D&C 164: My Response to John-Charles Duffy

Concerning my interpretation of the compromise underlying D&C 164, I’ve found my understanding to be in keeping with the understandings of the delegates and leaders I’ve interviewed here at World Conference in Independence. However, I have found that many folks on the internet don’t share this interpretation for various reasons, as we’ve illustrated in discussions here at SaintsHerald. I want to address a very thoughtful response that John-Charles Duffy posted on his excellent blog, Liberal Mormon Spirituality. You can read his post here.

Because of its deliberate ambiguity, D&C 164, as written, could be open to all sorts of wide-ranging interpretations — and I agree that a reader will have few clues to favor the interpretation I’ve presented (in my own commentary that John-Charles cites) over and above many other, much less positive interpretations. I’m confident in my interpretation because I’m working from the context of the goals of the leadership and membership. The document was necessary for several reasons of process, but its text deliberately fails to speak to the underlying goals of that process. In regards to the explicit topic underlying the process it addresses, the text of the document is essentially marginal.

There’s fairly good precedent in the RLDS tradition for history-making revelations concerning inclusiveness to be doughty, unpoetic, administrative, and mixed in their tone. I had hoped last year for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Section 156 to quote language that might continue to inspire today. Instead, after a bunch of administrative actions, the section eventually says, “do not wonder that some women of the church are being called to priesthood responsibilities” — which reads almost like the idea is being snuck in. Likewise, as wonderful as it is that the revelation which confirmed priesthood ordination for blacks (Section 116) was received 113 years before LDS Official Declaration #2, its text today is horribly disappointing. While it affirms “it is expedient in me that you ordain priests unto me of every race,” it nevertheless cautions: “be not hasty in ordaining men of the negro race.” (Gee, thanks!) So, yes, I anticipate that in the year 2123 (113 years from today) when the LDS Church finally turns its back on discrimination against gay people, the text of Official Declaration #5 will be much more poetic than D&C 164 is today.

The ambiguity of the text allows for an interpretation of moral relativism that is not actually present in the intent behind the text. (Again, I agree that you can read it that way if you’re just looking at the text, but the actual thrust behind the text makes that reading completely unsupportable.) Yes, there are a list of practices in the preambles and elsewhere, but the only thing that these practices have in common is that they have all provoked “controversy” around the world. They are not listed because they are potentially morally neutral — either good or bad, based on our relative values. Rather, some of these practices are good and some of them are evil. Genital mutilation, child prides, and exploitation of widows are evil. Marriage equality is good and full inclusion of gay members in the life of the church is good. (Yes, the text doesn’t say what is good and what is evil, but that doesn’t change the fact that some things are good and some are evil.) The discernment process whereby God reveals truth in the heart of each member and then each congregation, mission center, nation, and ultimately the whole church, isn’t an exercise in moral relativism. It’s an understanding that people from different cultures, in different places, of different generations, with different backgrounds and education levels, need more or less time to discern that some things that are good are good and that some things that are evil are evil.

To address John-Charles’s “dramatic addendum” and overall concern: in no way whatsoever is there a pact that “if Africans won’t make a fuss about liberal Americans wanting to perform homosexual weddings, the liberal Americans won’t make a fuss about Africans wanting to cut their daughters’ genitals or marry them off as children.” The actual pact is that members in the developed world understand that it will take time for some members in certain places whose cultures have not yet prepared them to understand homosexuality to discern what is good in regards to the issue, i.e., that the full inclusion of gay people in the life of the church is good. Likewise, in societies where evil practices (female genital mutilation, underage marriages, exploitation of widows) are, in fact, fairly normative, members in those places need to begin now to discern these practices for what they are — which, is to say, they need to recognize that they these practices are evil and need to be abolished.

Of course it would be nice to have a poetic statement taking a bold stance for good and a bold stance against evil. However, as you know, imposing a just law does not necessarily maximize or sustain actual justice. D&C 156 ended with a split in the Community of Christ which continues to this day. The people who left (now called “Restorationists”) clearly were not ready to accept what was right (full participation for women) back in 1984. How many of them might have been ready by 1990? How many by today? I’m not suggesting that there should have been more delay back then because I don’t have detailed enough information to second guess the process. However, the problem now is that having taken their stand on this issue, Restorationists are frozen. They can’t do what’s right today because their very identity is based on the fact that they chose what was wrong twenty-five years ago.

I put it to you that attitudes toward gay people around the world are in such rapid flux, and are trending so positively, that the last thing we need is to freeze an entire segment of people by creating a schism where their basic identity is formed around wanting to cling to discrimination against gay people.

In other words, unlike the previous revelation (D&C 163,) which was both inspiring and poetic, I agree that the text of D&C 164 is neither. Rather, it returns to the old RLDS practice of finding compromise through revelations that deal with the process. The two essential effects of the revelation are process effects: (1) a compromise which creates a multi-track system, that will effectively be two-tiered, which will allow full participation of gay members in some areas rapidly and others more slowly, while (2) attempting to win the hearts and minds of as many members as possible in the slow areas, and, in so doing preventing the church from splitting and consequently preventing people who are currently wrong from permanently hardening their hearts against that which is right.


15 comments on “D&C 164: My Response to John-Charles Duffy

  1. What a great statement, John. You seem to have analyzed The situation very well.

  2. Doug Gregory says:

    Once again, I think what is being missed in 164 is a series of strong calls to delve more deeply into our commitment to be followers of Christ. It does what Steve told me back in the early 80’s what a good sermon does – it comforts the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable.

    This post comes across to me as an agenda with a Euro-USA mindset looking for validation of that agenda.

    Does God owe you or I an answer to today’s question, or does God speak to broader truths?

    And for your sense of right or wrong, I may or may not agree with you, but Matt Frizzell’s explanation of these ideas helped me immensely to see beyond my own interpretation of them.

    I pray to see as God sees, not for God to see as I do (which takes me back to Ian Anderson’s writing with Jethro Tull “In the beginning, man created god, in man’s own image created he god…”).

    • John Hamer says:

      Doug — In fact, I’m not seeking validation for my own mindset, as I don’t require any. My goal here is to address concerns from my left by crossing t’s and dotting i’s for potentially disheartened members and seekers who may have less context and information than I have.

      On God, I should think God is as much a part of today’s questions and narrow truths as God is a part of broader truths. Yes, humans inevitably think of God in human terms, for example when we say things like “God owes” or “God speaks” or “God sees” as you have above. In all these cases, we are analogizing God with humans by attributing human characteristics to God. You’re quite right that we must be constantly aware of this trap.

  3. As a person who believes God’s Spirit lives within each of us, prompting (but not coercing) us toward the best decisions..those for our own best good, I cannot separate God from the person expressing the will of God. Whether that will is discerned correctly, is a matter of trust.

    I trust Steve has tried his very best to express what he believes is the will of God for the church.

  4. John Hamer says:

    I’m staying this week in the same neighborhood as one of the apostles and his family (and their guests from Wales) and talked to him last night about the charge that discernment might appear to be moral relativism in disguise. His answer was pretty immediate and unequivocal: the worth of all persons is a moral absolute for the church. And he argued that D&C 164 provides a compass on which to discern right versus wrong on each issue because it condemns that which is abusive and degrading and celebrates that which is rooted in love, mutual respect, and covenant. So I would say that if you plug those absolute values in and do the calculus, you’ll get the results I define in the original post and not moral relativism.

  5. I pray that you’re right John. Keep pressing the leadership to keep them moving in the right direction. Much of what was done here, was likely in response to the huge swath of resolutions that needed to be dealt with expeditiously. Now that we are 3 years away from another Conference, the immediate pressure is off.

    Regardless of your views of current leadership, it’s beyond argument that delay and defer has been an integral part of their strategy on this issue. It is incumbent on all of us to keep the pressure on to resolve this.

    • John Hamer says:

      I will absolutely keep pressing even as I keep working. Because nothing I’ve added — none of the work I have done, am doing, and will do — is of any value unless the church actually lives its values.

  6. Actually the next conference has been scheduled for Spring 2012.

    • Really? I thought we were on a 3 year schedule now. Are we doing the alternate legislative/educational conference thing? Refresh my memory please.

    • John Hamer says:

      My understanding (and I’ve asked a couple people around HQ here) is that there was a motion toward the end of this WC to move the next WC from April 2013 to June 2013, but the motion failed and the resolution was passed for next one to be convened in April 2013. I’m not sure if you have other information than that, Margie?

  7. David Howlett says:

    There will be a national US conference convened in 2012, though the dates are not definite yet (it may be in the spring or the summer). The US national conference will take up the issues that the World Conference did not address directly.

  8. Kevin Bryant says:

    Friday morning had national assemblies from 8-12 in the morning. This was set up to prepare for the national conferences. Among the activities at that meeting was a questionnaire distributed asking for ideas about the coming US Conference. It included two options at the top (one to be indicated and returned) which were either Spring 2012 OR Summer 2012. It was no more specific than that in terms of dates, I would doubt anything would be known for sure this soon after anyways. It also included a question as to whethe a Mon-Fri or Extended Weekend Conference was preferable. I think it’ll still be quite a while before we know anything for certain, but World Conference is April 2013, US National Conference is sometime 2012. We’ll get at least 12 weeks warning preceding the US Conference according to the bylaws.

  9. David has the same information I have, John. I understood the preference was for June of 2012 because by then school would be out. I have heard nothing else.

    • FireTag says:

      Reports from my daughter who was at the meeting was that the questionnaire was described with clear qualifications that the conference was not PROMISED for either period. Events yet to occur will dictate timing.

  10. Does anyone have any further insight on the discussions/decisions regarding national or field conferences? I know there were meetings after World Conference, and that summer 2012 has been penciled in as a potential US Conference date, but have their been further developments?

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