Are we a multi-cultural church?

In light of the current emphasis on missionary work, and the apparently lessening (or broadening) grip of correlation over the last year, I wanted to take a look at this statement made by President Gordon B. Hinckley in an address given during General Conference October 2002:

“God be thanked for His marvelous bestowal of testimony, authority, and doctrine associated with this, the restored Church of Jesus Christ.

“This must be our great and singular message to the world. We do not offer it with boasting. We testify in humility but with gravity and absolute sincerity. We invite all, the whole earth, to listen to this account and take measure of its truth. God bless us as those who believe in His divine manifestations and help us to extend knowledge of these great and marvelous occurrences to all who will listen. To these we say in a spirit of love, bring with you all that you have of good and truth which you have received from whatever source, and come and let us see if we may add to it. This invitation I extend to men and women everywhere with my solemn testimony that this work is true, for I know the truth of it by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

Having been raised in the church throughout the 70s and 80s, my experience was one in which I mostly observed what I would now describe, on a grouchy day, as cultural imperialism. So many things imposed from above which really shouldn’t have mattered, and which crushed British and English culture, whilst imposing a Utah culture. At times I feel a gaping hole has rendered me separate from my nation, has made me observer rather than participant, always on the outside, always other. And that makes missionary work difficult for me on several fronts.

I’m not the only one with grumbles. A more recent complaint seems to be that other nations are allowed more latitude for cultural exceptions than Britain.  I’ve wondered before whether this is because Utah think they are the same as us (we are not the same) having so many British ancestors, or whether it’s a language thing. Do other English-speaking nations have the same experience? Many of the things I find attractive in the current worship and music of the Church of England, things that feel quintessentially English, were developed during the Victorian era, post-Restoration, and would not have travelled with the British Saints.

Maybe Salt Lake are loosening the reins a little, but if so our local leaders need to be told in no uncertain terms which things don’t matter any more, because any whim, small or large, imposed by an Area Authority can persist for years after his particular tenure has ceased. Is bringing the good something that can only be done by the individual, or can this be done on a national level too?

A few things, and whilst it might be argued that some of them might not be intrinsically ‘good and true’,  neither so far as I can see are they ‘bad’ or ‘false’ and to be discarded:

Christian festivals – as a church there is no inbuilt observance of the Christian festivals. On the one hand this ought to provide flexibility between nations. Eastern Orthodox and Western Christianity tend a follow a different calender for instance. However, the very rigid timetabling of General Conference often interferes with the celebration of Easter. Britain is a Christian country. The church claims to be Christian, but appropriate celebration of Easter is a very hit and miss affair. A few years ago whilst visiting family, I attended a beautiful Easter sacrament service to which local dignitaries had been invited and which included more music, readings from the scriptures, and only one talk. It is the only such service I have ever seen. Typically ward leaders feel compelled to follow the old 4 hymns, 3 talks structure common to most sacrament meetings, even though this is no longer mandated by the handbook. In contrast, I once attended a Japanese ward on an Easter Sunday, in which there was absolutely no acknowledgement of Easter whatsoever. True, Japan is not a Christian country. There are other Christian denominations present in Japan who would most certainly have celebrated Easter, however. Perhaps, chameleon-like, encompassing all truth, the church isn’t actually as typically Christian as it likes to appear in Christian nations?

The same basic ingredients.

Celebration of Christmas would appear to be similarly hit and miss. See this recent thread over at BCC. Growing up, my ward would would always have a nativity performed in the chapel by the primary-age children. At some point this was banned from sacrament meetings, and in some wards I attended was assigned to the Sunday School slot, but in my current ward doesn’t happen at all. And my husband tells me that treatment of Christmas at church in a Japanese ward in Japan is much the same as the treatment of Easter – nonexistent. I can’t help but wonder whether some national flavour correlation could set a model for British Mormonism, bringing the good from traditional English church practice, or Japanese Mormonism or whatever, so that there is a least some consistency in services for the Christian or other festivals between wards in the same nation. Similarly this could also help in recognition of other national events commonly celebrated in the churches or faiths of the individual nations. For Britain, I am thinking particularly of Remembrance Sunday (discussed in a post here), and Harvest Festival.

Music – I long to have more of our favourite hymns in our hymn book, many of them post-Restoration. A British hymn book as opposed to an English language hymn book (which comes complete with favourite US patriotic hymns, but what about those of the other English-speaking nations, and whilst the British national anthem is included – it’s the King not Queen version of the words, even though we had a Queen at the time of publishing and she’s still here).

Beards – I recall edicts given in stake conference in the 70s that members should be clean-shaven. Get rid of those beards. Why? More recently, I’ve heard grumbles that members in France have been given a pass, so far as beards go, for cultural reasons. But not Britain. Some wards and stakes are more tolerant than others, but for temple workers beards are a definite no no. And it isn’t as though there aren’t cultural elements of Britain where beards are common. As a university student I noted that all the male chaplains had beards. Back before I was an SAHM, three out of the four partners in the firm I worked for had beards. One was a free-mason and scout leader. Another had spoken with the missionaries years previously, and requested a copy of the Book of Mormon shortly before I went on maternity leave. All of them were good, moral, upright and professional people. To bring things up to date, at least half of the male teachers at my children’s school have beards. Can we just stop it with the war on facial hair?

Modes of address – Once upon a time when all members were addressed as Brother and Sister it was equalising. Now that we have incorporated hierarchical titles (which I loathe) for some callings, it emphasises status or lack thereof. Once upon a time, in a more formal world, to address each other as Brother and Sister made for closeness. In nations where people are very quickly on first name terms it creates distance. Yet I have attended wards, and met members, who have insisted that the Brother/Sister Family Name form of address is only correct way to speak to each other at church (with use of titles similarly enforced). Seriously?

There is an argument for keeping things at an individual and very local level however. That our societies grow ever more multicultural is perhaps a point against too much alignment with individual national cultures, including Utah culture. In giving greater comfort to the majority culture with our religious observances, would we be pushing away the minority? Even as I feel a greater desire for better observance of the traditional Christian festivals, for my Japanese member husband New Year is also important, as is being able to visit the graves of his ancestors with his parents.

  • What cultural exceptions exist where you are?
  • How do you see bringing the good?
  • Do you think there is room for national flavours of church service, and should they be correlated at a national level?
  • How can we rid ourselves of the whims that persist?
  • What would you like to see in your services/nation?
  • What are the key elements that need to hold us together as an international church?