Last spring at its 2010 World Conference held at its Independence Temple Complex, the Community of Christ canonized Section 164 of its Doctrine and Covenants to address serious controversies within the church. The major point of the revelation was to call the church to separate fundamental, world-wide principles of the gospel from the culturally-dependent problems and issues to which those principles are to be applied.

And that separation was necessary because of the religious issues surrounding same sex marriage. Would CofChrist priesthood be permitted to perform such marriage as sacrament where such marriage was legal under civil authority? Would those holding CofChrist priesthood be permitted to engage in same sex marriage and keep their priesthood?

Church leadership had been planning since the previous World Conference in 2007 to address conditions for membership, and to defer any discussion regarding other issues. They knew the divisiveness that might develop between the largely North American church that had grown up in the Reorganized Latter Day Saint tradition of being the only true church with the only true priesthood — pause a moment for mental glitch as “Reorganized” registers — and a largely Third World church that saw Christianity as a whole, not the denomination, as the defining category. The leadership worked actively to deter people from bringing gay-related legislation to the 2010 Conference agenda, but failed. Section 164 was given and canonized in this context. Last spring I wrote at Mormon Matters a summary of Section 164.

In this post I want to focus on what has happened in regard to implementation of the Section 164 guidance concerning gay rights issues in the United States in the subsequent six months since World Conference.

There are three major groups in the church with strong stakes in these gay rights issues. In many countries where the church sees its future growth focused, it can be a cultural taboo, if not a criminal act, to even discuss the concept of same sex marriage. By moving such issues outside the jurisdiction of the World Conference, members of the church in such countries have been quarantined from the immediacy of the problem and allowed to deal with their own cultures’ challenges. However, North American members have strong liberal-conservative splits on this issue, as does American society as a whole.

The CofChrist planned to deal with gay rights issues through an American national conference to be held in the summer of 2012. Before the World Conference had ended in April, the 5 CofChrist Apostles with Field responsibilities for the United States had held a special conference session with the elected World Conference delegates to begin planning for the 2012 National Conference.

While the National Conference would have no actual legislative power to act, consensus at the National Conference would lead to recommended policy changes that could be approved by the Twelve and the Presidency. Many church liberals believed full inclusion of gay rights on these issues was a done deal, although others were much more cautious.

However, although Conference delegates are elected by their Mission Centers democratically, they are largely self-selected. Unlike in the LDS conferences, the legislative nature of a CofChrist conference means you can’t participate by watching on TV. You actually have to go to Independence for a week. So the nominating process (at least away from Independence itself) pretty much consists of the Mission Center President finding out who’s planning to go and who is willing to take on the extra work of being a delegate.

So the people who go to World Conference tend to have tighter social connections to the world church. Those whose loyalty is more to their local congregations do not allow their names to go on the Mission Center ballots.

In practice, this means that the American delegation to World Conference is now more liberal (and younger and wealthier) than the American membership as a whole.  So, despite all of the efforts of the leadership to communicate the significance of Section 164 beforehand, a significant portion of the church walked into their local congregations afterward not really grasping what had happened. And that’s when things started to get strange.

There was a sharp dropoff in World Church Tithes (CofChrist members may contribute to either local or world church funds) after Conference that lasted for a month or two and seems to have reflected nothing in the larger economy. It is unclear whether conservatives were unhappy that the church had gone too far, or whether liberals were unhappy that the church had not gone far enough. However, it provoked an equally sharp response from President Veazey, committing to impose a policy tying approval of all priesthood ordinations to world church tithes, not just local contributions or service. Budget contributions quickly returned to (and slightly above) budgeted levels.

Since the whole point of the planned 2012 conference was to create a consensus in the US church, the period before the conference was supposed to be one of dialog guided by the cognizant Apostles. That hasn’t happened, because the Presidency and Twelve have been first addressing the implementation of other parts of Section 164. In its place, people are talking in an unguided, and not always harmonious, fashion.

In a comment on an otherwise unrelated post on racism by Matt Frizzell, Michelle Dunlap, one of the Board Members of the Welcoming Community Network, noted:

“I’ve been saddened to see and hear the responses in some of our people, such as Central Mission Field. Unloving, would be the nice thing to say.”

As another example, a Mission Center President, whom I will not embarrass by naming, sent out discussion guidance quoting scripture and interpreting it in a way that equated homosexual sex, even in a monogamous marital relationship, to gang rape.

So, in September, the World Church Leadership Council met to provide guidance on the issue, specifically to review and correct “confusion” regarding existing existing policy. As noted here the Presidency took a non-routine step of asking the church for prayer as the retreat dealt with “difficult issues”.

As of this writing, it is unclear whether progress in any direction was made at the retreat. Matt Frizzell, who participated in the meetings as a newly ordained member of the church’s Standing High Council, wrote in his own blog on October 16:

“The meetings I was a part of were very institutional.  They dealt with administration, policies, funds and fund raising.   The meetings were important from an institutional perspective.  But, the meetings also went 8-10 hours a day for three days.  They were so large that there wasn’t an opportunity to disagree, question, or participate in the decisions being made.  Though, an invitation for feedback was made.    I was around friends I loved and respected, but I felt very alone.  A depressing question kept haunting me, ‘Is this life with Jesus?’   Despite all the opportunities afforded me through church, I wondered again if there was really a place for me?   This seems to be an ongoing spiritual struggle.”

The only formal output of the retreat to date is a statement condemning violence and harassment of gays. This statement, while welcome, is hardly controversial within the Community of Christ. It contains, however, acknowledgement in its own language of the difficulties ahead:

“We may not agree on all questions related to human sexuality and sexual orientation. However, we are earnestly seeking more insight and understanding. We invite all members and friends of Community of Christ to join us on this journey.”

In my next “after action report”, I’ll address the new policy towards baptism and confirmation which the Community of Christ is implementing: the policy that the 2010 Conference had been going to be about until those unruly members said, “Wait a minute. What about our gay brothers and sisters?”