We’re back to talking with Greg Prince. In my previous post with Prince, we discussed the history of gays in the LDS Church and the Policy restricting children of gay parents from being baptized and ordained. With President Monson ailing, I wondered if the Policy (sometimes referred to as the POX) was result of a similar situation from 1969 involving an ailing President McKay and the policy denying blacks the priesthood, and Greg answered yes the situations were similar, and outlined 4 leadership vacuums that resulted in questionable policies enacted. He related the relatively well-known story that Hugh B. Brown was trying to change the black ban administratively, while Harold B. Lee was fighting to keep the ban alive.
When this letter was sent to the McKay sons, Lawrence McKay showed it to Hugh Brown but Alvin Dyer who was an extra counselor in the First Presidency also got a copy of it and he freaked out and took it to Harold B. Lee. Lee pretty much freaked out because both sides, seeing that McKay considered it a policy, assumed that if it’s a policy then it can be changed. That was the good news for Brown. It was the bad news for Lee and for Dyer. So there was some real heavy-duty sparring going on.
I talked to Ed Firmage who was the grandson of Hugh Brown and he was the one who told me, “Yes my grandfather tried to change that administratively, and that’s why he was released from the First Presidency after McKay died.” But all of that occurred in a period where there was a period of power vacuum. President McKay, even though he was lucid enough to talk to his son and verify the contents of that letter physically didn’t have capacity to referee this match or to stop it. It was carried on mostly in private so the general church membership didn’t know about it, but it was a real crisis. So that was power vacuum #1.
Power vacuum #2 happened when Spencer Kimball began suffering subdural hemorrhages, and had to have at least, as I recall, two cranial surgeries to remove the blood clots. So his physical and mental capacity began to diminish significantly. His was the second presidency where there had been a prolonged period of incapacitation, about four years. During power vacuum #2 there, you had the dismantling of the Historical Department, of the history division within the Historical Department.
Power vacuum #3 was with Ezra Taft Benson who was basically totally incapacitated for almost five years, and the efforts by some church leaders to try to deny that resulted directly in the very high profile defection of Steve Benson, one of the grandsons who said, “Look, you’re propping up my grandfather and trying to say he’s running the church. My grandfather can’t even utter a coherent sentence.”
Power vacuum #4 is what we’re seeing right now. You have seen a diminishing of President Monson’s capacity ever since he became church president in 2008. He held one press conference right after he became president. That’s been it. If you look at the role he has played in General Conferences, it has been since 2009 since he conducted a session. The last two General Conferences, instead of doing the customary four addresses, he cut down to two and they were basically for those old enough to remember, two and a half minute talks. It’s in power vacuum #4 that the Policy emerges.
I noticed that President Monson did not deliver an address at the Christmas Fireside last night, and it is well known that he is ailing mentally, perhaps physically too. Pope Benedict was the first pope in 400 years to resign the papacy. I asked, “What do you think the church should do to avoid these types of power vacuums? Or should they? Should they do anything?”
Greg: What we call the zone of dementia begins roughly in the mid-80s. By the time you get to your late 80s, you’ve got almost a 50-50 chance of showing signs of dementia. That zone hasn’t moved. What’s happened is that more people are moving through that zone because they are living to an older age.
We have been much more successful at keeping the body alive than in keeping the mind alive, so this has kind of a cascade effect. More of them are moving into the zone of dementia, and because they are all on average living longer than the predecessors, it means that the sitting church president in each case on average, will live to an older age than his predecessor.
So, if you’re just looking at this from a medical standpoint, it’s inevitable that incapacitation of an LDS Church president will be both more frequent and longer lasting. In a fast-paced, complex world with a growing church, that may not give you the ideal governance. So the question is, what do you do about it?
What we did about it is to say look. Here’s the medicine involved in this, period. If they choose to address the situation at some point, it’s their call. But what we can say with a high level of confidence, because we looked at this through the eyes of medicine is, this is the situation. It’s going to happen more frequently, and last longer.
The phrase, “not ideal governance” really caught my attention. We just had a priesthood lesson on how President Hinckley handled President Benson’s extended illness, and how everything was fine. But I agree with Prince: It was “not ideal governance.”
I know that Greg got a little bit of flak for saying that nearly every LDS doctrine has changed. In the midst of our conversation, he said something similar when I asked him if he ever saw the succession policy changing.
Greg: I see virtually anything changing because I have seen everything change. I’m not aware of a single LDS doctrine of any significance that from 1830 forward has gone completely unchanged. You’d think a lot of them would, but it turns out, no there were some substantial changes in many cases very early on. If you just look at the First Vision narratives, you see the evolution of Joseph Smith’s theology of deity, and it’s taking place in a very rapid fashion and in a very dramatic fashion.
It wasn’t just nibbling at the periphery. He was going through evolutionary leaps in the way that he portrayed the godhead. That was reflected in his subsequent retellings of the story of the First Vision. Each time he told it anew, it incorporated the then current version of his theology of deity. That’s why those different versions are telling different stories, because they became theological narratives rather than historical narratives.
What do you think of Greg’s comments? Should the prophet retire when he is ailing? Does it matter?