Here is guest post from Rich Brown.  Rich has served as managing editor at the then-RLDS (Now Community of Christ) Church’s Herald Publishing House. He has published the book, “What Was Paul Thinking?” (Isaac’s Press).  He writes a weekly blog based on the Revised Common Lectionary (http://richbrownforewords.wordpress.com) and occasionally blogs at saintsherald.com.

The idea of a parallel universe, where everything is a mirror opposite of known reality, is a popular subgenre of science fiction. It may well offer an interesting way to understand the two major branches of the Restoration movement founded by Joseph Smith Jr.

Becky Savage (seated) is set apart in the First Presidency by Apostle Susan Skoor and Prophet/President Steven Veazey.
Becky Savage (seated) is set apart in the First Presidency by Apostle Susan Skoor and Prophet/President Steven Veazey.

This past week (November 17th) marked 30 years since the first women were ordained in the priesthood of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), which changed its name in 2001 to Community of Christ (which I’ll abbreviate as CoChrist from here on). While women’s ordination was the issue that caused stuff to really hit the proverbial fan, it certainly wasn’t the only reason.

For at least a couple decades before that church members and leaders had been asking some serious questions, including these: Is this really the One True Church (and is everybody else going to hell, or at least stuck in the “lowest glory”)? Does the priesthood possess exclusive spiritual authority? Is the Book of Mormon a literal history or 19th-century religious fiction? Does the familiar, faith-promoting history of the church represent the way things really happened? Do the ordinances and sacraments possess actual or symbolic value?

Think of a linear graph with the terms “traditionalists” and “progressives” on opposite ends. Of course, not everybody is clustered at one end or the other but more likely somewhere in between.

In April 1984 President Wallace B. Smith presented the World Conference with a document to be considered for inclusion in the Doctrine and Covenants. Much of the document had to do with the purpose and ministries for the proposed temple in Independence, Missouri. He then shifted to priesthood. The bombshell came in paragraph 9:

“I [God] have heard the prayers of many, including my servant the prophet, as they have sought to know my will in regard to the question of who shall be called to share the burdens and responsibilities of priesthood in my church. I say to you now, as I have said in the past, that all are called according to the gifts which have been given them. This applies to priesthood as well as to any other aspects of the work. Therefore, do not wonder that some women of the church are being called to priesthood responsibilities. This is in harmony with my will and where these calls are made known to my servants, they may be processed according to administrative procedures and provisions of the law. Nevertheless, in the ordaining of women to priesthood, let this be done with all deliberateness. Before the actual laying on of hands takes place, let specific guidelines and instructions be provided by the spiritual authorities, that all may be done in order.”

According to church law such documents must be approved or rejected as a whole. Traditionalists were, by and large, supportive of the temple but solidly against ordaining women. The document was passed and became Section 156. Not that traditionalists gave up, however. They showed up in huge numbers at district and stake conferences to vote against individual priesthood calls. Initially, this tactic worked. The arguments were not unlike the familiar “Hate the sin but love the sinner” approach or “Jesus only called men so that’s all that matters.” Extreme measures sometimes were taken in response. In my own stake (Blue Valley), which covered eastern Independence and the rest of eastern Jackson County, Missouri, the normal operating rules were suspended by general officers of the church, permitting priesthood calls to be considered solely in congregations.

Before long many traditionalists decided to vote with their feet. Speak with them today and you’ll most likely hear a variation on the same response they offered then: “I didn’t leave the church; the church left me.” In many ways there’s a lot of truth in that. They became, essentially, a remnant church in exile, waiting for the institutional church to collapse so they could regain control of what was left. They’re still waiting.

The issue to consider here is, Where did they go?

Some joined the LDS church. That made sense for those whose theology, traditions, and worldview aligned with the Utah-based branch of the Latter-day Saints. Some others tried out various Protestant fundamentalist or evangelical churches, although they probably didn’t say too much in their new faith communities about the Book of Mormon or their RLDS past. By far the largest number began to form what became known as Independent Restoration Branches. These groups allowed them to keep their traditionalist RLDS beliefs and practices without interference from a general-church bureaucracy. As the years and decades have worn on, those independent branches have maintained viability. The challenge has always been to create a strong, lasting affiliation among groups—to move from a confederation to a union. That’s still a work in progress.

What’s perhaps most important is the fact they had somewhere to go; they weren’t just leaving something behind.

The progressive trends in theology, practice, and worldview have continued during the 30 years since the first women were ordained in the then-RLDS Church. It is a remarkably different and transformed faith community from what it was even 30 years ago. Perhaps the most striking change has come with an openness to LGBTQ issues. Now in the USA, Canada, and the UK , the Community of Christ sanctions same-sex marriages as a sacrament of the church. Add Australia to the list where same-sex orientation is not a prohibition for priesthood orientation (civil law does not yet allow SSM). This came about through a careful deliberation process and vote at national conferences.

Now, when we start to compare the CoChrist and LDS experiences there is a certain amount of apples-and-oranges consideration. The parallel universe analogy isn’t perfect (but then, what analogy is?). Yet there is something to consider. In one case progressives had control of the institutional structure, leaving traditionalists feeling they were shut out. In the other case, traditionalists are firmly in control of the institution and its bureaucracy, and those feeling or exhibiting any measure of progressive opposition are often tagged with the “apostate” label.

So where do disaffected, progressive LDS members go? What are the alternatives, particularly for those who want and need a faith community? Could the Community of Christ fill that need for at least some?

The CoChrist leadership recognized the church might fill some of that void. A fairly low-key ministerial approach was developed for LDS Seekers. This is by no means a strong-armed missionary or proselytizing effort, but more of an open-armed welcome to a place of sanctuary. For example, in a short time it has transformed the church’s Salt Lake City congregation from a place where a handful of older, faithful members had been keeping the doors open to a now-vibrant, rapidly growing congregation.

Unfortunately, the CoChrist does not have a strong presence in much of the Intermountain West, largely for historical reasons. But this approach is showing signs of success in several places. It is under the general direction of a CoChrist president of Seventy, Robin Linkhart. Interestingly, she was recently called to fill a vacancy in the Council of Twelve Apostles. Her ordination will be voted on at World Conference in June 2016. Until then she will be known as apostle-designate.

The LDS Seeker program is very much in line with the central emphasis of the CoChrist to “Invite all to Christ.” I’ve occasionally read here at Wheat & Tares the comment that about the only choice for LDS folks is to either stay with the church or become an atheist. Keeping in mind that the CoChrist is NOT simply the progressive or liberal Mormon church (that’s a whole other blog post discussion), I believe it may be a good place for those who no longer feel at home in the LDS church.

What are your thoughts regarding the Community of Christ’s acceptance of women and gays into the priesthood?  If you’re upset with current LDS policies and are thinking about leaving, would you consider joining the Community of Christ?