Over the past few weeks, Elder Bednar has been in the UK visiting the area and attending stake conferences, amongst other church business. Whilst Elder Bednar was in the UK, he held a special meeting for the YSA in England. Young single adults from all over the country travelled extortionary distances to get there. It is possibly the only church meeting I have been to where there was a queue outside the building to get in 2 hours before it even started (and I was there early because my ride was determined to get as close to an Apostle as she could).
Standing in queue with 200 fellow YSA to see an apostle, it’s hard not to think that many were lured in by the “cult of the celebrity.” There is a certain bewitchment that comes from the possibility of seeing someone famous, and in Mormon circles they don’t get much more famous than an apostle. As a result, the YSA were out in droves an hour before it even started and every chair in the 600-seating chapel was filled, and more were standing on the sides and sitting on the floor.
When he visits areas around the world, Elder Bednar hosts Question & Answer sessions. He started by saying that there was no such thing as a bad question, that all questions were good and worth asking. This was refreshing to hear from an apostle, to listen to him encourage members to use their cognitive powers to ask questions. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps he meant that it’s okay to question as long as you ask the right questions. He pointed out that for most, this will be their only opportunity to ask an apostle a question. In looking back over the minute the questions that were asked could be divided into several subcategories.
I personally found these quite awkward. They were questions in which the person asked Elder Bednar about a personal problem that they had. For instance, one of them asked about how he could feel good about the fact that he came home early from his mission. He then proceeded to spend 10 minutes pouring out his heart about it. (The answer he got: speak to your bishop and read Alma 7:11).
These seemed to me people who wanted validation from an apostle, or, they wanted him to act on behalf of Jesus and tell them that their sins are forgiven them. It just seemed a bit pointless to me to ask a question about a problem that he had no knowledge. All he could give in response to them was general advice that could be obtained from any general conference talk.
These were questions that were rather big and amorphous such as ‘What is the doctrine of grace?‘ A question like that hardly draws upon an apostle’s unique experience. If you want to know about grace, apparently you don’t need to ask an apostle as all Elder Bednar did was open up the scriptures and read from the Bible Dictionary.
One of the better generic questions was the difference between emotion, good thoughts, and the spirit. Elder Bednar’s response to this was that it doesn’t matter, as long as you are being good. If the thought or feeling invites you to be better and do more good, then it doesn’t really matter if it’s the spirit telling you or just your own thoughts and emotions. This was a good point, yet it failed to really give an adequate way of demarcating spirit from personal thoughts and emotion.
These I think were the best questions. They were questions that asked about things that only Elder Bednar knew or had experience of. They were questions such as ‘What was it like being in the room when President Monson was called?’ These were insightful. Elder Bednar said that when President Hinckley died that they all knew that President Monson was the one that God had prepared to be the president of the church and that God holds the keys of life, and preserves the lives of those that he wants to be the president of the church. This would seem to indicate that right now God wants President Packer to be the president of the church. I did wonder how Elder Bednar reconciled this with medical development, as surely the competency of the doctors also have a say in who lives and dies from the apostleship.
Having a suspicion that Elder Bednar would have questions and answers, I had prepared many questions that I wanted to ask him. Some of them fit into the final category, such as ‘How do homosexuals fit into the plan of salvation?‘ This question was half-asked by someone else, but it was more to do with helping to make homosexuals feel welcome at church. The answer he gave was similar to the one given here to the question ‘What will happen to someone with same gender attraction once they die?’ I also wanted to get his perspective on the September Six, D. Michael Quinn, and the church’s relationship with academics.
In the end I decided not to go for any of these more controversial questions but instead asked him about his experience as an apostle. I wanted to know how he stops the celebrity of being an apostle from going to his head, given the fact that everyone adores him, that in a Sunday School class no one would ever disagree with him, that if he asked people to jump they would jump without thinking. What stops him from abusing his position? What keeps the apostles from exercising unrighteous dominion? (Well, yes, this was three questions, but they were all related).
The answer he gave was insightful, and he answered in two stages. The first was to talk about the weight of the calling of the apostleship. He told us that the longer he served as an apostle and the more he understood what it involves, that directly causes that person to feel the crushing weight of responsibility and a feeling of inadequacy. He said that some days the weight of it all makes you want to crawl under bed and hide, and that the only way to go on it to realise that its not about you, but doing your best. That even though you feel you can only do little, that the rest is made up by God.
The second stage of his response was that we don’t see what goes on behind closed doors. That as soon as any of them go out and visit places and start to feel like they are cool, they return to the Quorum where they are soon put in their place. He then told us what it was like being in a meeting with the rest of the apostles. He described them as speaking very candidly, forthrightly, directly, and boldly, that everyone expressed an opinion and that they often disagreed in a strong manner on certain points. He told an interesting story about when Elder Scott was made an apostle. The candor and directness of the discussion was so intimidating that Elder Scott avoided making a comment for the first three months. During one of the early meetings the intensity of the discussion was higher then normal, and a fellow apostle passed him a note saying: “welcome to the quorum; we play hard ball here.” I did try to ascertain what things they disagreed on; the best I got was ‘things that concern the membership of the church.’
It was refreshing to hear that in meetings at the upper levels they are free to disagree. I had always suspected this to be the case but to hear it being said was encouraging. Elder Bednar also spoke about how, even though they spoke directly and with conviction (a nicer way of saying they disagreed strongly), none of them were trying to prove others wrong or to contend with each other. None of them were doing it to gain respect or validation from others but out of a sincere passion to do what was best for the church and was right in the eyes of God. It is a shame that this knowledge of the internal discussion and disagreement that constitute the mechanics of church meetings is kept from members. Perhaps if members knew then it would result in a more healthy attitude towards leaders, rather than a Mormon version of papal infallibility.
This healthy attitude comes from seeing them as ordinary men with an extraordinary role. It comes from having the faith to question. It was wonderful to see him encourage people to think and ask questions even if, despite saying the answers come from the Holy Ghost, it still suggests that they need to refer to a general authority to get the answer. By the end of the evening Elder Bednar had shown a human dimension that is sometimes stripped away in his normal public persona. He was not the strict, orthodox, fun-hating apostle that I had always thought he was (although his wife told of him making them all wear Sunday best to the beach whilst everyone else was in beach wear). There is something humanizing about seeing an apostle do an impression of the Cookie Monster to characterise the natural man.
In the end, what came through was that the apostles are simply normal people who don’t have all the magical answers or a special doorway to God; they are imperfect people just like us but with a role with of great responsibility.
Have you had a chance to sit in this type of forum with an apostle or other high-ranking leader? What would you ask an apostle given the chance?