Salt Lake City sees General Conference every six months. In the CofChrist, “World” Conference occurs every three years, and 2013 is the lucky year.

A Community of Christ World Conference is far more of a legislative exercise than its Utah LDS analogue. It features worship, of course, and normally will have approval to changes and ordinations to leading quorums (which have already been announced). It may halt in mid-stream for canonization of a new section of the Doctrine and Covenants. But only a couple of evening sessions will be taken up by “talks” by church leadership.

The bulk of the week-long conference will be devoted to things like budget, institutional board appointments — and a smorgasbord of resolutions brought to the Conference from lower-level jurisdictions. One thing that will not be on the smorgasbord will be issues related to gay rights within the church. The big news on that front is scheduled to be resolved at a United States national conference that will immediately follow the World Conference, and that I will probably post about separately.

The separation of forums for addressing of gay rights issues was the outgrowth of adoption by the 2010 World Conference of a revelation that directed the church to distinguish between general principles of the gospel applicable throughout human history, and the appropriate expression of such principles in particular cultural settings. Indeed, some national conferences in the Community of Christ have already adopted new policies that permit same sex marriage as a sacrament, and the ordination to priesthood of those in same sex marriages.

But the revelation is now a binding principle on the scope of World Conference legislation on topics other than LGBT issues as well. As a result, the legislation list for the 2013 Conference appears less cluttered with “social justice” concerns that mirror first world political debates than conferences over the last couple of decades. (In time, one would expect different issues with more of a developing world emphasis to emerge because the demographic future of the Community of Christ lies abroad, but at present the membership of the Community of Christ remains overwhelmingly North American.) The First Presidency can now rule out-of-order legislative proposals that are not of church-wide concern (in addition to other hurdles for a proposal to come to the floor).

The Presidency can also exert a great deal of agenda control simply by the order in which items of legislation are called to the floor. World Conferences share a certain characteristic with academic conferences: as the conference winds toward its close, people start worrying about catching flights home. So, toward Thursday or Friday, items to which any significant controversy is attached, and which do not have to be addressed (e.g., like budgets) tend to quickly get referred to the Presidency or a standing world church committee (Team) for further study and a report to the next conference. This can be the fate of proposals either favored or opposed by the Presidency, so things which they strongly support will be brought up fairly early in the week.

Nuclear Weapons

Which brings us to one of the more interesting pieces of legislation proposed for 2013. One of these “the-clock-ran-out” items at the 2010 Conference would have moved the church toward a more pacifist understanding of the gospel than the church has been willing to previously embrace. Since the legislation had the strong support of one of the standing teams initially, it is not surprising that related legislation is back, focusing on the abolition of nuclear weapons. The legislation is a joint proposal of  the World Church Piece and Justice Team and the Earth Stewardship Team, and the “actionable” parts of the legislation are:

Resolved, That Community of Christ affirms nuclear weapons pose a grave moral threat to the Earth and existence of life; and be it further

Resolved, That Community of Christ join the global voices seeking to halt nuclear weapons production, support prudent action to minimize the threat or use of nuclear weapons, and urge renewed efforts toward eradication; and be it further

Resolved, That wherever practical, Community of Christ convey its support for the responsible reduction and eventual eradication of nuclear weapons, urging policy to that end by all nations; and be it further

Resolved, That the Peace and Justice and Earth Stewardship teams be empowered and supported in

  1. sharing resources for education and dialogue that advance awareness of toxicity to the Earth, encouraging and supporting membership action on non-proliferation and elimination of nuclear weapons;
  2. encouraging justice, peace and reconciliation training, and activities that educate concerning the complexities of nuclear disarmament and international strategic deterrence issues;
  3. networking across the church, including access to the church’s website, periodicals, and social media; and
  4. connecting and encouraging the many individuals of Community of Christ and its affiliates such as PeacePathways, as well as advocates throughout the world committed to a peaceful, safe, and secure, nuclear weapons-free world; and be it further

Resolved, That progress toward these aims together with recommendations for further initiatives be reported to the 2016 World Conference.

Indeed, the church held its 2012 Peace Colloquy — the major fall event of this “peace and justice” church — on the subject of engaging nuclear questions in peacemaking, and so it would be something of an institutional embarrassment for the legislation not to pass. Whether such passage has any effect — positive or negative — on the number of nuclear weapons states or the number of explosions occurring to decrease or increase that number between now and 2016 is, of course, another matter entirely. And that is a point for discussions in the comments for this post, since the LDS church has certainly been accused of doing too much or too little recently in regard to controversial public policy issues about which members and non-member observers have strong, if contradictory moral convictions. Do such statements help or hurt? Should they be made? Can they be reduced to least-common-denominator without becoming meaningless?

Infant Baptism and Baptismal Prayers

The 2010 World Conference also took action on changing conditions for membership (i.e., loosening policies toward accepting baptisms performed by other denominations as valid for entry into the Community of Christ without rebaptism). The controversy over this issue was also part of the reason the clock ran out on discussions of pacifism.

An important part of the Prophet’s testimony regarding these changes was a reaffirmation that baptism was a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, and therefore did not apply to baptisms performed before the age of accountability. So the changes, traumatic for many raised in the “only-true-church” RLDS tradition, have not stilled the controversy for those advocating for still more change. They are back with legislation asking for more:

Resolved, That the World Conference request the First Presidency to continue exploration of the issue of rebaptism specifically in regard to those baptized by other Christian denominations before the age of 8 in light of the insights brought to the church through recent revelatory experience, including a review of the present policy based on historical, scriptural, theological, and experiential grounds; and be it further

Resolved, That the World Conference request the First Presidency to provide periodic updates on ongoing discernment as the church continues to reflect on the issues of church membership and to issue a formal report of its exploration no later than the next World Conference.

There is also a separate piece of legislation regarding creating alternative baptismal prayers that would be “gender neutral”; in this case neutral would mean not explicitly including feminine language, but excluding terms such as “Father” or “Son” that are explicitly masculine.

Resolved, That the World Conference authorizes the First Presidency to create baptismal prayers with contemporary, gender-inclusive language that may be used by Community of Christ ministers (priests or Melchisedec priesthood) as alternatives to the prayer recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 17:21c for the sacrament of baptism… To be clear, the First Presidency is authorized but not required to create alternative baptismal prayers, as in matters of scripture the First Presidency should be led by the Holy Spirit; and be it further

Resolved, That the First Presidency provide a report to the 2016 World Conference.

Do you see parallels with struggles within the LDS church in areas such as apologies for the priesthood ban, or changes in priesthood for women? How does an institution discern which principles are to be firmly held as global from those which are cultural in either time or population? How do you hold together those for whom change is always too much and those for whom change is never enough? Or do you even try?

The Counter Reformation on the Isles of the Sea

The Community of Christ’s small size, but global extent, has resulted in some geographically odd organizational compromises. One Mission Center (stake equivalent) organization encompasses Hawaii, Fiji, New Caledonia, and New Zealand, and this Center’s conference produced several pieces of legislation for World Conference that have a more conservative bent, and a clear North American orientation. That was a headscratcher for me until I counted the number of branches in Hawaii versus the number in Fiji. Trust the CofChrist to be reliably counter-cultural in any culture. We were always a bunch of rebels since before Nauvoo. 😀 So I guess we would have many conservatives in Hawaii, wouldn’t we?

One resolution notes that the church’s leadership made a statement on US immigration policy in 2007 (i.e., prior to the 2010 actions) and formally “requests” that the leadership of the church refrain from future statements on the topic unless they go through the National Conference route.

A second resolution similarly pushes back against a tendency in the church to rely on non-Restoration sources for our educational materials by focusing internal resources on the production of curriculum centered on unique Restoration scriptures (i.e., the Book of Mormon and D&C) which aren’t going to be produced by Protestants or Catholics.

The third resolution notes that the world church has produced a document known informally as the We Share document whose creation occupied the church’s scholars for a period of some years. This document, now in its third edition, has consolidated many of the theological principles the leadership felt necessary to proceed from an American-restoration-centered orientation to that of a global church finding its place within a larger Christianity. Although the Presidency has resisted any notion that this is a creed, the resolution’s concern is that this distinction merely permits the leadership to endlessly avoid having their theological understandings vetted by the common consent of the membership at large, as a revelation would be.

I suspect each of these resolutions will be ruled out of order by the Presidency as impinging on their teaching and interpretive authority.

Common Consent at All Jurisdictional Levels

The Pacific Islands Mission Center resolutions just discussed are symptomatic of another issue, which finds expression in another resolution on common consent: a feeling that legislative meetings at levels lower than World Conference (i.e., National, Mission Center, or congregation) are not expressing true common consent because of methods such as packing turnout, or ram-rodding by presiding officers. There is no specific side — other than whichever side loses — that is accused of this, but it is also true that most business meetings in the CofChrist are as exciting as a normal Congressional hearing. (Trust me on the latter; I’ve had to be at such hearings when the TV cameras aren’t there, and most of the Representatives or Senators on the Committee won’t be there either.) Thus, when controversies do arise, there is a potential for small groups or a presiding officer to exert a relatively large impact on the process; the system is not designed to routinely protect against them.

Therefore, legislation has been proposed that would focus attention on common consent as it applies to all legislative levels:

Resolved, That the First Presidency appoint a committee composed of church administrators and non-administrative members (congregational, mission center, and/or World Church), to review the principle of common consent, including our current official statement, but not limited thereto; to review, clarify, revise, and recommend changes that clarify the roles of presiders and participants in our legislative assemblies at all organizational levels in the church, especially the voting processes to be used and avoided when making decisions, and report to the next World Conference.

Well-Being and Intoxicants

Yes, you read that right. I could think of no more symbolic way to show today’s Community of Christ as a diverse group of people, left and right, trying to figure out whether God is calling the church to be a high entry-cost, high exit-cost institution or a low entry-cost, low exit-cost institution than to group the final two pieces of proposed legislation together.

The Australian Mission Center has proposed raising “health, wholeness and well-being” to a level of gospel principle equal to “other key principles such as generosity, peace and justice, and community” (see that We Share legislation mentioned above again). Simultaneously, a US Mission Center has proposed that the church rescind the World Conference Resolution that

“makes the consumption of alcohol by members and priesthood ‘a test of fellowship.’ The resolution further would request the First Presidency give the church contemporary counsel regarding the interpretation of Section 152:4b, specifically regarding how the consumption of alcohol pertains to Community of Christ’s understanding of sin. The resolution would request the First Presidency and the Council of Twelve Apostles ‘review church policy on abstinence from the use of alcoholic beverages and confirm and/or revise the policy and administrative guidelines so there is a clear understanding of expectations for priesthood on this issue.'”

Of course, both the LDS and RLDS versions of the Word of Wisdom, as different as the respective interpretations may be, have frowned on intoxication for more than a century precisely as a health and wholeness issue. Had the proposal to revise policy toward alcohol consumption come from a jurisdiction being opened to the gospel now, I might not have been surprised. Other cultures do drink wine the way some of us in America drink tea. But American cultural mores toward drinking haven’t changed in generations, so it is difficult for me not to see this as an entry-cost issue rather than a health issue.

This piece of legislation does have a clever touch, however; if passed, it requires the Presidency to report to the church by April, 2014, rather than wait until the next World Conference in 2016. People are already learning how to get their items to the top of the church’s legislative agenda more quickly.