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.