In 1993, several LDS scholars and authors were excommunicated in local proceedings that were apparently directed (or at least encouraged) by senior LDS leadership or by individual senior LDS leaders acting on their own. After this September Six episode, things quieted down. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought that, in the wake of the reaction to the 1993 events, LDS leadership had determined that the excommunication of scholars or authors for public discussion of troubling LDS issues was simply counterproductive and should be avoided in the future. Then came the Internet and social media, which increased the public discussion LDS history, doctrine, policy, and practice a thousand-fold. As a result, the LDS disciplinary process for unwelcome public statements about the Church rumbled back to life a few years ago, and I’m sure most readers are aware of some of the results over the last few years. Let’s talk about a couple of new actions that are happening right now and what that tells us about the process.
Just today, Bill Reel announced on his podcast site that he had received official word that his church court, held last week, resulted in his excommunication. Mainstream media is also covering the story. Bill posted a copy of the letter he received, which, following standard practice in these cases, is long on generalities and short on specifics. The excommunication letter addressed to him stated that “you hold views contrary to Church doctrine, that you do not sustain the leaders of the Church, and that you are intent on publishing your views in an effort to persuade others to your point of view.” In lawyer-speak, that’s conclusory language — it doesn’t cite any particular facts, any specific view or statement, any particular leader and how Bill didn’t sustain him, or any particular person who was persuaded to believe anything as a result of Bill’s statements. It is possible there was presentation of and discussion of particular facts in the hearing itself, but the letter does not give the impression that was the case. It’s almost as if, once the general charges have been made, the outcome is already decided and particular facts are irrelevant, even unwelcome.
Also in the news, Gina Colvin, a scholar and blogger/podcaster who hails from New Zealand, is scheduled to have a formal disciplinary council before her local bishop at some point in the near future. As reported in a post at the Religion News Service, the court is being held because “she recently received a baptism and confirmation in the Anglican Communion and participates regularly in her local Anglican congregation in New Zealand.” According to the article, the LDS Handbook defines one form of excommunicable apostasy as “formally join[ing] another church and advocat[ing] its teachings.” That strongly implies that just formally joining another church by itself is *not* sufficient to be considered apostasy. You have to advocate its teachings as well.
Having followed many of Gina’s postings on social media, websites, and podcasts over the last few years, I can say with a fair degree of confidence that she has not become a mouthpiece for Anglicanism or advocated its teachings (whatever those particular teachings might be). She has, however, spoken in favor of what one might call a progressive Christian view, that is treating people of all stripes with more kindness, patience, and tolerance, including suggestions for how Mormons and Mormon leaders ought to treat people within the Church. That’s just standard Christian ethics, for which a hundred scriptures in the New Testament could be cited. I certainly hope those sort of statements are not grounds for excommunication. It would certainly make the Church look bad to excommunicate someone for acting too Christian or taking Christian ethics (how we should treat people) too seriously. Or maybe the Handbook has been updated to make “acting too Christian” a new ground for excommunication. Perhaps someone with access to Handbook 1 could confirm or deny that possible change.
I won’t lengthen this post with a laundry list of particular changes to the LDS disciplinary process that might improve things a bit. At least make the directives in the Handbook clearer and give the poor bishops who get pushed into such proceedings by weight of circumstance or by directives from senior leaders better training for how to proceed. As it stands, it seems like the Church is using a 19th-century practice (or even a 9th-century practice) to deal with a 21st-century problem.
A quick caveat before closing. Churches, including the LDS Church, have full authority and power to define their own standards for membership and to apply them (or misapply them) to particular cases. The Church can disfellowship or excommunicate anyone it wants to. But from a practical standpoint, justifying the action as necessary to protect the good name of the Church doesn’t make sense if the negative publicity associated with the action is so significant as to harm the good name of the Church. And from a formal perspective, outlining procedures and standards that give the appearance of a fair proceeding (in which the accused is informed of specific actions or statements that transgress specific conditions of membership, and is given the opportunity to see the evidence that gives rise to such charges and contest that evidence with contrary evidence and witnesses) — well, if that’s what you hold the process out to be, then the practice should conform to the claim. If it does not, abandon the whole charade and simply send out letters that say, “Your membership has been terminated.”