When the Community of Christ World Conference convenes this weekend, much of the initial focus will be on celebrating the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the Independence Temple. But that’s just the beginning.
Flash back to April 6, 1994. The brand-new Temple was something of a novelty in both its nautilus-shaped design and unique purpose (“dedicated to the pursuit of peace”). It had been 26 years since Prophet-President W. Wallace Smith had presented an inspired document to the 1968 Conference that surprised and shocked the membership: “The time has come for a start to be made toward building my temple in the Center Place. It shall stand on a portion of the plot of ground set apart for this purpose many years ago by my servant Jospeh Smith, Jr. The shape and character of the building is to conform to ministries which will be carried out within its walls. These functions I will reveal through my servant the prophet and his counselors from time to time, as need for more specific direction arises” (Doctrine and Covenants 149:6).
That document, however, provoked immediate concern over both a proposed “reevaluation” of the bishopric’s role and what might go on in this new temple. And so President Smith submitted a second document, which included these words: “[T]he full and complete use of the temple is yet to be revealed but that there is no provision for secret ordinances now or ever…” (D. and C. 149A: 6).
It would be left to his son and successor as prophet-president, Wallace B. Smith, to get more specific in 1984:
The temple shall be dedicated to the pursuit of peace. It shall be for reconciliation and for healing of the spirit. It shall also be for a strengthening of faith and preparation for witness. “By its ministries an attitude of wholeness of body, mind, and spirit as a desirable end toward which to strive will be fostered. It shall be the means for providing leadership education for priesthood and member. And it shall be a place in which the essential meaning of the Restoration as healing and redeeming agent is given new life and understanding, inspired by the life and witness of the Redeemer of the world. D. and C. 156:5
That document, of course, is far better remembered for a couple sentences included in paragraph 9: “Therefore, do not wonder that some women of the church are being called to priesthood responsibilities. This is in harmony with my will and where these calls are made known to my servants, they may be processed according to administrative procedures and provisions of the law.” (D. and C. 156:9c).
It’s not my intention here to rehearse all that’s happened in the church since. In brief, thousands of people left the church, many to form so-called “Independent Branches.” Some joined other denominations, including the LDS church. Others just left. In 2001 the church officially changed its name from the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to Community of Christ. The church still holds legal title to the original name, primarily so other groups won’t co-opt it. Today the church is represented in 56 nations. It’s total worldwide membership of 250,000 is roughly equal to its pre-1984 membership, thanks to rapid growth outside North America and other Western nations.
That last fact has led to a serious problem this year obtaining visas for conference delegates. U.S. embassies in African, Latin American, and Asian countries have rejected most visa requests, a marked departure from previous years. Those few delegates who are able to come to the United States for the conference will cast proportional votes for their entire delegations.
Although the Temple is “dedicated to the pursuit of peace,” the church has never become a true “peace church,” at least in the same way that Quakers, Brethren, and some other Anabaptist groups are. What does it mean, then, to be a different kind of peace church? In an interview published this week in the Independence Examiner, President Stephen M. Veazey said:
There’s going to be a major discussion at this conference that’s part of our ongoing journey of exploring what it means to be a church dedicated to peace and reconciliation in the world…. The question that’s being raised is, how do we view the philosophy and methodogies of non-violence in terms of change that’s needed in the world to stand for peace and justice? …We have members in Haiti and Africa, various nations that live in poverty. For them, their peace would be having hope for the future. We have people in conflict areas … where there have been civil wars. Their peace is ‘How do you stop this violence?’
A full slate of resolutions from regional and national mission centers as well as from the First Presidency confronts delegates (the 2,000+ delegates each represent approximately 100 church members). What should spark the greatest interest will be a resolution from the British Isles Mission Centre and Western Europe Mission Center. Here is the summary statement of (G-1) Nonviolence:
World Conference Resolution 1273 identifies Community of Christ as a peace church and encourages us to seek ways to achieve healing and restorative justice. Members in these mission centers recall the Christian Crusades, the colonial history of mother nations, and the nationalisms that led to world wars from 1914–1918 and 1939–1945. In addition, in 2018 the world commemorated the end of World War I. This resolution calls for Community of Christ to reject all forms of violence, including acts of terrorism, war, and the financing of wars. It also calls the church to confront and resist injustice while rejecting the notion that violence on Earth and violence against Earth can be addressed separately. Further it urges Community of Christ to continue supporting peace education and inviting members to embody Christ’s nonviolence through local, global, ecumenical, and interfaith actions.
Some church members are concerned that approving this resolution as official policy will have a negative impact on those members serving in the military or even various law enforcement agencies. In response to that, a member of the European peace team that drew up the resolution posted a lengthy statement on Facebook this week. As a Norwegian military veteran himself, he understood the concerns:
Let me be very clear. This resolution is not pointing a finger at you. It ought not make you feel less or shame for your service or your courage. Understandably judgmental attitudes about your military profession would hurt you. In crafting this resolution, we were in no way thinking judgmentally of you and your chosen profession. This resolution was written by European church members repenting of the violence our own nations and empires inflicted upon the world, especially in World War I and World War II and through colonialism. And we want to invite others in the church to join us in this conversation as we ask the question what does it mean to faithfully follow Jesus as we pursue peace with justice….
The First Presidency has announced that G-1 Nonviolence will be considered initially using two components of the common-consent process (careful listening and surveying) before standard parliamentary procedure is undertaken for final consideration. That approach helped the church several years ago when several national jurisdictions (including the USA, Canada, the UK, and Australia) considered and eventually approved extending ordination and marriage for LGBTQ persons.
In addition to daily legislative and priesthood quorum sessions, the week-long conference will include numerous worship experiences. All of them, beginning with the initial Saturday afternoon Temple anniversary service (beginning at 1 p.m. CDT) will be live-streamed on the church’s website.
On Saturday evening two organizations, Water.org and the Franciscan Mission Warehouse, will receive this year’s International Peace Award. Previous recipients have included Dr. Jane Goodall (1999) and Bread for the World (2014). Water.org is in Kansas City, Missouri, and has provided millions of people with water and sanitation, helping to break the cycle of poverty and expanding opportunities in the world’s poorest communities. Franciscan Mission Warehouse is in Independence, Missouri, and collects surplus equipment and supplies from U.S. medical facilities and sends them to hospitals and clinics in the poorest parts of the world.
- In a culture where human sexuality is a controversial topic, how can a religious organization “pursue peace”?
- Given the diversity of views and international backgrounds among members, how do you even define “peace”?
- Because Latter-day Saint history has included numerous violent episodes, is this a way for the Community of Christ to downplay its origins?