Most of you reading this know that I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes better known as “the Mormons”). Many of you know enough about the church not to need this bit of introduction. But I’m going to start by explaining the background for those who don’t know it.
Although the church was founded in 1830, it was meant to be a restoration of Christ’s original church, including apostles. So in 1835, twelve Apostles were ordained and set apart to be a Quorum which would serve and exercise authority underneath the President of the Church (Joseph Smith Jr.). After Smith and his brother were assassinated in 1844, there was some question about who should assume the leadership of the church. Brigham Young, the senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, made a case that when President Smith died, the Presidency was dissolved, and authority fell to the Twelve. Three years later, it was decided to have Brigham Young be formally set apart as President of the Church. He called two men to be Counselors,1 and they formed a First Presidency. Vacancies in the Twelve would lead to new “replacement” Apostles being chosen, called, ordained, and set apart.
Since then, leadership in the church has continued in that pattern. The Apostles are ranked in order of seniority, which is almost always based on the date on which the Apostle was called. When the first Twelve were called in 1835, they were ranked in seniority by age. Since then, every time more than one Apostle at a time was called,2 their seniority was determined by their relative ages.
Now, with that out of the way…. Over the last few months, three of the church’s Apostles died. First was Elder3 L. Tom Perry, who died at the age of 92 on May 30. Next was President4 Boyd K. Packer, the second-most senior apostle behind current Church President Thomas S. Monson, died at the age of 90 on July 3. And finally, Elder Richard G. Scott died at age 86 less than a fortnight ago, on September 22.
Every six months, the Church holds a “General Conference”. On the first weekend of April and the first weekend of October, leaders of the church address church members. Conference used to be held at the Tabernacle5 on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, but a ways back the church built a much bigger Conference Center which can hold 21,000 people. The Conference is also broadcast via satellite to church buildings around the world, and can be viewed live over the Internet. One of the things that happens at these conferences is that members renew their votes to “sustain” the leaders of the church. At that time, any new leaders will be announced. So there’s a very good chance that sometimes on Saturday or Sunday, the names of three new apostles will be read out, and the “church org chart” will be full again.
Now, different people have different “styles”, and that is apparent among church leaders as it is among any other group of people. One apostle, President6 Dieter F. Uchtdorf, has a very warm, open, welcoming, loving style. Many current church members consider him to be their favourite church leader. One of his past conference talks has made a very large impact on many members of the church, especially those who might have doubts about the church, concerns about the church and church history, doubts about their own faith, and so on. On Saturday, October 5, 2013, he spoke on the subject of “Come, Join With Us”, and eloquently expressed his love for all those who have left or drifted away from the church, encouraging them to come back and saying “there is room for you in this Church. Come, join with us!”
The late President Boyd K. Packer had, shall we say, a different style. Those who knew him best testified that he also had a great love for God and for all God’s children, for all of us. But he seemed to be a bit less, how shall I say it, “open”, than someone like President Uchtdorf seems. He often had harsh words to say about gays and lesbians, for example.7 In one 1993 address, he referred to “three areas where members of the Church, influenced by social and political unrest, are being caught up and led away. … The dangers I speak of come from the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement … and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals.” When a few historians/”intellectuals” (eventually known as the “September Six”) were excommunicated from the church a few months later, many in and out of the church detected President Packer’s hand guiding those disciplinary actions.
As a “so-called … intellectual” myself, and as one whose faith in the church isn’t as “solid”, isn’t as “orthodox”, and isn’t as “automatic” as that of many others, I confess I often found myself offended by things President Packer would say. His derisive references to gays and lesbians just hurt even more after one of our daughter came out to us a few years ago. His conviction that people studying the history of the church should focus only on what is “faith-promoting”, and not delve into situations where church leaders and church members made mistakes or actively hurt others, capped by his statement “Some things that are true are not very useful,” offended my intellectual curiosity and desire to learn the truth of all things. I confess, I never got to the point of feeling the kind of love and respect for President Packer that I have for other church leaders.
I see the tension between these two “styles” as being the key issue facing the Church right now. With the rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web, more and more information about church history is available to church members, and some of them, having been raised on church history that was pretty much pablum, find themselves very frustrated and confused when they learn more about church history that often contradicts the “faith-promoting” stories they were taught as youth. More and more church members are questioning the church’s hard line on same-sex relationships, whether it’s the huge number of resources and amount of money that the church poured into the fight for Proposition 8 in California in 2008, or the church’s refusal to consider any same-sex intimate relationship acceptable conduct for members of the church. And lately, when members of the church have been open about their questions, whether it’s Kate Kelly trying to persuade church leaders to pray about and consider opening the priesthood to women, or John Dehlin podcasting the stories of people who have questions about the church and stories that don’t fit the Mormon mold, or others questioning if the church has become too “corporate” and less spiritual, the heavy hand of church discipline has come down again; there have been at least six high-profile excommunications of questioning members over the last year and a half, and it appears that more are coming.
One of the organizational units of the church is called a “stake”. It comes from a scripture in the Old Testament, Isaiah 54:2, which uses the metaphor of a tent to represent Zion:
Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes;
I see the Church as being at a bit of a fork in the road. Should the Church be a “Big Tent”, or should it be a “Small Tent”? To me, a “Big Tent” church would be open and welcoming to all, including to those who have doubts and questions, and including those who express concern about the direction of the church. A “Big Tent” would listen to their concerns, and seek to address them with love and compassion and concern; not necessarily changing with every single desire for change, but at least being open to the possibility of change. After all, we see our church as a restoration of all things, including continuing revelation; that’s why we have scriptures that other churches don’t have, and that’s why the church has made changes, sometimes big changes, as a result of revelation from God (which itself often came as the response to many mighty prayers from many many people).
Or should the Church be a “Small Tent” church? Should it focus only on those whose faith is solid, who don’t ask questions,7 who don’t “rock the boat”, who “fit the mold”? Should those whose faith is wobbly be told to “Shape up or ship out”? Should those with hard questions be accused of rebellion and told to leave? If someone (perhaps someone who is gay or lesbian?) doesn’t feel like there’s a “place” for them in the church, should that become a self-fulfilling prophecy?
The excommunications of the last year or two seem to indicate that the “Small Tent” crowd is winning this tug-of-war. A number of church members are seeing this, and deciding maybe they should “get out while the gettin’ is good.” Others are content and comfortable in their place in the church, and wonder what everyone else is getting so cranky about.
The last time the Church called three new Apostles at once was in 1906. That was a time of big change in the church; The church had officially ended polygamy or “plural marriage” in 1890, for example. One apostle of the time, Elder Reed Smoot, had been elected to represent Utah in the Senate in 1902, but was met with mistrust and concern until a lengthy series of hearings questioned him comprehensively on his beliefs, his relationship with the church, and whether the church really had ended polygamy. The hearings lasted for four years, and generated 3,500 pages of testimony, and also brought a great deal of national attention to the church.
If three new apostles are chosen and called this weekend, I think the choice of who is called will say a great deal about the direction of the church in the next half-century. On the one hand, we believe that those who are chosen and called for any office in the church are chosen and called by God. On the other hand, it’s not like God comes down and taps each person on the shoulder; the will of God comes through people, human beings, imperfect human beings. And so while we trust that the choices made this weekend will reflect the will of God, we also know that they will reflect the will and desires and direction of President Monson, and, to a lesser extent, his counsellors and the other apostles.
Will we get three more apostles like President Uchtdorf? Will we get three more apostles like President Packer? Will we get a kind of “mix”? Will the church start going more towards a “Big Tent” approach? Or will church leaders double-down on the “Small Tent” path?
I don’t always pay close attention to every General Conference, but I’m going to be paying very close attention to this one.
1 The church uses the American spelling with one L. I follow that here for actual titles. But for the word in general, I spell it with two Ls.
2 There was one exception, at the time in 1906 when three apostles were called at once. George F. Richards was given seniority, even though he was younger than the second of the three, Orson F. Whitney. (The third of the three, David O. McKay, was the youngest of the three and was ordained last; he went on to become President of the Church from 1951 to 1970.) No one’s quite sure why that was done that way.
3 Most adult male church members hold the priesthood office of “Elder”. (This explains why we give the title to fresh-faced 19-year-old boys who knock on doors around the world to spread the message of the gospel, even though they’re not very “elderly” at all.) And most higher church leaders, even if they are Apostles, are also addressed as “Elder”.
4 Any man bearing the priesthood who holds the office of a President over any group or quorum in the church, and anyone who is a counsellor to a President, is addressed as “President”. As the most senior Apostle in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Boyd K. Packer was the President of the Quorum of the Twelve, and therefore addressed as “President”, while the other apostles are referred to as “Elder”.
5 Yes, that Tabernacle, home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
6 President Uchtdorf, while also an Apostle, currently serves as the Second Counselor to President Thomas S. Monson in the First Presidency. Counselors in the First Presidency don’t have to be apostles, but they almost always are.
7 There’s a popular saying among Mormons that goes “When the prophet speaks … the debate is over.” It’s from Sister Elaine Cannon, in the General Women’s Meeting on September 16, 1978. At the time, Sister Cannon was the President of the church’s Young Women’s Association, which provides activities and programs for young women aged 12-18 in the church. No, women are not usually addressed as “President” even when they’re presiding over an organization. I try to change that, myself. On the other hand, I vehemently disagree with this statement, especially since there are so many other times when leaders of the church have talked about our need to “study things out for yourselves” and not to just accept everything church leaders say uncritically and unthinkingly.