There are some updates to the LDS Handbook that relate to baptism and sexual topics, but I need to give some background before I get to the discussion. Once upon a time, there was a printed Church Handbook of Instructions (CHI) that was only given to GAs, other senior leaders, and local leaders like your stake president and your bishop. Access to the CHI by lay members was very spotty: either you asked your bishop and he agreed (or didn’t) to let you sit down and read a particular section, or you got access to a pirated copy online or through other means. About ten years ago, the CHI was split into two volumes, Handbook 1 (H1) and Handbook 2 (H2). Most of the good stuff is in H1, which is still restricted, but H2 is available to all Church members (and the reading public) at LDS.org.
The most interesting section of H2 is Section 21, Selected Church Policies and Guidelines. Until H2 was broken out of the CHI and made available to the public, few members of the Church were familiar with most of these policies. I don’t know how you could call them “Church policies” when the lay membership had no access to the text of the policies and were often completely unaware of the existence of particular policies, but hey, no one ever accused LDS church governance procedures of making sense.
There are a lot of policies, grouped rather loosely into five categories.
- Administrative Policies, such as Audiovisual Materials (you can’t use CDs, DVDs, or Powerpoint presentations in sacrament meeting), Recording Talks and Addresses of General Authorities and Area Seventies (don’t do it), and Statements Attributed to Church Leaders (you should not even share notes you make of things GAs say when they visit).
- Policies on Using Church Buildings and Other Property, such as Artwork (no artwork in the chapel), Firearms (only allowed if you are a law enforcement officer, even if you have a concealed weapons permit), and Parking Lots. I think we have the best parking lots in Christendom. I believe you can see them from space. I am fairly certain that having the best parking lots is a sign of the True Church.
- Medical and Health Policies, such as Cremation (strongly discouraged, but if elected by the family the body should be dressed in temple clothes before the cremation is performed), Euthanasia (don’t do it, it’s a sin), and Stillborn Children (“It is a fact that a child has life before birth. However, there is no direct revelation on when the spirit enters the body.”).
- Policies on Moral Issues, such as Abortion (three allowable possible exceptions are explicitly identified), Abuse (“Church leaders and members should fulfill all legal obligations to report abuse to civil authorities.”), Birth Control (“The decision as to how many children to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord.”), Homosexual Behavior and Same-Gender Attraction (“While opposing homosexual behavior, the Church reaches out with understanding and respect to individuals who are attracted to those of the same gender.”), and Surgical Sterilization, Including Vasectomy (strongly discouraged).
- Church Participation, Section 21.5. This is what appears to be new and appears to reflect written guidance on the supposedly updated November Policy that we’ve all been waiting for, as well as some additional directives.
I am going to go through the entire Section 21.5, which is fairly short, and quote the more interesting paragraphs as quotations, with my comments below in straight text. There are four subsections, which I won’t break out for this discussion.
Those who attend should avoid disruptions or distractions contrary to worship or other purposes of the meeting. All age and behavior requirements of different Church meetings and events should be respected. That requires refraining from overt romantic behavior and from dress or grooming that causes distraction. It also precludes making political statements or speaking of sexual orientation or other personal characteristics that detract from meetings focused on the Savior.
[Important update: After this post was published, the wording in Handbook 2 quoted in the preceding paragraph was updated. The last sentence now reads (with the added words in bold font): “It also precludes making political statements or speaking of sexual orientation or other personal characteristics in a way that detracts from meetings focused on the Savior.”]
No political statements. In some wards, that could really change what’s said over the pulpit and in Gospel Doctrine class. I suspect the ban on speaking about sexual orientation is aimed at preventing (or giving the bishop justification for shutting down) young Mormons from coming out at the pulpit during testimony meetings. But this general prohibition seems to bar any discussion of sexual orientation, whether one’s own or anyone else’s. This could be very helpful the next time you have to advise your bishop that anti-gay or anti-trans or anti-whatever comments made at the pulpit are both unwelcome and offensive (this was me a month ago). Now they are also prohibited by the Handbook.
If there is inappropriate behavior, the bishop or stake president gives private counsel in a spirit of love.
Helpful if you need to tell a ward busybody that it’s the bishop’s job to judge your neighbor, not yours.
A minor child age 8 or older may be baptized with the permission of his or her custodial parent(s) or legal guardian(s). The custodial parent(s) or legal guardian(s) should understand the Church doctrine their child will be taught and support the child in making and keeping the baptismal covenant.
There are no exceptions or unlesses in this short paragraph, so the implicit effect of this paragraph is to remove the previous requirement that minor children who have a biological parent who is in a gay marriage or gay relationship needed First Presidency approval before being baptized. Of course, they still need the bishop’s approval, and that can be all over the map.
Here’s a creative workaround if your local leaders are a problem for you. Wait until the child is 9 years old, at which point their baptism is technically a missionary baptism. Their interview and approval for baptism is then done by missionaries and, if further direction is required, by the Mission President. The local leaders are not involved. Sometimes missionaries baptize individuals and the local leaders are not even aware of the baptism. They don’t even need to do it at the ward building; they could go do it at the local swimming pool. The missionaries are much more likely to want that 9-year-old convert baptized, for statistics if nothing else.
All members, even if they have never married or are without family in the Church, should strive for the ideal of living in an eternal family. This means preparing to be sealed as a worthy husband or wife and to become a loving father or mother. For some, these blessings will not be fulfilled until the next life, but the ultimate goal is the same for all.
Faithful members whose circumstances do not allow them to receive the blessings of eternal marriage and parenthood in this life will receive all promised blessings in the eternities, provided they keep the covenants they have made with God (see Mosiah 2:41).
Is it just me, or does that sound condescending? I’m guessing some single members who read this would get the impression that until you are married, you are not really an adult, not really a complete person, not quite a member in good standing. You’re deficient, missing something. I know that in that strange mental and doctrinal space that some Mormons inhabit, they are deeply worried and obsessively anxious that they might end up as ministering angel in the next life. A single, celibate, childless ministering angel. If this subsection and its authoritative reassurance makes such a person feel better about themselves, that’s great. That’s not something people should be worried about. Be kind to others and let God sort it out in the next life. Maybe we need a policy on kindness.
As is so often the case, it is frustrating how bassackwards the Church goes about modifying or changing its doctrines and policies. They say they haven’t changed anything. They don’t tell you when they change something. They don’t provide any list of what they have changed, deleted, or added. And they don’t explain the significance or intended outcome for the changes they make. But hey, these seem like positive changes. Can’t argue with progress.