CommunityofChrist_AspenGroveThe headline is clear. Community of Christ will provide sacramental ordinances of marriage, commitment ceremonies, and ordination independent of sexual orientation in the USA.

Specifically, after two days of discussion, the USA National Conference formally approved by a required 2/3rds majority the following recommendations to the First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve:

  • The 2013 USA National Conference recommends the sacrament of marriage be extended, where legal in the USA, to persons of the same sex/gender. Thus the 2013 USA National Conference recommends a change to the current policy for the USA on the sacrament of marriage; and
  • The 2013 USA National Conference recommends that a church-recognized way for two persons of the same sex/gender to publicly express their covenant to each other be made available in places in the USA where marriage is not legal. Thus, the 2013 USA National Conference recommends a change to the current policy for the USA regarding same-sex/gender covenant commitment services where marriage is not legal; and
  • The 2013 USA National Conference recommends allowing a priesthood call to be processed according to established procedures regardless of sexual orientation, including a person in a monogamous, committed, same-sex/gender relationship (e.g., legal marriage, civil partnership, covenant relationship) in the USA.

Although it will take several months for these recommendations to be accepted and implemented by the Presidency and Apostles, this is a done deal. They have previously accepted the same recommendations, with locally relevant legal terminology, from Canadian and Australian conferences, as noted here.

I believe this is the theologically and ethically correct choice for the Community of Christ. Since that church incorporated revelation a generation ago into its Doctrine and Covenants in response to baptizing converts among polygamous cultures in India, and that revelation elevated monogamy as the basic principle of Christian marriage above other forms, it would have to find strong counter-arguments within its increasingly progressive interpretation of its own history and scripture to long withstand any cultural/generational shift in acceptance of gays in full church sacramental inclusion. The CofChrist has no equivalent to the LDS theology about the function of gender-roles in procreation of spirit children, and is suspicious of any scriptural interpretation that is seen apart from the specific culture and time in which it was given.

The last barrier to acceptance of full sacramental participation of gays in Western nations in the minds of most in the leading quorums was the danger it posed to church members and ministers in the developing nations where the church sees its future. The leading quorums argued against legislation such as that just approved even being discussed at the 2010 World Conference in the months prior to that assembly, and when the progressive elements insisted that it come to the floor anyway, the Prophet delivered (and the 2010 World Conference canonized) as revealed counsel authorization for special jurisdictional conferences to deal with issues of concern to particular cultures, rather than to impose resolution of such cultural concerns on the church as a whole.

So, the outcome of the USA National Conference gets the headlines, and the Community of Christ becomes a much more welcoming place (at least in the US, Canada, and Australia) for those in monogamous same-sex relationships than it has been in the past. But a number of other things occurred at World Conference that would have otherwise been considered historic, yet received little coverage outside of Independence. Several of these were discussed earlier this week at Mormonism Unveiled, and I wrote a summary of pending legislation several weeks before the World Conference here.

For feminists, cheery news comes with the selection of Linda Booth to be President of the Quorum of Twelve. This was unsurprising since she had been serving in an interim basis in this role since shortly after the resignation of Apostle James Slauter to care for a sick grandchild in 2011. However, it is the first time in the history of the RLDS/CofChrist tradition that a woman has held this particular office. One of the First Presidency is already a woman. In addition, the Conference confirmed the calls of additional Apostles by the Prophet to fill openings due to retirements and reassignments. Five of the Quorum of Twelve are now women. And none of these leadership roles draw significant opposition from those remaining in the church.

However, there were a number of issues where there were procedural or substantive policy votes where vote totals were close enough that they were individually recorded in the minutes, and seemed to measure the strength of “progressive” versus “traditional” elements in the World Church. These votes often seemed to break about 60-40 in favor of the progressive side. Since the level of traditional support was consistently higher than in the subsequent USA Conference, I presume that this represents an informal alignment of the remaining North American conservatives with the growing number of evangelically-influenced developing world members around traditional understandings of personal morality.

The closest vote in the World Conference split about 51-49 and concerned official church attitudes toward the consumption of alcohol. The narrow vote removed an old church regulation against consumption of alcohol, but by a larger margin left in place pending further study a more modern citation of intoxication as one of the grosser sins. The First Presidency had to explain to the delegates the following day that what they had actually voted to do was to merely eliminate consumption of alcohol as a basis for excommunication. (It should be noted that excommunication for any reason is rarely enforced by the CofChrist anyway, and hasn’t been used for violations of any part of the Word of Wisdom, to my knowledge, in decades.)

I can’t do a formal exit poll, of course, but I think there is some strong anecdotal evidence to support the interpretation that the CofChrist is following other “mainline” American churches into a future where denominationally-affiliated Americans sort into “red” and “blue” versions of the same religious tradition, but the “blue” denominations will be increasingly checked in areas of personal morality by the ethics of the developing world members.

For example, the USA conference, as viewed by those who participated, was filled with a great deal of harmony and peace, and a sense of joy and liberation. Typical are the comments and tweets listed here, as well as the press releases and interviews being granted by church leadership to media in the Kansas City area. By contrast, I have checked several times this week at the media sites of the traditionalist strains of the RLDS movement without finding any references to the CofChrist actions. Those sites are simply about their own version of building the Kingdom with plans for summer camps, overseas missions, and service charities.

Indeed, the only negative comment I heard about came from an Asian participant in World Conference whose return flight occurred after the USA conference. That comment, referring to acceptance of gay marriage, was along the lines of “that will never happen in my country”.

Nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to have been any great reconciliation of differing views from those that hadn’t already decided to stay in the church, come what may at the conference. The Community of Christ tries to report contributions of world church tithing monthly in order to keep the people focused on meeting the budget. In the fall of 2012, about the time that USA conference delegations were being selected, reports were that budgetary targets were being met or even exceeded. But by the time of the USA conference itself, the latest report showed contributions had plunged to the point that they would have to rise by 70% over target for the remainder of the fiscal year for budgets to be made.

So, in this larger framework, I think the most significant World Conference events — and certainly the strangest I’ve ever seen in a Conference — have to do with “Resolution G-3A”. G-3A is a substitute motion brought forward to the Conference by the Quorum of Twelve under irregular procedures the leadership felt were required for the same “danger to members and church leaders” in countries affected by a World Church resolution rationale that deflected concerns about gay rights to national conferences.

G-3A substitutes for a proposed Resolution G-3 that was regularly passed and submitted by a subordinate jurisdiction of the church last fall. I’d like to provide a link to G-3, but I can’t, because the leadership did not even publish it online with the other proposed legislation because such publication itself was presumed to trigger the danger. I have no idea what G-3 says, or why G-3A improves upon it, or, for that matter, what G-3A itself says after we passed it (because the leadership still has to frame guidance as to how G-3A is to be communicated to the field). I only know that passing G-3A means the Community of Christ can honestly tell any government agency anywhere in the world that cares that we never considered Resolution G-3.

Reading the minutes of those parliamentary maneuvers is like reading the minutes of a Hogwarts faculty meeting where you can tell that there are deadly serious discussions going on about he-who-must-not-be-named with everyone trying to carefully avoid naming he-who-must-not-be-named. Only in our case, the deadly seriousness is about the “G-that-must-not-be-named”. The conference spent most of a legislative day maneuvering to not discuss the G, then was forced to spend a substantial portion of the next day’s morning legislative session on a motion to reconsider, and finally, on the last day of conference, the leadership issued the following statement from the First Presidency and the Apostles:

“We recognize there are some members of the Conference who have been disappointed or offended by the approval of resolution G-3A—Supporting Indigenous and Minority Peoples. We want to assure the Conference that it was never the intention of the Council of Twelve to devalue the voice of the First People or to lessen the advocacy for indigenous peoples reflected in the original G-3. G-3A was the Council of Twelve’s desire to provide advocacy for all indigenous peoples of the world, while also seeking to keep safe other members of our global community. We want to sincerely apologize if our intent offended some members of the body.

“Be assured that as the resolves of G-3A speak of expressing our solidarity with indigenous peoples of the world, it is our genuine desire to invite and involve indigenous peoples in giving voice to how the church takes action to respond to the provisions of G-3A. Following World Conference, the First Presidency and Council of Twelve will begin to consider which WorldChurch teams we will ask to address the actions for G-3A. We will work with indigenous peoples in how to best involve them in our actions as a church.”

With this statement and the term “Doctrine of Discovery” that was left as a title line in one of the daily minutes, one can discern why the Presidency and Twelve saw potential for conflict endangering church members and leaders in countries where free speech rights are less secure than in the (primarily) North American jurisdiction where G-3 originated. Indeed, some other denominations have dealt with this topic legislatively or by executive action, and there is a discussion of the issue unrelated to the Community of Christ here.

The leadership of the CofChrist has now established the precedent, in two successive conferences at minimum, that their view of their pastoral, presiding, and/or prophetic roles will not countenance allowing statements of moral principles by subordinate jurisdictions or the World Conference to endanger church members or leaders in individual jurisdictions of the church.

They reserve the right to inject morality into politically charged issues to themselves or to those who they choose to delegate with the task. They did, for example, rule out of order, a resolution asking for restraint on a First Presidency statement on United States (and solely United States) immigration policy. They permitted and the conference passed, with a single word change, a resolution directing the church to advocate the abolition of nuclear weapons, although the church has significant presence in only one nuclear weapons state where advocacy regarding aspects of security policy is tolerated. (We passed substantively the same resolution in the 1980s during the public policy debate over the US installation of Pershing medium-range missiles in Western Europe; fortunately for Eastern Europe our statement of moral principle seems to have been ignored.) And there were no statements of apology for hurting those who held opposing views to the majority of the conference.

Yet, it must also be noted that there is another element in their pastoral calculation. They are still trying to retain those whom they can not support within their flock. That’s good for the flock, but is it necessarily what is best for the individual sheep? After all, it is not as if the CofChrist will formally continue to assert it is generally superior to other denominational boundaries; being the one true church is no longer important to its identity.  It will, for example, already accept baptisms and offer communion to members of other Christian denominations. So, as long as their people are still following Christ, what rationale does the CofChrist offer for people to remain who feel a call to serve Christ in other communities or by devotion to Him through other causes?

This third element of the problem as they define it over-constrains their consideration of alternatives and may make solutions they seek unobtainable within their institutional framework.  Many North American traditionalists have left the tradition in blocs, and many North American progressives have left individually as their concerns remained unaddressed. Yet, now it is blocs of progressives that have pushed policies in 2010 and 2013 that threaten the growth of the church outside North America, and that the leadership regards as mistakes in terms of protecting their entire remaining flock.

In response — and I think it is the deeper significance of the G-3 non-discussion — the leading quorums are moving to change the entire common consent procedures of World Conference in ways that must necessarily limit the ability of members or lay priesthood to influence agendas in the interest of preventing “mistakes”. I believe we have just seen the high water mark of progressive populism within the Community of Christ.

The procedures under consideration should probably be the subject of a separate post rather than being explained here, so I primarily want to note that in the history of the RLDS movement, it is procedural changes rather than substantive doctrinal changes that drive the evolution of the church. Change the procedures, and the power to enact doctrinal change will follow.

In the Great Depression we had the issue of “supreme directional control”, in which the Presidency, the Apostles, and the Presiding Bishopric (chief financial authorities) were deeply divided against each other, and procedures were set forth that clearly made the First Presidency first. Prior to the 1960’s elected delegates to World Conference were overwhelmed by elders and high priests (mostly elderly or conservative) who lived near Independence and could vote on the basis of being MP simply by showing up.  The church could never evolve in a liberal direction until that voting right was stripped away, because Zion-building was seen as involving gathering to Independence, and so that’s where faithful RLDS gathered to retire.

When the new common consent procedures are implemented — and there were enough technical embarrassments in demonstrations and tests at World Conference to show that multi-language use at scales traditional to world conference still has a lot of bugs, although something similar in concept successfully guided the USA Conference — control of the agenda will pass almost completely to the leading quorums, international HQ staff in Independence, consultant and project teams assembled by the quorums, and “special interests” (sorry, but it has to be said) with the resources to pursue an agenda item over one or several inter-conference periods. We will have pretty well completed the seemingly inevitable organizational transition where staff offices dominate line offices.

Pillow lavaI fear we will also have slowed ourselves to the point where we will not make mistakes because we will not make decisions, and our little “COB” (or our little Vatican City) will be everywhere OBE. This may not be a bad thing; Christ had to manifest through a route other than the Sanhedrin, and neither the Reformation nor the Restoration could arise in Rome. Prophetic people do not thrive in the environments of OBE COBs. Indeed, such environments are almost exactly the definition of a people where the priestly class has overwhelmed the prophets. But God continues to love the old and let it serve Him as best it can, while the prophetic  Spirit breaks out anew somewhere else.