At Their Own Word: The Mormon Newsroom on Church DisciplineBy: Andrew S
By this time, there have been tens, if not hundreds, of blog posts (are you aware all of those links were just from one blog, but the ones in these parentheticals are not?), podcasts (that’s a podcast for each letter, by the way), news articles, Facebook topics, and forum threads about the impending disciplinary councils of Kate Kelly (the founder of Ordain Women), and John Dehlin (the creator of Mormon Stories). So many writers, bloggers, and podcasters have given their thoughts on what they think has happened (and is happening), how they think the church should proceed, or even how they think John, Kate, or their supporters should proceed.
It seems like this is a topic that might be all talked out (P.S., I don’t know what the limit is for most links in a non-spam blog post, but I’m sure if I haven’t met it, I could find more articles to reach that threshold.)
However, one area that hasn’t received much attention is how the church is presenting itself. Because so many people assume that the Mormon Newsroom and its representatives are unauthoritative or simply not completely forthright, many have ignored their messages as being irrelevant (at best) to the conversation, or misleading (at worst) as to how the church is actually acting in these proceedings.
And that might be true. But let’s bracket that for a moment and ask: what if we took the Newsroom and Public Affairs Department at their own word? What would it say about the church’s institutional involvement in these proceedings?
Piercing the Correlated Veil
Correlation is big on many internet Mormons’ minds. It is often seen as the big enemy of modern Mormonism, stifling the unique aspects of Mormonism while enshrining many of the cultural and doctrinal points with which progressive types struggle. And obviously, correlation is implicated as a prime suspect here — many people assume that the investigations of Kate and John (and others such as Rock Waterman) represent a coordinated effort, if not a wider-spread purge, from the top.
But what if we take the Newsroom at their word? From their narrative, not only are these actions not coordinated at a high level, but to the contrary, the disciplinary action must go through local channels. From the Newsroom’s response on discipline questions:
Sometimes members’ actions contradict Church doctrine and lead others astray. While uncommon, some members in effect choose to take themselves out of the Church by actively teaching and publicly attempting to change doctrine to comply with their personal beliefs. This saddens leaders and fellow members. In these rare cases, local leaders have the responsibility to clarify false teachings and prevent other members from being misled. Decisions are made by local leaders and not directed or coordinated by Church headquarters.
I can see why people might be skeptical of this idea. In online discussions, several have pointed to the 1993 September Six disciplinary councils as an example when Church headquarters clearly did coordinate behind the scenes. And yet, in an interview with Dan Wotherspoon, even Maxine Hanks offered that for the September Six, the process and final decisions were a local matter. Starting from around 7:12:
DAN: With Elder Oaks later admitting that Elder Packer did get involved with people like you and directing your stake presidents — not necessarily in “this is how the result has to be”, but at least in, “You should call these people in.” That was a precedent in instructing church leaders: “This is coming from you, but we strongly urge…”
MAXINE: Well, first of all, Dan, these are different contexts…completely different situations…it’s pretty hard to compare 1993 and 2014. There are a couple of little parallels, but the differences stack up so huge, I could spend an hour talking about the differences…
DAN: Well, we don’t have an hour, but I want some, because it doesn’t seem that different to me on the surface, so lay it out…what would be a few?
MAXINE: Well first, before I mention a couple of differences, I just want to say that even though in our case, we did hear secondhand in 1993 that investigations were initiated from high level, apostolic level — which the church has the right to do, to investigate the writings and activities of its members, and talk to them and find out where they are coming from, find out how they are feeling — even though it was initiated, the process and the actual interviewing and decisions were left to the local leaders. And I can absolutely say that was the case. In my case, I did not participate, I did not cooperate; I did not even want to attend the council…and actually, here’s a bit of evidence for the fact that back in 1993 each case was situational. Lynne Whitesides worked closely with her Bishop and her leaders, cooperated, collaborated, attended her council, and she was not ex’ed. I didn’t attend, Mike didn’t attend, Lavina didn’t attend; we did not participate — we were all ex’ed…and I’m pretty confident that if I had gone in and participated, and really tried to work with them, I would not have been ex’ed. So there’s a difference between initiating a conversation and investigation vs. the actual process and decision where that takes place. So in 1993 as well as today, when the church says, “These activities are local,” they are honest; they’re accurate about that, because the process and decision-making happens on the local level.
Two Insights from Ally Isom
In a RadioWest interview with Doug Fabrizio, the Senior Manager of Public Affairs with the LDS Church, Ally Isom said as much repeatedly. Below, I will provide several snippets from the hour-long interview, and then will provide my thoughts on two things that came out from the Public Affairs Department’s own narrative:
3:52: ALLY: “[Firstly], it is the desire of every church leader and member…our most heartfelt desire is for anyone who is working through personal challenges with their faith or questions through a disciplinary process that they turn to our Savior for answers and fully participate with us; we fully expect them to be part of the congregation and to remain in the Body of Christ….the second point is that this process is not expulsion…and in some ways, I hear the conversation framed as if excommunication is a foregone conclusion, when it is one of the options available to the local ecclesiastical leader, but it is at their discretion…”
5:19: ALLY: Discipline processes are not necessarily expulsions, not exclusions…rather it’s an inclusion…it’s meant to be a loving invitation to return to the Savior.
6:08: ALLY: Christ taught we need to be disciplined in thought, in word, in deed, and it’s how we fully engage as a true follower in the body of Christ.
6:23: ALLY: I have had personal accounts where they have shared with me how deeply profound this experience of discipline was…where they didn’t really understand what the Savior’s atonement meant to them or how to personally apply that redeeming and that enabling power in their lives until they personally experienced this.
7:22: DOUG: But why not just say they’re being punished for stepping over the line…going too far…you’re trying to correct their course…there’s nothing wrong with saying that, is there?
ALLY: No, not at all, and that is precisely what it’s meant to be…to correct their course so they can align with the Savior’s teachings.
8:25: DOUG: Is [going public] where members in general cross the line?
ALLY: Well, I can’t speculate as to what the conversations been between a specific church member and their ecclesiastical leader…that’s simply not my place and not my role…but where I can speak generally is in terms of apostasy, we define it as when our members turn away from the principles of the Gospel, or corrupt principles of the Gospel, or make unauthorized changes in Church organization or priesthood ordinances. It’s one thing to make one’s views known…it’s quite another to draw others away from clear doctrine…
15:35: ALLY: One cannot use a mortal lens to assert what is best…only God understands this; they are His designs, and the bottom line is we trust Him…we know that it is His Church and He is in charge and in His due time, He will determine the timing and the content of any revelatory change.
DOUG: *discusses Gordon B. Hinckley interview about agitation*
17:40: ALLY: Are we saying our way is better than God’s way?
20:38: DOUG: “Who’s directing all of this? The church statement is very clear…it says local leaders…
ALLY: The determination…is all made at the discretion of the local congregant leader…let me give you a little context…I’m not saying that there is no information provided from Church Headquarters…the information they receive is standard training as to process or how to conduct their stewardship…it is more a technical guidance….
24:46 ALLY: I’m not going to deny that we do these trainings…but we are leaving it up to the discretion of that leader to act in the Saviour’s behalf and to conduct themselves as prompted by the Spirit…there is in no way an implied *wink, wink*, “now’s the time to take action.”
25:43: DOUG: But the second question is…why not? Why wouldn’t church HQ want to have a say in a process that has the potential to affect the public image of the church?
ALLY: It comes back to the other question about priesthood and offices of the priesthood…it is very specific that it is within the purview of that Bishop or Stake President and ONLY their purview to be that judge in Israel and make that determination…it is their decision alone.
DOUG: If someone is excommunicated…that doesn’t have to be signed off on by HQ at church? That is completely within the stewardship and purview of local leadership?
ALLY: It is, and moreover, it’s in the purview of the individual themselves…let’s be clear…the individual chooses how this process progresses…These people in any of these processes…they have choices…it is their choice to remain in the congregation, it is their choice to remain within the body of Christ, and it is their choice whether or not they listen to the promptings of the Spirit and align their behavior with the Savior’s will.
DOUG: But the choice then is to keep their mouths shut about this particular thing or stop being so public about this particular thing? They do have to make that choice–
ALLY: I can’t say that that’s the criteria…that’s between them and their bishop and God.
38:05: DOUG: So it was just the declarative “Ordain Women” that got Kate Kelly into trouble?
ALLY: You know, I’m not going to speculate where the line was…you seem to ask me repeated questions about “where is this line???” And I get it Doug…It is not for me to say. It is between Kate and her bishop and Heavenly Father…because I don’t know her heart, and her bishop knows better than anyone else; that is his stewardship.
38:56 DOUG: OK, so I’m not sure if you want to respond to the particulars of Elder Clayton’s reported comments that this is apostasy…but can you say that it is…associating with Ordain Women.com is apostasy?
ALLY: I’m not sure I can say that it is…it depends on where people are in their heart and what they’ve explicitly done.
DOUG: So for some it would be OK to go on that website and participate?
ALLY: What do you define as participation?
DOUG: Creating a profile…is that apostasy?
ALLY: You know what; I’m not really prepared to answer that question; it’s not my determination.
DOUG: Fine, but why then did Kate Kelly’s parents get their temple recommends removed for supporting their daughter and creating profiles on that website?
ALLY: You know, I can’t answer that question, because that’s between them and their bishops.
DOUG: So, there’s no…you can’t answer broadly…so, so…
ALLY: Isn’t that the beauty of all this…that there isn’t a general, broad brush…it’s individually applied.
DOUG: There is either a rule or there isn’t–
ALLY: –The Savior either knows you or he doesn’t.
Priesthood Roulette – Apostasy Edition
In the bloggernacle, there is a general understanding that despite correlation, one’s fulfillment or experience within one’s ward or stake can differ greatly depending on their fellow ward members, Bishop, or Stake President. This phenomenon, often called “Priesthood Roulette” or “Ecclesiastical Roulette” is beyond the control of any individual. Even when people might oppose the standardization that correlation aspires to, they may oppose the idea of priesthood roulette more strongly.
One thing that came out repeatedly in Ally’s comments is a sense that even something as critical as the definition of apostasy is up to such priesthood roulette. As much as Doug tried to press her, Ally refused at every point to specifically define apostasy beyond general terms, stating that the definitions depends on one’s bishop or stake president. Most intriguing was the summary at the 38:56 exchange…Doug is clearly exasperated that she can’t answer the question broadly, and Ally responds that of course she can’t — and that’s the beauty, that these general principles are applied individually.
Many folks online are frightened by the idea of an institutionally led crackdown on dissenters. But isn’t it more frightening that the crackdown is completely local and the institution chooses (and cannot choose otherwise) to do nothing about that?
Local Autonomy with Christ Metonymy
One of the biggest phrases of the interview was Ally Isom’s reference to “Ordain Women” as being a grammatical imperative. For non-language nerds, this might have seemed like a weird phrase, but for language-nerds, this was understood as a smart reference to the English imperative grammatical mood — what we most often use when we give (often implied) second-person commands like “Go to bed” or…infamously, “Ordain Women.”
Again, this grammatical turn of phrase has been discussed previously, so no need to rehash it. But to introduce my own linguistic term into the fray, the second thing that came out strongly to me from Isom’s comments was a Christ metonymy. Metonymy is a rhetorical comment in which a thing or concept is addressed by something associated with it. For example, when we say “Washington” as a reference for the actions of the United States government in general or “the White House” as a reference for the actions of the President more specifically.
One clear thing that comes from the conversation at several points is that Isom (and presumably the Newsroom) conceptually identify the church strongly with Christ.
While the ecclesiastical roulette-ization of apostasy is concerning, this Christ metonymy is even more concerning to me, because of the way that it forecloses certain options from the church in its own narrative.
For example, by emphasizing that apostates have strayed out of alignment not merely with the Church or with a local leader but with Christ himself forecloses the possibility that the church’s view and Christ’s view could differ. Repeatedly, Isom states that it is the individual’s choice to listen to the promptings of the Spirit and align their behavior with the Savior’s will, but with the metonymic framing, there is no room for the possibility that a person could have gotten themselves in the disciplinary situation by following what they believe are the promptings of the Spirit and aligning themselves with what they are prompted to believe is the Savior’s will.
However, more interesting about this rhetorical shift is that this rhetorical choice precludes the possibility that any church policy, doctrine, etc., could be wrong. It precludes the possibility — even if Isom can’t find a place where it says women *can’t* have the priesthood and she only has places where it positively defines priesthood offices being held by men — that the status quo is just a “policy” that may not align with Christ.
The cash value of this narrative framework is that it explains why the church says or does not say certain things about certain issues. For example, this rhetorical framework provides explanation into why we don’t see strong repudiations and apologies on the blacks and the priesthood issue. Even if the church says it was a “policy”, its rhetoric is that it and Christ are aligned. In summary, the church is constrained — it can’t then say, “This policy was out of alignment with Christ,” because that would shatter the entire narrative structure.