Community of Christ Crosses Rubicon on LGBT Issues

By: FireTag
June 9, 2012

The Community of Christ has begun “crossing the Rubicon” on LGBT issues, and there can be no reversing the action taken. CofChrist is committed to the theological precedent that priesthood can be compatible with participation in a legally recognized same-sex sexual relationship. On June 2nd, the Australian National Conference approved the following recommendation to the Twelve and First Presidency, which the leadership plans to act upon and implement within one year:

“We support the ordination of individuals who are called by God through the processes established by Community of Christ, who are in long-term, committed, homosexual relationships, i.e. de facto relationships (this is a legally recognized relationship status in Australia for same-sex and opposite-sex couples), and recommend that the First Presidency and the Council of Twelve Apostles proceed to prepare and implement policy allowing these calls to be considered, and, if approved, for ordinations to proceed within the Australia Mission Centre.”

Both the LDS and Community of Christ rely on the concept of “common consent” in advancing new understandings of doctrine on divisive issues. Earlier this week Mormon Heretic discussed the implications of the timing with which the racial discrimination of the “priesthood/temple ban” was addressed by the LDS in 1978. That issue was resolved church-wide in essentially a single step.

But how does a church best obtain common consent on potentially schismatic issues of human sexuality? Community of Christ has taken the route of isolating the debate on such issues within individual cultures to the extent possible (using national boundaries as a proxy for cultural boundaries for administrative practicality). Then, the church is carefully sequencing the convening of national conferences to minimize the potential for conflict.

Although the entire Community of Christ membership for the continent of Australia is smaller than that of a normal Mormon stake, the precedent has now been set. The Canadian National Conference will occur on June 16 to consider both the issue of ordination for gays in committed relationships, and the issue of whether priesthood may officiate over marriages or other sacramental commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples.  Canadian membership is somewhat larger than that in Australia, so the Conference will occur as a “teleconference” held at 15 sites throughout the country from a hub in Kitchener, Ontario. The fact that Canadian Mission Centers (roughly equivalent to geographically dispersed, stake-sized units) passed resolutions favoring such actions for gay rights prior to the 2010 World Conference suggests that there will probably be the 2/3rds majority the Presidency and Twelve have indicated will be necessary for them to accept any recommendation.

The British Isles will also hold a national conference on these issues, but I have heard nothing as yet about the timing; presumably it will not be held until this little bother of the Olympics is behind them.

That leaves the USA National Conference (and interestingly, only the “English” nations are taking the national conference route over these issues) to come in April 2013.

The World Church is preparing for that conference already. And the method of doing so illustrates a second aspect of how it is seeking to minimize schismatic potential: carefully frame the decision process and control the information flow within the church.

As I recently discussed here, the Community of Christ issued a statement on ethical principles of human sexuality several weeks ago that incorporated a modern scientific understanding of both the subject of sexuality and the process by which cultures incorporate debates over sexuality into their scriptural records. The Statement lasted about two weeks before the need to avoid “specific concern about how some phrases could be interpreted in various cultures” led the leadership to strip out all of the modern understandings of both sexuality and the formation of scripture-faithful ethics (about 70% of the original draft). The second draft of the Statement contained only the least-common-denominator, uncontroversial results, which provided no teaching guidance to anyone not already familiar with, and receptive to, the first draft.  It will do nothing to bridge the gap that exists between first world and third world cultures on these issues, nor to bridge the gap between social conservatives and progressives in the first world. How weak can the foundations of this “community” be, and how prepared are we to be “one in Christ” if we can not even speak in public of the world views from which the two sides proceed?

There is discussion going on in which “teaching” occurs. But, perhaps unsurprisingly to a Mormon audience, the information presented in very “correlated”. When the US National Conference was announced, even Mission Center Presidents were actively discouraged from discussing the issues until official materials had been prepared, and at least one such President who did so on one side of the issue was told directly to stop. There is quite an extensive list of official material available here in the answer to its Question 11.  In fact, there is enough for a couple of semesters of Sunday School! However, there is relatively little chance that what is discussed will pass beyond the participants and become widely known in time to influence opinion within the church before the Conference. (Indeed, the strategy of dealing with these issues in North America without excessive risks to inflame passions against the church in third world nations depends on that presumption, which is explicitly stated in Answer 10 of the official Conference Q&A.)

As a principle of political science, control of the information flow means control of opinion.The leadership is trying to do this sincerely, I believe. It is encouraging a “holy indifference”. This is defined in the official material for the USA conference as “to surrender the perceptions, opinions, and agendas of the self (the individual ego) to the mind and heart of God, the source of all truth, wisdom, and beauty“. In other words, it is “church-ese” for the scriptural concept of “Not my will, but Thine be done!”

One can not quarrel with that principle, but implementing it is a bit tricky. One can not assume that people on either “side” of the issue formed any strong perceptions, opinions, and agendas that they hold in 2012 without the input of the Holy Spirit in the years and decades previously (and in the case of the CofChrist within North America, the issues of gay rights have been actively debated for decades). If you do, you are left with perceptions of an “enlightened leadership” not themselves practicing “holy indifference”, but trying to coax members along a path that the recalcitrant may believe to be morally wrong. The magnification of schismatic potential is real even if the perceptions of “coaxing” are incorrect.

Certainly, the prior conclusions of the leadership come into play in the framing of the conference procedures and agenda themselves. Indeed, the rationale behind the whole enterprise is that maintaining a growing institution of the church without open schism is the highest priority. This is a lot less obvious conclusion in “a true church”, as formally asserted by the CofChrist, than it would be in an “only true church”, as formally asserted by the LDS. But though we can apparently contemplate separating practices by national boundaries — which are transient on the scale of decades — we must maintain unity of practices across modes of sexuality, although the latter, with their connection to reproduction, can be persistent enough to split apart whole species. The conceptual framework simply doesn’t allow solutions that result in the decline of the CofChrist or its transferring members into a new, also true, church community.

The national conferences are “special conferences” under church rules, and this gives the Twelve and Presidency great flexibility in adopting the structure under which the Conferences operate, because there is little established precedent. Technically, the leadership is free to ignore conference recommendations entirely, although they have stated that they will accept and implement any recommended change in current policy that passes by a 2/3rds majority. Otherwise, policy will be unchanged.

However, under the adopted procedures, the leadership writes the recommendations that will be voted upon, as well as any amendments to those recommendations that will be considered. Specifically, the USA National Conference is being assembled to consider and advise on the following:

  1. The sacrament of marriage may be extended, where legal, to persons of the same sex/gender. In places where this is not legal, a church-recognized way for two persons of the same sex/gender to publicly express their covenant to each other will be made available.
  2. A priesthood call for a person in a monogamous, committed, same-sex/gender relationship (e.g. legal marriage, civil partnership, covenant relationship) may be processed according to established procedures.

During the first “half” of the Conference, the delegates will have opportunity to hear personal statements from those chosen by the leadership (format undecided) to present differing views. (Delegates will be required to also previously attend local sessions presenting and reviewing the “teaching” materials already mentioned above.) They will be polled using a high tech system at various points regarding their degree of support for each of the recommendations, with the results publicly displayed in the conference Auditorium. The high tech system is a one-of-a-kind for the church, installed only in Independence, and thus, available only to the USA and World Conferences.

The delegates will also be polled on the reasons for the degree of support they express for the recommendations. The possible reasons are also being written by the leadership, although there will be a “none of the above” option included. (If “none of the above” obtains significant support, the conference has to be recessed momentarily to allow further research into what the unstated reasons might be.) At the end of the Saturday session, the leadership will convene in “executive” session to sort through the polling data and possibly modify the original statements to better reflect what might possibly achieve consensus. The modified statements will be presented to the delegates for the “binding” vote the next day. If the vote is too split in either direction (e.g., 55-45 for or against), the leadership will still have the hot potato to deal with through some yet-to-be-determined process, but current policy will remain unchanged.

I previously described how the selection of delegates to Community of Christ conferences produces a more liberal (and economically richer) delegate body than is representative of the local congregational attendees. Delegates to both the US and World Conferences will be selected by Mission Centers this summer and fall, and economics will dictate that there will be considerable overlap among the delegates. The leadership is actively discouraging delegate candidates from stating their positions on the US conference issues, but — aside from the systematic biases I mentioned in the link above — delegates broadly represent the geographic regions in which church membership is concentrated. So, conference make-up will tend to be heavily concentrated from the Midwestern states, with additional strength from the historical RLDS centers in the Eastern Great Lakes and the West Coast. Church membership has also been relatively stronger in recent years in the sunbelt, following general population mobility trends in the US. We can expect these geographic cultural mores to express themselves among the delegates as well.

Stay tuned. The Community of Christ is in for very interesting times as it tries to sort out what God is saying among all the voices already speaking to us in His name.

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11 Responses to Community of Christ Crosses Rubicon on LGBT Issues

  1. Bonnie on June 9, 2012 at 3:25 PM

    Fascinating process.

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  2. NewlyHousewife on June 9, 2012 at 7:46 PM

    Are outsiders allowed to watch the conference? I live within an hour of Independence and would love the opportunity to see this in action.

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  3. EmberRising on June 9, 2012 at 8:02 PM

    Hi, NewlyHousewife,

    Traditionally world conferences are open to be watched from anyone who wishes to do so. This conference process is new, so I’m not sure if that will be changed, but World Conference has always been open to viewers. They just can’t sit in delegate sections during legislative sessions. I’ll send an e-mail to my area apostle and see if I can get any additional information.

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  4. FireTag on June 9, 2012 at 11:35 PM

    NewlyHousewife:

    Ember is correct. The USA conference will convene the Friday evening after World Conference ends in the afternoon, and information on registration for the general public will probably not be available until about the end of 2012. Delegate credentials will be strictly controlled, but the Conference chamber seats several thousand like a college arena, so they’ll probably make visitors credentials available for at least the balcony ring if not the sides of the main floor.

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  5. EmberRising on June 10, 2012 at 8:31 AM

    The apostle responded this morning and confirmed that the balcony of the auditorium will be open to those who want to watch.

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  6. Stephen Marsh on June 10, 2012 at 8:30 PM

    As a principle of political science, control of the information flow means control of opinion Indeed.

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  7. Mormon Heretic on June 11, 2012 at 1:11 AM

    FireTag, I love these posts. I am always fascinated to see how things work in the CoC.

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  8. FireTag on June 17, 2012 at 10:24 PM

    UPDATE: On June 16, Canada became the second nation in which CofChrist policy toward LGBT issues is being changed. The Canadian National Conference approved by more than a 2/3rds majority: 1) recommending allowing Community of Christ priesthood to perform the sacrament of marriage for same-gender couples in Canada; 2) recommending allowing the sacrament of ordination for individuals in same-gender marriages in Canada. As with Australia, implementation is expected to take up to a year.

    The formal announcement is here:

    http://cofchrist.org/CanadaConf/default.asp

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  9. Sutekh on July 11, 2012 at 5:43 PM

    The Community of Christ is an interesting study in how leftwing politics is played to subvert the will of the majority by controlling the information and the nature of the delegatges voting.

    In the South, right wing organizations used to do this by mandating the poll tax, and other egregious manipulation. Political organizations with the will and means to do this can turn their political units into private fiefdoms.

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  10. FireTag on July 11, 2012 at 8:45 PM

    Sutekh:

    Yes, the interplay of politics and religion is fascinating. I believe Episcopalians took a major step this week, passing a resolution that approved a 3-year trial of “blessing ceremonies” that are for committed same-sex couples that seem to be marriage ceremonies in all but name. The fracturing of the Anglican communion internationally over this issue, I know from personal conversations, has been one of the things that has led to so much “tiptoeing” about the issue within the CofChrist.

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  11. [...] Although it will take several months for these recommendations to be accepted and implemented by the Presidency and Apostles, this is a done deal. They have previously accepted the same recommendations, with locally relevant legal terminology, from Canadian and Australian conferences, as noted here. [...]

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