Bill Reel published on his website a letter from his stake president informing him of a disciplinary court scheduled later this month. He is accused of acting in clear, open and deliberate opposition to the LDS Church.
Bill stated in his web article that he expected this to happen eventually. Based on my observations the last year, I also expected this to happen eventually.
I first became aware of Bill when he was posting on Mormon Dialogue in about 2012. At that point, I was pretty fully faith-deconstructed, and in an anxious and unsettled time period, engaging online in Mormon circles sort of as lurker. Bill was known as the guy that as a Mormon bishop, faced the historical faith crisis issues and came out of that as a nuanced believer, who had sympathy for the doubter and was a model to “make it work”. Here’s a link to his testimony on the mormon.org site. It probably won’t be there for long.
Bill became one of a few voices along with Adam Miller, Terryl Givens that helped me see a nuanced path, which finally became crystallized to me as I read Marcus Borg’s Heart of Christianity and other Liberal Christians like Borg, Crossan, Spong, Enns. That led to a faith reconstruction process that reinvigorated my testimony of the restored Church. An introduction to this view is in this short essay on Paradigms.
I took some time to articulate my message and then went online with my blog and Facebook posts in 2015. The Middle Way has been and still is a tough road that feels lonely and friendless at times. I get attacked by traditional Mormons that feel like my nuanced views of a non-historical Book of Mormon or a “less exclusive” interpretation of the First Vision event are dangerous. And then I get attacked by critics who tell me my love and support for the Church is not only intellectually unsound but also immoral as it harms LGBT+ and others.
Bill, also being in that middle ground, was one of the first people I reached out to, and I have valued our friendship since. He was the first person I broke anonymity with and introduced myself in person at Sunstone. He’s been kind and supportive to me and hundreds (if not thousands) of others that seek him out. His “Why I Stay” Sunstone talk in 2016 was very inspiring to me and left me and my wife, who at that time was very unsure of this path, more determined to make an effort to help those in LDS faith crisis find a way to stay. Included in that talk was a message that he feels so much empathy for the LGBT+ members that are struggling in Mormonism right now. But it was because of his background in the Church not in spite of it, that led him to follow Christ, and become the kind of person that could and would feel that empathy. I still feel chills when I type that. It was a powerful moment.
Since then, many have noticed in Bill a trend that he has been more and more critical of the Church. More and more willing to call out individual Church leaders. Less and less likely to point to the positives of the Church. More likely to encourage people to leave than to stay.
I’ve been sad, personally, about that trend. I’ve had some chats with Bill about it. I won’t put words in his mouth or make my own theories or guesses into his psyche or motivations. I understand where he’s coming from, and I won’t judge him for taking his path. I disagree with it. I would take a different path. I evaluate the same data points and come to a different conclusion.
One observation I’ll make on that, which I’ll try to do respectfully. In June of last year, Bill did a guest interview with the Infant on Thrones podcast, a podcast known for being extremely critical against the LDS Church. In the interview, he was absolutely blasted. I got more and more upset as I listened as the interviewer berated Bill over and over, long rants that were personal and angry and confrontational. By supporting the Church from a middle way perspective, Bill was complicit in all the evils of the Church, including causing the suicide of LGBT+ youth. Bill was respectful and tried to defend himself and what he was trying to do, but he was treated extremely rude. I could be wrong, but I thought I observed a major shift in Bill’s tone after that.
Someone on the Mormon side of this might say Bill’s being manipulated by Exmormons. Exmormons might say someone finally helped Bill see the proper perspective.
A question in this is whether Bill deserves to be excommunicated for what he is doing. Theologically, I think maybe it would be best to get rid of the church disciplinary system. But in practice, I think the church’s application for excommunication for apostasy has not been too overbearing. Over the last several years, I don’t think there has been more than a handful: Kate Kelly, John Dehlin, Jeremy Runnels, Sam Young. There might have been a few more, but I’m pretty sure it’s in the single digits for the last five years or so. That’s not that many in a church of 15 million people.
*edit after more thought: this number (ie excommunications for vocally criticizing or questioning the Church from a liberal-secular perspective) is low relative to the number of people in this space commenting in a way that is violating the “not OK” bullet points, but my claim it’s in single digits over five years is likely a little low.
The Church doesn’t have a clear standard in these cases. Since everything is unique, it’s hard to be clear in a policy. The basic idea is that you can disagree, you can even vocally disagree, but you can’t vocally oppose. I go into depth on this concept of opposition in another post. Here’s a summary.
- disagree with Church policy or doctrine
- express disagreement on Facebook and social media
- desire for change and ask the brethren to seek revelation to change policies and doctrine
Not OK to:
- stage protests
- campaign publicly against the church
- demand change
- attempt to sway public opinion against the prophet or certain church leaders
- harshly criticize the prophet or other general authorities
I think you could go online to the normal sources: Mormon related blogs, Facebook groups, podcasts, and forums and you would find many LDS that are arguably doing a lot on the “Not OK” list. There’s a pretty long leash on what the Church allows. But occasionally, maybe a couple times a year on average there is someone who “crosses the line” in terms of how critical the person is being and how big the audience is.
Based on the above bullet list and the threshold that only the members at the very top of that list get a disciplinary court, I sadly have to acknowledge that a court for Bill fits that pattern. Out of respect for Bill, I’m not going to make a list of examples where he’s done that. I thought the famous “hit piece” by Greg Smith published in the Interpreter that did this for John Dehlin was nauseating.
It’s sad for me that what Bill is doing is putting him on the opposite side of the fence as me. I wish we were both fighting together in the Middle Way space, encouraging members to stay, and hoping to affect change in the LDS Church long term, within the bounds the Church has set for that. But I understand he feels a need to do it a different way. And in Bill’s language: “I honor that and hold space for you.”