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.