post), but because of the overwhelmingly conservative culture and the anti-democratic electoral processes of this state, the chances of you effecting change are slim to none.  True, in certain gerrymandered ghettos where there is a higher concentration of Democrats, the possibility of change is much higher.  In the same respect, there are certain stakes of the Church, e.g., Carol Lynn Pearson's Oakland Stake, where there is a higher concentration of same gender-loving persons and a more enlightened approach is implemented.  But in Utah as in the Church, effecting real change remains an extremely daunting task.


  1. I hope for change in the LDS church. And change is occurring because many members are walking out the front door, and they just keep on walking.

    The institutional leadership knows this and is trying to reverse the trend before it's too late. I'm hopeful for significant change because the leadership is being forced to confront a significant crisis. The LDS church is a kind of a democracy, because the membership is voting with its feet.

    If those of us at the margins of the faith can hold our ground and be in the pews, I believe that our witness can be felt powerfully within our wards and stakes. The day is quickly coming when the circumstances of the marginalized members of LDS can no longer be ignored by church leaders. The risk of losing us is becoming too great.

  2. I agree that it is different in the LDS organizational structure because there is no hint of democracy.

    The element I see missing in the LDS paradigm with regards to homosexuality is ASKING.

    Change in the LDS church has come from below but the step that leads to change is that enough people in the church or society cause the leadership to question. Take even the very first prayer of JS in the grove. He went to ask a question. The 1978 revelation of the priesthood supposedly happened because the leadership were questioning. If you read the D&C, a great many revelations come about by the leadership posing a problem or a question and then getting the answer.

    I don't get any sense that the current leadership is questioning anything regards to homosexuality. Talks that have given on the topic never indicate that there has been any searching, pondering of even praying on the matter.

    They already know the answer according to them. Same goes for women and the priesthood... another change that would bring them into the last century. I guess in a nutshell, I don't see LDS leadership as currently having the humility to ask the question and then posing it to their colleagues.

    It's the people below and events like the "Circling The Wagons" that someday might cause a future leader to go "Hmmm?"

    THAT will be the beginning of change. I don't see that we're anywhere near that...but it CAN happen as the fear of even asking the question one day lessens.

  3. A 'ground-up approach' would indicate that God's Church is a sorta democracy. We do not get to vote, in the Church, on what is right or wrong. It's God's KINGDOM not his DEMOCRACY. HE makes the decisions and lets us in on it through his Prophet.

  4. Happy, I hope you are right.

    Dad, I believe you make an extremely valid point about asking, one that is all too often forgotten by members of the church who are extremely naive about how "revelation" is received. If they would just think about it, they would realize that God doesn't just tell individuals how to run their lives. He expects them to work it out and ask him for guidance or confirmation from time to time. Why would it be any different for the church? The brethren try this approach and that approach, building consensus, etc. That concept may be challenging to some people's testimonies, but it doesn't change the fact that it's fact.

  5. @ Anonymous... You're right, but then the church can't have it both ways. Is it purely God's kingdom with God speaking through His mouthpieces receiving accurate revelation 100% of the time?

    OR is it a group of human beings doing their best, but still human seeking inspiration in the end? In that case there would be some false starts, misguided statements and yet slow progression towards godliness.

    Because in my observation, Church Doctrine and Leaders want both... to be viewed as the former and yet allowed and excused for the reality of the latter.

    Organizations, especially churches, that recognize and account for humanness of the leadership have checks and balances built-in to account for that humanity. By checks and balances, I mean transparent financials, open meetings, trained clergy, NOT unanimous decision-making etc. The LDS faith has none of these.

    In other words we believe and follow the leadership...and when they are proven wrong in retrospect there's just a jolly shrug of the shoulders and say they're just human or that they were just speaking as men. I find that approach completely arrogant and lacking in compassion or spirituality.

  6. Personally, I would plead for gay latter-day saints and their allies to do what they need to do to keep themselves spiritually, mentally, and physically healthy. If that means staying in the church, great. But if that means getting out of the church, that's great too. People first. I used to think the LDS church was destined to change on this issue. I still do, but every hateful talk seems to add 5 more years to the time this process will take.