Online, I’ve noticed a repeated concern among middle way, liberal, progressive, or unorthodox Mormons. Although I accept that labels can be problematic, I think a common theme for these types of Mormons is (1) a feeling out of place with the church combined with (2) a desire to nevertheless maintain engagement with the church and with Mormonism.
A primary point of anxiety is leadership or priesthood roulette — the idea that one’s membership standing may depend on how one’s priesthood leaders judge their worthiness in light of differing beliefs or practices. Online are so many discussions about how one can avoid changes to their standing, and how one should or must moderate either expressions of their beliefs or their religious practice to achieve this.
To these members, it seems that the threat of disciplinary action is a great fear, and at the greatest of these feared actions is social and theological death itself: excommunication.
Even though the church itself discusses excommunication as part of the repentance process that should bring with it the eventual restoration of blessings, I have noticed anecdotally that in practice, excommunication seems to be associated with finality. Although there’s not a lot of information on the excommunication of General Authority Seventy James Hamula (and this post is not about his excommunication, so I would like to request that the comments not focus on it), I’ve noticed that most discussion and speculation discusses the excommunication as a final act — he’s out, and there may be some fallout as further details are revealed, but the presumption is: he’ll never be back.
And, wherever one interpreted Kate Kelly or John Dehlin or Rock Waterman or Denver Snuffer to be in terms of belief or desire to engage with the church, there is no question now that individuals like these now have a remote chance of ever re-engaging with the church. The rebaptism of Maxine Hanks (one of the September Six) in 2012 felt exceptional and rare, even though, when combined with Lavina Fielding Anderson (still excommunicated, but who never lapsed in activity) and Avraham Gileadi (who was rebaptized in 1996 and a blog post claims that his excommunication was expunged), adds to a record of a full half of the September Six having returned to engagement with the church.
Why is that? Why is there a sense that excommunication necessitates the end of LDS church activity? It is true that excommunication by definition results in the ultimate loss of official church privileges, and it is true that in many cases, excommunication can result in adverse social consequences. Mormons don’t officially shun, but, then again, Mormons don’t officially believe in prophetic infallibility, yet we all know how that saying goes. And yet, there is nothing stopping an excommunicated member from sitting in the pews.
In reading blogs and listening to podcasts of several Mormons attempting to live a middle way, I have noticed a theme that seems to account for the difference between those who continue to struggle (and who may end up leaving) as opposed to those who are able to stay more comfortably — the latter are grounded with testimonies that do not couple their status with God with their status with the institution. (As a side note, and without implying that SistasInZion is necessarily “middle way,” I’d just like to highlight Zandra’s tweet thread addressing why she does not feel “less than” in the church as a woman who is not priesthood ordained. As she puts it, “Maybe I’d feel less than if I saw priesthood keys as originals. But I don’t, because they’re spare keys. Jesus has the originals. And as a woman, the key doesn’t stand between Jesus and me.”)
This at first seems paradoxical. If an individual is not dependent on the institution, then why would they continue to engage with that institution? The additional piece is a sense of calling to strive with the community of the church.
If you hear John Gustav-Wrathall’s story, it would seem that he would be a perfect description of someone who would leave the church and never look back. He’s gay and happily married in a same-sex relationship. A little over 30 years ago, he considered suicide, but instead received revelation telling him to leave the church.
You might look at that and say that leaving would be the best for him, and expect him to be happily post-Mormon…yet…that wasn’t the end of his Mormon story.
John was one of the several panelists for the 2017 Sunstone “Why I Stay” pane. If you would like to hear this panel and support Sunstone, this session or any other session’s audio is available for purchase. However, John has also posted the text of his talk, so you can read his remarks for free.
You see, the same source of the revelation telling him to choose life over the church would eventually (at a Sunstone symposium, no less!) tell him that it was time to come home.
For John, his process has been individualized. It doesn’t fit the expectations. He has personal revelation that he should not, under any circumstance, leave his husband, and yet, the same spirit has told him to maintain the Word of Wisdom and to return to the church, even though that church sees him as an apostate.
Instead of experiencing fear and anxiety about his lack of institutional status in the church, John says:
I stay because God has told me that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is his church and it’s where he wants me. It’s where…the Spirit meets me and teaches me…
…My testimony has never required members of my ward to “be nice” to me. Nor has it required that the Church treat me as equal. It has nothing to do with the membership of the Church somehow collectively holding correct beliefs about everything. It doesn’t piss me off when somebody says something stupid in Sunday school or priesthood meeting. My testimony doesn’t require an aesthetically pleasing account of church history…
In the aftermath of the church’s November 5th policy against LGBT Mormons and their children, there are no illusions that Mormonism is getting easier for LGBT Mormons of faith. And yet, as John describes:
What had we lost? We had lost some illusions about a liberal progressive evolution of church policy on this issue. I was always skeptical of that kind of a scenario. I always suspected that this issue could only be tackled head-on, in the form of listening deeply to the real stories of LGBT Mormons, followed by doctrinal searching and prayer for new revelation.
What we hadn’t lost was ourselves, our stories, in their depth and totality. The Church might not understand us, but God does. God sees us. God saw me and said I was OK and that I need not worry and that he had this one.
In thinking about John’s story, I’ve thought about the question: what is the worst the church can do? There is a lot of power that we have been raised to give to the church — power over even our very lives, if we aren’t careful. And yet, what if we considered that the worst the church can really do is excommunicate? What if those who were excommunicated but who had a sure knowledge of the way that God sees them continued to participate as a quiet witness of that knowledge?