Church History Sunday (Month #1)

I’ve begun teaching adult Sunday School once a month at my congregation in downtown Toronto. The other three weeks, we’re going through the Enduring Principles, but my week is “Church History Sunday.” I’m working without a manual, but I’m planning to write out what I do and post it here as a resource for anyone interested.

I started last week at the beginning by asking my class the question: “How does our history begin?” Now, I was prepared for people to take this as a trick question. I thought I might get answers like “actually, since Christ founded the church, our history begins with the ministry of Jesus in Palestine,” or I thought someone might want to push back further to Eden or even the Pre-Existence. Instead, I instantly got the answer I was fishing for, “with a young man praying in a grove,” one of the class members volunteered immediately.

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Exactly. This is how we today always start our story. With the “First Vision.” I next asked “What is the story of the First Vision?” and I had one of the folks write each detail on the whiteboard. The class came up with these details, which I’ll put into order: 1820s, revival meetings, confusion of sects, James 1:5, grove, prayer, vision, personage, creeds an “abomination,” don’t join any sect, found the church. The only details I had on my list that didn’t get volunteered were: “confronted by dark powers” and “pillar of light.” The class clearly knew the story from memory. Continue reading

Some Walls Just Came Tumbling Down

The boundaries separating Community of Christ from other Christian denominations have just gotten considerably more porous.

Item No. 1:
Last week CofC leaders released details on new procedures for church membership for Christians previously baptized in other denominations. An interim policy takes effect January 1, 2011, and will be valid through the following August 31.

On September 1, 2011, an official policy becomes effective. It is anticipated that a new church-members introductory course will be available by that time, and all new prospective members will be required to complete it. Until then existing resources (Walking with Jesus: Disciples in Community of Christ and Sharing in Community or We Share: Identity, Mission, Message, and Beliefs) may be used by local authorities.

A key element in both the interim and official policies is that this procedure is only for those people who were baptized (1) at the age of eight or older and (2) their baptism involved water [full or partial immersion, pouring, or sprinkling]; in other words: infant baptism does not qualify. All people seeking membership in Community of Christ in this way must agree to a Shared Understanding of Baptism statement.

Included with the official announcement of this significant policy change was a letter from church president Stephen M. Veazey. In it he explains how the policy came into being, its direct connection to Doctrine and Covenants Section 164 (approved in April 2010 at World Conference), and a brief personal reflection.

Item No. 2:
On November 10, delegates to the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches U.S.A. unanimously approved Community of Christ for membership. A report by a NCC committee recommending approval is here (the report also includes the church’s “We Share” document). The NCC report makes for interesting reading, particularly the section that notes that the Community of Christ’s “founder” was not Joseph Smith Jr. but Joseph Smith III (admittedly, this information is provided by a representative of Roman Catholic bishops and excerpted from a letter by him to the committee).

The announcement on the church’s Web site is here. While this announcement is not totally unexpected (recall that the NCC’s general secretary, the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, addressed the CofC World Conference this year and expressed his strong support for this step), it does represent a significant (some would probably substitute “radical”) development in RLDS/Community of Christ history.

These separate announcements are not simply administrative actions, of course. There are major theological and historical issues involved. Clearly there are those who view this moment in the church’s long history as a leap into religious maturity while others see it as damning proof of apostasy.

Perhaps in both cases this becomes a core question: Now that the Community of Christ allows church membership for Christians without requiring rebaptism and the denomination is a part of the National Council of Churches USA, what difference is that going to make as the church (understood as a worldwide communion, national churches, mission centers, congregations, and faith movement) moves ahead?

In its shortened form, it’s simply this: So what?

Sticks and Stones and … Compliments?

Several years ago when my congregation attempted to join the local ministerial alliance (in a town right next door to Independence, Missouri), I was met by a coalition of fundamentalist and evangelical pastors intent on keeping out the (then) RLDS Church. Their reasoning ranged from claims we were “non-Christian” all the way to “not Christian enough” and, finally, to “it would just open the door for Mormons to want to join.”

As it turned out, they only wanted to talk about Joseph Smith. Apparently, our faith movement’s founder represented all that anybody needs to know about contemporary Latter Day Saint groups.

To shorten a long and rather nasty story, I’ll just skip to the part where representatives from United Methodist, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, and Roman Catholic Churches prevailed. A Methodist pastor put it this way: “Nobody asked me to prove I was ‘Christian enough’ to join, so why should we start now?”

Eventually most of the fundamentalists/evangelicals bolted from the alliance when an LDS representative was admitted a few years later. They formed their own group, which over time has dwindled in size and influence.

I mention this episode as a way to ask, “Do we expect to be misunderstood or misrepresented?” Is this a natural outgrowth of religious discrimination and persecution experienced by our forebears in the almost two centuries of our faith movement’s existence? Although nobody’s getting tarred and feathered these days (at least here in North America, as far as I’m aware), has suspicion become our default setting?

Continue reading

Painting an Inspiring Story

New Illustrated History of the Church
I’ve been working around the clock the past two weeks with Barb Walden and David Howlett to create a new, brief, illustrated history of the church. We want to have the book published in time for the sesquicentennial of the Reorganization next year, so time is tight.

Our goal has been to tell the church’s history vividly, using the graphic-intensive format we created for last year’s illustrated history of the Kirtland Temple. The new book will be 74 pages long. Writing a 74-page book doesn’t initially seem like that big a deal, but some times it can be harder to write a short book than a long book. Continue reading

Community of Christ Reunions: A Very Brief History

Since the fall of 1883, Community of Christ members have gathered annually to attend reunions, or family camp gatherings, in their local areas. Listen to this 1911 description by Elbert A. Smith (a grandson of Joseph Smith, Jr) of a reunion that occurred on the grounds of Kirtland Temple.

I reached Kirtland the second day of the reunion and found that I had been elected to preside . . . Some 25 or 30 tents were on the ground just back of the temple, and a great many people had taken rooms in the hotel and private houses. . . . Our meeting passed off very pleasantly and profitably. The meetings were spiritual and the solemn and sacred atmosphere of the temple seemed to influence the minds of those who were present. Continue reading