Still chewing on Conference here. On the whole, I think it was a real step forward for the Church and a promising first Conference for the new leadership (new boss same as the old boss, but you know what I mean). It is best to avoid exaggeration. Some mainstream Mormons have been talking about the changes announced at Conference as magnificent and revelatory, like a hundred-year flood but in a good way. I think they are just administrative changes, but good ones. And some critics are likely to criticize the changes just out of habit. I think when positive change happens (what critics and reformers and activists are always calling for), you have to acknowledge it. Two hits and a miss.
One Hit: Ministering
So Home Teaching is dead. Visiting Teaching lives on, rebranded as Ministering and now extended to both men and women. Okay, that’s not completely accurate, but the spirit of the new Ministering Program (but not to be called a program) resembles VTing more than HTing. But more than that, this signals an organizational shift of sorts, away from correlation and control. No more monthly reports on families visited. No more any reports on families visited, at least in the statistical sense. There will be bureaucrats at the COB who can’t sleep at night without monthly numbers to analyze. There will be bishops who stand speechless before the priesthood without Home Teaching as a topic to harp on every month.
I don’t especially like Ministering as a title for the new not-a-program, but I can’t think of a better title. (There’s a story like this for Steven Jobs and Siri.) The focus from the senior leadership really does seem to be on Christian service viewed more broadly than was the case with HTing, and a move away from guilt-mongering by local leadership and toward helpful communication and support. Bravo, the Church finally did something right. May this trend continue. Let’s hope local leadership doesn’t muck it up in execution by over-formalizing the whole thing.
Another Hit: What Wasn’t Talked About
Three guesses. Okay, it’s gay marriage. I only napped for two or three talks, but I’m fairly sure the topic was never brought up in this Conference. So it seems the senior leadership has finally emerged from the Era of Negative Messaging to instead focus on what the Church can do right and do better. Yes, it’s too bad we lost the Culture Wars, but it’s time to move forward. I don’t expect the leadership to truly make peace with gay marriage for another two generations, but then it took Southern Christians four generations to make peace with the 13th Amendment. It took Christians as a body a hundred generations to get over anti-Semitism. For now, it’s good enough that senior leadership has moved on to other more positive topics and issues.
One Miss: Nonconsensual Immorality
Not that ungainly term in particular. This is a miss because this reference in a talk was, apparently, an attempt to respond, albeit indirectly, to issues surrounding MTC Scandal and recent media coverage of it. This is a miss because it would have been oh-so-easy to say something clear and principled at Conference, simply repeating blanket condemnations of abuse and sexual assault, and expressing support and sympathy for victims. And it should have been President Nelson who made that clear and simple statement. More than just a statement is needed, but that’s where it needs to start. Later, a serious study and rethinking of LDS policies and practices relating to interviews and how to deal with disclosures of abuse and assault can follow, sooner rather than later. But the rethinking and reforms won’t happen until the leadership gets past denial and gets out of the Mormon Bubble on this issue. And they are not there yet. As far as I can tell, they are still patting themselves on the back for having a zero-tolerance policy toward abuse. As if words on paper solve the problem.
The term “nonconsensual immorality” does reveal something about the mindset of senior LDS leadership. They want to draw the line at immorality rather than consent. Any sex outside marriage is immoral, whereas some sex inside marriage is not. The term suggests there are two kinds of immorality/sex, consensual and nonconsensual, but it’s all immoral (outside of marriage) and therefore participants need to repent if they want to be good Mormons. The whole mindset just can’t quite swallow the idea that victims of nonconsensual immorality are truly *innocent* victims. That mindset, call it the patriarchal mindset, just can’t shake the idea that victims were guilty of *something* if sex was involved. Those embracing this patriarchal mindset are mentally living in the 1950s, simply incapable of understanding the issues surrounding abuse and assault, much less responding to them. They seem tone deaf to how much more offensive sexual assault is to you and me and 99% of modern Americans, compared to consensual sexual encounters or relationships outside marriage. It sure seems like they just don’t get it.
Six months from now, some GA needs to step up to the plate and address this issue. Not just the issue of abuse and sexual assault, but also the issue of how badly the Mormon system has dealt with this in the past. What Elder Uchtdorf did for grace and Elder Holland did for mental illness in recent Conference talks, firmly correcting misguided traditional Mormon thinking on these topics, some apostle needs to do for abuse and sexual assault. As Elrond once counseled the Quorum of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, “One of you must do this.”
But two hits and a miss is pretty good. Let’s keep it up. Maybe more good things will happen at the next Conference.