I recently returned from a trip to Salt Lake City to attend the Sunstone Symposium.
Driving back on 1-70 across the seemingly never-ending fields of Kansas gave me plenty of time to reflect on my whirlwind week of experiences there. We were within walking distance of the epicenter of Mormonism, Temple Square, but the conversations and sessions at Sunstone were anything but mainstream Mormon topics.
I can’t claim to be an expert on Sunstone (for that, you’d have to ask Bill Russell, who has been attending faithfully for thirty years or so) but I came away from the symposium impressed by the openness and camaraderie of the participants and their willingness to unashamedly examine tough issues.
Although attended by many ex-Mormons and others with non-traditional views, Sunstone is not a place to simply bash all things Mormon. Session titles included “Why We Stay” and “Pillars of My Faith,” both examining the significant role the LDS church plays in various people’s lives. Sunstone is, though, a place to confront questions some may be uncomfortable asking. Nothing’s safe. Homosexuality, women’s issues, perspectives on history—all of these are questioned, prodded, discussed. It’s an open forum, and the participants visibly thrive on it.
I was stunned at some of the heart-wrenching stories I heard there. I listened to stories of separation from a beloved church home (some forced, some voluntary), stories of hurt and genuine belief juxtaposed in one individual. Their courage to share impressed me.
A few months ago, when asked to participate in a session commemorating 25 years since Community of Christ extended priesthood to women by reflecting on my experiences as a young woman in the church, I realized that I didn’t have much to say. I had never seriously thought about these things because the possibility of priesthood has been a reality for me my entire lifetime. My mother is in the priesthood, and so many of the women I knew and respected growing up are also priesthood members. It was normal for me, taken for granted. It was not even an issue. I had been given the luxury to sit back and relax, and I enjoyed it.
I was swept away by a “pacifism” of a different sort—“passivism.”
I am lucky to be part of a church that meets dissent with dialogue instead of silence, where the worth of all persons is upheld. I find a profound comfort in this. But when considering issues that don’t seem to affect me directly, it’s all too easy to let the church’s promises of acceptance and justice speak for me instead of wrestling with hard questions myself. The church’s open approach may shield its members from direct confrontations, but this does not mean our members are immune to pain.
We cannot be passive observers. The kind of dialogue present at Sunstone, while sometimes uncomfortable, is necessary—especially now. I’m a long way from being able to call myself an activist, and I am all too guilty of being the quiet one at the back of the congregation, but I take inspiration from the examples of the people I encountered at Sunstone. These people feel a calling to point out injustices. They share personal, painful experiences. They don’t hesitate to goodheartedly poke fun at their faith’s idiosyncrasies.
I’m sure there are conversations like these going on right now in the Community of Christ, but I’m not exactly sure where to look. Any suggestions?
Wherever they are, I’m looking forward to participating.
(By the way, Community of Christ enjoyed quite the presence at Sunstone this year. Two of our apostles attended, and there was a classy reception sponsored by the Community of Christ. Other members presented papers or sat in on sessions. Props to the church!)
Go here for more information on Sunstone.
Blogs are one place, of course, as are discussion boards. Another place has been Peace Colloquys, as well as the more traditional Sunday School classes. I am always struck by how much of Sunday School time is spent on this kind of sharing rather than the lesson itself (a different kind of learning–not as much about matering the lesson content as much as reflection on associative, or intutitve, knowledge).
Now, for a brief critique of the dialogue model, followed by a personal affirmation of it. Conversation and dialogue are not the pancea to all pains for the church. We might find we like each other a lot less after dialogue. And we may find that we disagree not because we have not talked about it, but because we really have incompatible views.
With more dialogue, we could have a situation like the French Revolution on our hands. Okay, may be that’s a little overly dramatic, but it goes like this. When the middle class and peasants thought that they should have a greater say in things, and when that was given to them with the calling of the Estates General in 1789, a revolution of rising expectations happened, argue some historians. That is, people felt that the government should be doing more and more and being more and more responsive to their ideas. When the system could not possibly meet these rising expectations, violence and revolution resulted, even when the government was implementing moderate reforms. The analogy here to our movement? We may find that the more we emphasize being a “prophetic people” where all are involved in discernment and all share in the process of change may backfire as individuals get frustrated when more and more changes do not happen according to what they want now. Dialogue can facilitate this frustration.
Finally, communication does not substitute for the hard work of keeping a relationship or a congregation going. Some more introverted folks may even be turned off to sharing their inner depths (or listening to others do so).
That said, I witnessed vulnerable dialogue work well a few weeks ago. We had a gathering of five congregations in my mission center so that people could get to know each other better. In a “camp-like” setting, complete with mixers, class, and campfire, we had a conversation on “conditions of membership.” Everyone in the group shared about their memory of their baptism and what that meant to them. “Great,” I thought at first.”We’re doing theology by personal experience–so typical of late modern Western folks who think the sun rises and sets by their individual feelings.”
However, I was wrong with this cynical assessment. By listening to each other, we were getting beyond our personal experiences only. We were connecting to our common tradition across generations.The oldest member who shared was 82. The youngest was in her mid-twenties. Through sharing, we had one of those moments that Victor Turner would call an experience of “communitas” or Emile Durkheim would call communal “effervescence.” A deep sense of something larger than ourselves was built there. It was a place where others were vulnerable and trusting of each other. I felt more connected to the congregations in my mission center family (kind of like a district) than I had before then, too.
Ummm…that was a new post in itself. Sorry. Thanks for your thoughts and enthusiasm! Your post obviously provoked within me a lot of reflection. And, honestly, I love a good conversation like this.
Many years have gone by since I last attended a Sunstone Symposium. I am delighted to learn that the Community of Christ had a presence there. David, I think you are over the top with the French Revolution, but I am entranced by your next to last paragraph. I hope to someday share that effervescence. I wish that I had been in a church that met dissent with dialogue–or even a thoughtful consideration of my point of view. Thanks for both these thought-provoking posts.
Susan–Point well taken! The French Revolution analogy was a bit half crazed. I do maintain that dialogue isn’t the only solution to church problems, but it certainly is essential to a healthy church–at least a church that I want to be part of.
I think your point was well taken to begin with. Dialogue can make clear that a system can not deliver change necessary to some of its elements’ very survival. Then there is a fundamental issue between those who benefit from the system (the French aristocracy) and those who are destroyed within it (the peasantry)
If that does happen, and both sides agree that the system can’t make changes that fast, then maybe there should be separation that preserves the potential for both groups before there is rage and demonization of the opposing views.
A church that no longer considers itself the “one and only true church” must acknowledge that the choice of what church (if any) one supports no longer means what we used to think it did.
Keeping Jews and Christians, or Catholics and Protestants, or LDS and RLDS in the same structure didn’t work well. Since we aren’t planning to go back and reverse those decision-points, we ought to acknowledge that more decision points may be in our future.
I do hope that the Community of Christ can maintain its “big tent” approach for decades to come. All cultures and groups are in some ways assemblages that are temporary, but, we don’t have to throw in the towel just because we know our own mortality.
A larger point about dialogue needs to be made. Who does it and for what reasons? Jon Shields in a new book The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right (Princeton UP, 2009) points out that the Christian Right has promoted civil dialogue on abortion in the last few decades. Why? Because they have everything to gain in such a dialogue. Those who support a women’s reproductive choice have everything to lose and, not surprisingly, do not want dialogue on this issue. Similarly, liberals often support dialogue on gay marriage and gay ordination, while conservative do not want to even bring up the subject. Dialogue is often done as an instrument to bring about a specific change. Church members are not naive about this, too.
Shields makes a cogent point about dialogue that is relevant here. He writes that “social movements will never cultivate deliberation in the fullest sense, because they are ultimately driven and maintained by strong moral convictions.” I find that statement wholly persuasive.
There is a time for dialogue and a time for proclamation. And all dialogues eventually break down. That’s the problem of communication (or, rather, the problem we have created by making communication a kind of pure form of interaction that at is like telepathy–a very unrealistic idea for what actually happens between people).
I have completely derailed Rene’s post. Sorry, Rene! To go back to her original question, I see real, open sharing happening in “covenant groups” that are popular among some of my CofC friends. These groups are temporary and members commit to do a specific thing–study a book, pray for each other, etc. They keep each other accountable, and, when the time is over, the group disbands. This is an interesting form of intermitant coming together–gathering and scattering, if you will–that meets the spiritual needs of an increasing number of people outside of Sunday morning services. Oooohh…someone needs to do some ethnographic studies of covenants groups in the mainline Protestant community!
You have some very good points here. So, using Shields model here, who is offering dialogue because they have something to gain, and who is resisting dialogue because they have something to lose here in the CofChrist, and on what issues?
The covenant groups are good ideas, but I think they occur outside the church setting all of the time. It’s just on the outside of a church, getting together temporarily to accomplish a goal isn’t so remarkable that we give it a special name. Covenant group sounds so much more impressive than PTA fundraiser, though, doesn’t it?
I’ll go back to Rene’s original point, too. Passivism is a disease that comes from NOT really seeing an organization’s mortality. Sometimes we really need to keep in mind that throughout history, every decade is some group of people’s last chance to fulfill their purpose. “Someday…” does become yesterday.
Individuals who are fine with our current membership requirements have everything to lose by entering into dialogue on conditions of membership. Dialogue on this issue was pushed for by folks who wanted change. I’m fine with that, and I am fine with talking with people about this issue (and open to changes). Not all are okay with this, however.
I think the comparison between covenant groups and the PTA is like comparing a church to a union. They both have some common traits (membership requirements, common causes that unite a group, etc.), but they are definitely not the same. Covenant discipleship groups are actually a much wider phenomenon than our denomination–ranging from Unitarians to Presbyterians. (Do a google search to find out more.) Information on how to form a covenant discipleship group can be found on the CofC website, complete with resources.
Covenant discipleship groups may be a passing trend, but I see it as another way that individuals have sought to create new spaces for interaction. We have a long legacy of doing this. In the early nineteenth century, we embraced the Methodist quarterly conference in our conference system and modified the evangelical camp meeting to produce both our reunions and our Kirtland concept of the temple. Prayer meetings were also alternative spaces for people to share in new ways–in particular, women who were allowed to testify in public in this space. The list goes on. Perhaps it is a sign of some vitality in our movement that people are still seeking alternative spaces to share together while still under the umbrella of our denomination. The covenant groups I have observed were made up of people from many different CofC congregations in Independence, but who wanted to come together for a specific reason. I’m sure in outlying areas, they would look somewhat different.
Finally, amen to your comment on passivism. I’m glad to sense Rene’s excitement and hope that other young adults kindle the same spark. Too often, I have encountered young adults who say things like, “The church is not dealing with accepting homosexuality in an appropriate way, therefore I have stopped going to church.” Underlying that complaint was some real frustration, but also a desire to sleep in on Sunday mornings and not have to be involved. Whatever changes happen in our church will not come by people who stop attending! We need more activists, not passivists.
Your last paragraph bothers me — a lot! To me, the assumption that preserving the church is the goal is precisely the problem, not the solution.
We were not created to preserve ourselves. That should be the great understanding that comes from the notion that we are NOT seeing ourselves as the one and only true church. God cares that the Kingdom be built; we don’t need to be contorting ourselves and sacrificing people in order to maintain our denominational role in getting the Kingdom built. The latter smacks of the disciples arguing over who should sit on Jesus’ right hand in the coming Kingdom.
I’m not sure what you are reading into my comments in the last paragraph. Personally, I am convinced that denominational organizations are far better ways of organizing folks than do-it-yourself spirituality. There is no message of the kingdom unless there is a community that proclaims it. And there is no kingdom building unless folks do it. And the best way to do it is to get together and combine efforts–hence a denomination. Denominations may have some things wrong with them, but they help resist the narcissistic individualized spirituality sold to people night and day in the West and elsewhere. Denominations at least allow people access to stories and traditions much larger than themselves. I’m a fan of them. Do you have a better idea (and one proven to work over time that connects people across generations)? Denominations, even in Europe, are still one of the most effective, longest-lasting voluntary organizations that humans join. So, I’m a fan of sacrificing to keep ours. How about you?
Again, “longest lasting” is the problem, David.
The argument “help fix it” is the argument FOR dialogue from those who have something to gain from not changing, as you pointed out above.
It is the argument an LDS representative could have given Joseph III. It is the argument a Methodist minister could have given Joseph. Or a Catholic priest could have used to justify Luthor repudiating his beliefs. Or a member of the Sanhedren criticizing Paul. It has not been the Community of Christ argument — until this generation.
We have to see our name change as emphasizing community without deemphasizing the urgency of the “latter days”. It is empires that think they can last for a thousand years, not movements for social justice.
Yes, we were asked to proclaim. We were asked to be like the company that erects a sign on a future construction site saying “Coming soon on this site, the Sears Tower.” But it was taken for granted by all of our people that our “sign” was just the first step in building the “Tower”; that to fulfill our commission, the people of the Americas had to accept and join in living the Christian gospel in order to transform the entire world. We were a uniquely provincial, very much American church in and of the 19th Century. We thought in terms of laying out cities in Ohio and Missouri and Illinois (a pattern which the Mormons continued in Salt Lake) and buying up land to house our growing numbers of people.
We’ve since realized, I certainly think correctly, that the example communities must be built in and by all cultures so that the “Tower” itself is erected within and reflects the riches of all human culture, and not just a Western bias.
The movements of God in history are no more subject to our convenience than the movements of comets are.
Unless we’ve all – leaders and members both – been mistaken about the divine calling of this work from its origins in 1830, the trends God unleashed long before he called the Restoration Movement into being that provide necessities for Zionic transformation and blessing if we would accept it can’t simply be turned off. The construction materials for the Tower are being deposited on-site, to go back to my earlier analogy, whether or not we’re ready to move on from sign building. We turn them into a tower, or they are likely to turn themselves into a mess.
We can accept that we’re not “exceptional” in our origins, but then we can hardly claim that we will be exceptional in our fate compared to other denominations. And our membership numbers in North America are descending into irrelevance faster than our growth in other nations can compensate for it.
So I’m not a fan of sacrificing PEOPLE to keep our denomination, David. I’m a fan of helping our people figure out how they individually can keep contributimg to building the Kingdom with or without that infrastructure.
Sorry for the snarkiness of my last comment. While I like denominations, I realize that they have not always existed. Denominations are a modern creation–they came into being at some point in the 16th century when people realized that they needed clear boundaries to define themselves as different kinds of Christians. Before, it would probably be better to talk about (an admittedly diverse) medieval European Christianity rather than anything approaching denominations. And denominations may be a form of organizing that is waning. Historian Mark Noll has suggested as much in the conclusion of The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity. What is replacing them are loose networks of churches that at the congregational level are personality driven. It is the triumph of the evangelicalism with its disdain for traditions and emphasis on the individual! Yet, with the network of evangelical schools, bookstores, and publishing concerns, a remarkably common evangelical culture has also arisen. In other words, evangelicals can have their cake (decry denominations as an impure form of Christianity) and eat it, too. The losers in this culture are the older confessional churches–Lutherans, Episcopalians, etc. Even the more conservative confessional churches, like the Missouri Synod Lutherans, are losers to this new way of organizing Christians. Our denomination faces a hard task of surviving in this kind of North American Christianity. And I want it to survive. You could not talk about “building the kingdom” if there had not been an RLDS church that taught you that phrase. Christians before the 19th century certainly would not have used it. (There is a fundamental revaluation of the human capacity to change the world that happens in the 18th and 19th centuries that produced progressive Christianity today as well as evangelicalism and secular social movements.)Your love for building the kingdom has been a gift passed onto you. Let’s keep giving that gift!
Your comment was not snarky, David. This is what open sharing and dialogue involves, afterall.
(You do write faster than I do, though. You posted your last response before I posted in response to your earlier statement.)
I assure you that passing my heritage on is vital to me. I just don’t see that I honor that heritage from people who all LEFT their religious institutions in order to follow greater truth by making preservation of the religious institution the centerpiece of that heritage.
And I know too many people who suffer greatly by conforming to “expectations” of the faith community even when those expectations stop making sense to the mission of the faith community. The LDS did stand for Latter Day Saints, not “Middle Day Saints”. :>)