Recently I was invited by the moderators of the liberal Mormon blog Wheat & Tares to be a guest contributor on issues related to Community of Christ. This post, published earlier today, is my first contribution for them.
By Rich Brown
Thirty years to the week after approving priesthood ordination for women, the Community of Christ is extending the sacraments of ordination and marriage to gays and lesbians in the United States. A two-year interim period begins on Monday, March 31, after which it will be reviewed and considered for permanent status. This follows similar action resulting from national conferences in Australia and Canada.
Lessons learned from what turned out to be a tumultuous (many might say disastrous) beginning for the 1984 landmark event have been put into place by CofC leaders today. Although a few church members in recent months have either turned in their priesthood cards or left the church, it’s nothing like the major exodus that took place three decades ago.
For starters, this time there was a three-year preparation period leading up to a special USA National Conference held right after World Conference in Independence, Missouri, last April. The 2,000 USA delegates spent several days listening, testifying, and worshiping together before overwhelmingly recommending that the First Presidency and the USA Team of Apostles issue the changes. The official conference report is here.
Here’s the specifics: The marriage sacrament is authorized for individuals in a same-gender relationship wherever such civil marriage is legal. Elsewhere CofC congregations may celebrate a special covenant/blessing worship experience. And ordination can be extended to individuals with same-gender orientation who are either in a committed, long-term relationship or who are celibate. For those wondering, the same rules apply to straight folks.
Thirty years ago World Conference delegates were caught off guard when RLDS President Wallace B. Smith presented an inspired document to priesthood quorums and orders on April 3. Two days later the document was approved by the conference as a whole and it became Section 156 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The document was mostly about a proposed temple to be built in Independence. But the last few paragraphs brought general counsel regarding priesthood, including the following:
I have heard the prayers of many, including my servant the prophet, as they have sought to know my will in regard to the question of who shall be called to share the burdens and responsibilities of priesthood in my church. I say to you now, as I have said in the past, that all are called according to the gifts which have been given them. This applies to priesthood as well as to any other aspects of the work. Therefore, do not wonder that some women of the church are being called to priesthood responsibilities. –Doctrine and Covenants 156:9
“Wonder” wasn’t exactly the operative word for traditionalists and conservatives. Already suspicious of what they viewed as dangerous liberalizing tendencies in the church for at least two decades, they were incensed and vowed to fight the move every way possible. Business meetings in congregations, districts, and stakes where priesthood calls for women were presented often turned into angry shouting matches. People made sure every one of their baptized children was on hand to vote yes or no depending on the parents’ direction.
My own stake (Blue Valley, which included a portion of Independence and eastern Jackson County) had its rules of operation suspended because people simply couldn’t get along. It was a sad, ugly, and unfortunate time even while marking a new era of broadened ministry in the church. Today women and men serve alongside one another. If you didn’t know what happened decades ago, you’d probably never suspect there was anything unusual about the way priesthood functions now.
Numerous resolutions on same-gender issues were submitted to the past few World Conferences but were ruled out of order by the First Presidency, mainly because they were considered important to church members in a select few nations rather than as something critical for the international church. The CofC has an official presence in more than 60 nations.
In 2010 inspired counsel to the church called for creation of national conferences, specifically to consider issues related to same-gender orientation. With somewhere around half of all CofC members living outside the Western, industrialized countries in North America, Australia, and Europe, this was believed to be the only way same-gender issues could be dealt with in the church.
Delegates at the USA National Conference engaged in a unique process aimed at reaching “common consent.” This meant that a significant majority (at least 66 percent) would have to make a recommendation for top church leaders to act.
In mid-March of this year, the five apostles responsible for USA mission centers sent a copy of President Stephen Veazey’s “Statement to the Church: National Conference Recommendations and Interim Policies” to priesthood members. It was mailed to all USA pastors and high priests, evangelists (referred to as patriarchs before women were ordained), bishops, and seventy. They presented the president’s statement as “inspired by the Holy Spirit.” A DVD titled “President’s Reflections” will be available in April to church members and include four sections: Let Me Be Clear, What Does the Lord Require of Us, My Personal Testimony, and Room for Everyone.
President Veazey’s statement, which spills over onto a fourth page, is essentially a point-by-point counter to criticisms of the new same-gender policies.
To those who argued that these new policies were in opposition to previous revelation given to the church, President Veazey had this to say:
Doctrine and Covenants 111 provides instruction regarding marriage in the church. It is a statement written in the mid-1830s to counter rumors about adultery and polygamy in the church. Same-gender marriage was not conceivable, much less a question, in early 19th-century thought. To conclude that Doctrine and Covenants 111 definitely resolves the question of same-gender marriage ignores its historical context and stated purpose. Also, although Section 111 was included in the Doctrine and Covenants, its historical preface clearly states it was not a revelation.
To those who have pointed to certain Bible verses used to condemn same-gender orientation and relationships, he offered this:
Let me be clear. Continuing Revelation approved by the World Conference means those particular Bible verses are not the final word on these matters. Such verses now are understood through insights offered in Continuing Revelation approved by the church…. However, the real issue was not just several Bible verses, but how we understand and apply scripture.
He identified Doctrine and Covenants Section 163 as important counsel in these matters:
Scripture is an indispensable witness to the Eternal Source of light and truth, which cannot be fully contained in any finite vessel or language…. Scripture has been written and shaped by human authors through experiences of revelation and ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the midst of time and culture. Scripture is not to be worshiped or idolized…. It is not pleasing to God when any passage of scripture is used to diminish or oppress races, genders, or classes of human beings. Much physical and emotional violence has been done to some of God’s beloved children through the misuse of scripture. The church is called to confess and repent of such attitudes and practices. –D. and C. 163:7 (excerpted)
President Veazey concluded that Section 163:7
applies to the verses used to deny persons of same-gender orientation access to all sacraments. It also applies to situations where scripture verses are used by some to dominate, oppress, or exclude others who are different from them. Because the World Conference approved Section 163:7 as an expression of God’s will, the Bible verses most often used to categorically denounce same-gender orientation and relationships no longer should be presented as the final word on these matters.
He said it “is clear that God is maturing us as a `prophetic people’ who discern divine will by responsibly engaging scripture, tradition, Continuing Revelation, knowledge and reason, personal and community experience, and Spirit-led consent…. I believe more-than-sufficient revelation has been received to resolve issues about same-gender relationships in nations where those issues are pressing matters.”
Near the end of his official statement, President Veazey wrote: “As I have continued to seek direction on behalf of the church, the Spirit has brought assurance that questions about same-gender orientation and marriage are primarily related to life on Earth. They do not have necessary bearing on salvation, the divinity of the church and the sacraments, or the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purposes.”
No doubt people both inside the CofC and outside it will be examining these words and trying to read between the lines. For me, it’s clear that “Continuing Revelation” is the most important consideration for the church as it deals with these and other critical issues.
It reminds me of an essay by theologian David Ford who described religion as God speaking to us from the past. Think of that as the accumulation of scripture, church tradition, and wise people who’ve used reason and intelligence to bring the church to where it is today. Ford identified revelation as God speaking to us from the future.
If God is free to open history from the future then the future need not mirror the past. In the Church this combines with the message of the cross to allow for discontinuities and innovations. –David F. Ford, `Faith in the Cities: Corinth and the Modern City’ in “On Being the Church” (1989)
Ford cited the example of the apostle Paul who claimed authority as an apostle through direct revelation from the risen Christ rather than an institutional authority handed on to him from Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem. To that I would add the experience of Joseph Smith Jr. in the early 19th century, who served as God’s instrument in bringing forth a “great and marvelous” new work.
We are all caught somewhere in between religion and revelation, and every church/denomination finds its own point on the continuum. With this “Statement to the Church” President Stephen Veazey is not only prompting the Community of Christ in an obvious direction but in a curious way he mirrors the examples of Apostle Paul and Joseph Smith in challenging the church to understand more fully what it means to be a prophetic people.