Saturday, November 27, 2010

Marriage, Religion and the State : A Mormon history (Part 8)

RLDS/Community of Christ (1910 to Present)

The RLDS have consistently followed a tradition of monogamous marriage from their origin in 1860 to present day. Notwithstanding this fact, there have been significant changes in doctrine and practices relating to marriage, sexual and gender equality in the organization.

The first movement toward policy change occurred in the 1960s when Sora tribesmen encountered the church in India and wanted to become members. The Sora people were traditionally polygamous and this presented a major difficulty for a church that had defined so much of its identity on opposing polygamy. The problem was complicated further due to strict cultural elements in the Sora tribe; if a husband divorced a wife to join the church, she, along with her children, would be left destitute. After long deliberation, President W. Wallace Smith announced a revelation during the April 1972 World Conference that allowed the church to admit polygamous families under specific restrictions. This revelation caused strong debate and intense controversy among the conference delegates, however, it was eventually accepted as inspired counsel to the church. The document, now known as Doctrine and Covenants Section 150 reads “Monogamy is the basic principle on which Christian married life is built. Yet, as I have said before, there are also those who are not of this fold to whom the saving grace of the gospel must go. When this is done the church must be willing to bear the burden of their sin, nurturing them in the faith, accepting that degree of repentance which it is possible for them to achieve, looking forward to the day when through patience and love they can be free as a people from the sins of the years of their ignorance1” This prophetic guidance affirms the doctrine of monogamous marriage and continues to condemn polygamy as a sin, while at the same time allowing polygamous families to join the RLDS church. Restrictions were placed upon the new members which prohibited them from taking additional wives2. Over the years, since this practice was instituted, polygamy has disappeared in this segment of the Sora community.

While the RLDS tradition has consistently opposed the idea that polygamy is a divine ordinance, there has been a gradual acceptance of the probability that Joseph Smith Jr. originated a system of plural marriage among his closest followers. During the early 1980s, RLDS historian Richard Howard completed a thorough examination of the available evidence and concluded that “Joseph Smith’s theological and doctrinal speculations created the secret, elite, polygamous reality at Nauvoo, beginning about 1844... Joseph saw disaster approaching when the church, threatened by the defection of his councilor in the First Presidency, William Law, was coming under hostile public attack during the spring of 1844. Joseph Smith tried to enlist Nauvoo stake president William Marks to deter the advance of polygamy. Smith, however, was slain before any progress materialized3” In spite of this growing recognition, the RLDS church has maintained the position taken by Joseph Smith III, that if his father was guilty of practicing polygamy he was wrong.4.

In 1984, even greater changes occurred in the RLDS community when the church approved a revelation that opened priesthood ordination to women. The revelation, recorded as Doctrine and Covenants 156, reads “I say to you now, as I have said in the past, that all are called according to the gifts which have been given them. This applies to priesthood as well as to any other aspects of the work. Therefore, do not wonder that some women of the church are being called to priesthood responsibilities. This is in harmony with my will“. This revelation, received by Prophet/President Wallace B Smith, created serious controversy at conference and it was ultimately opposed by a large percentage of the conference delegates. Accepted as revelation with a majority vote, the RLDS church became one of the first American denominations to ordain women to the priesthood.5 Sadly, about one third of the membership left the church and this defection led to the formation of the Restorationist LDS and the Remnant LDS movements.

The RLDS church has made several attempts to understand the dilemma of homosexuality in the church. During 1978, the RLDS First Presidency began questioning whether the previous 1961 Standing High Council memorandum, entitled “Homosexuality and Other Sexual Perversions”, was the most appropriate stance for the church. A committee was instituted to study the issue and this resulted in a new High Council memorandum on “Homosexuality” that was released in 1982. This report clearly differentiated between homosexual orientation, “a condition over which a person may have little or no control” and homosexual activity which is “considered immoral and cannot be condoned by the church”. The statement continued to affirm the worth of all persons; “homosexuals as well as heterosexuals” are children of God and have full claim upon the acceptance ... and care of the church”. The guidelines counsel that practicing homosexuals should not be admitted to the priesthood, as these acts were compared to heterosexual promiscuity. The statement highlighted the importance of marriage in relation to the life of homosexual church members and the document “ affirms that Christian marriage is a sacred covenant relationship, ordained of God between a man and a woman. The sacrament of marriage has a long theological and ecclesiastical history, and the symbolism is exclusively heterosexual.” The marriage definition continued to state that “ Homosexual unions are not and should not be considered marriages in the sacramental sense.”

In 1997, President Grant McMurray called for a new vision for the church which centered on a “Christ-centered theology of peace and justice”. With this new direction, the 2000 World Conference enacted legislation to change the name of the church from the RLDS church to the Community of Christ (CofChrist). Soon afterwards, in a 2002 World Conference Sermon, President Grant McMurray admitted that some exceptions had been made through the ordination of some sexually active homosexual men and women.6 In response to this address, a statement was released that reaffirmed a 1982 Standing High Council statement that prohibited the ordination of sexually active homosexual members “while the church continues to seek God’s direction and engages in process that honors our community and the principles of common consent that govern us”.

President McMurray’s announcement led to a World Church Leadership Council in September of 2002. The summary of the retreat recognized that the church had been called to create a loving and respectful dialogue on the divisive issue of sexuality. Stating “if the church is to be faithful to the demands of the gospel it will often be called beyond the boundaries of certainty to explore its implications in a complex world. We are deeply committed to seeking God’s direction and embodying the life and ministry of Jesus in our own personal ministry and in the lived-out witness of the church.”, the church leadership embarked on a path to explore existing concepts about homosexuality in the context of church and international culture. World events continued along with this exploration within the church. Several countries, including The Netherlands (2001), Belgium (2003) and Canada (2005) legalized same-sex unions. During 2005, an addition was made to the church administrators handbook specifying that CoChrist ministers were not authorized to perform same-sex marriages, even in jurisdictions where these marriages are legally valid. A committee on Homosexuality in the Church reported the results of a 5 year study at the 2007 World Conference. These findings included common values which included the inestimable worth of each person, noting that some say that lack of love, acceptance and tolerance is immoral while others say that homosexual behaviours are immoral and those who engage in them are to be loved but not fully accepted in the church. It was clearly recognized that the church cannot find unity on these issues through purely human efforts, but only through the power of the Holy Spirit7. Further guidance from the First Presidency was given in May, 2009 stating “To allow Community of Christ priesthood officiate in same-sex marriage, when our policy does not allow it, during a time in which the church still is sorting through this divisive issue, would only cause further division and reduce participation in the discussion process”.

Leading up to the 2010 conference, it became obvious that the church was heading towards a potentially divisive meeting. Of a total of 28 resolutions submitted to the World Conference, 21 were either for or against same-sex marriage or ordination. A series of talking points were circulated which included, “ The principles of the gospel apply equally to heterosexuals and homosexuals. Repentance implies the act of being personally responsible for choices; Christian freedom never allows one to live as he or she selfishly pleases.” and “We are acutely aware of the pain and frustration of individuals and groups who view same-sex marriage from various personal, scriptural, theological, legal, and sacramental perspectives. Matters of human sexuality are so deeply imbedded in our individual, social, and cultural identities that it is difficult for people to separate examination of related issues from their underlying sense of self. Because preserving one’s sense of self-identity is a fundamental need of human beings, consideration of human sexuality, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage issues easily becomes emotionally charged and conflicted. Further, consideration of such issues in an international community of faith, with the added complexities of diverse customs and languages, must be done with great care, understanding, and sensitivity."

As the date for World Conference neared, President Stephen Veazey presented a revelation in January, 2010 regarding sexuality and other divisive issues. Concerning sexuality and marriage, the document stated “6 a. As revealed in Christ, God, the Creator of all, ultimately is concerned about behaviors and relationships that uphold the worth and giftedness of all people and that protect the most vulnerable. Such relationships are to be rooted in the principles of Christ-like love, mutual respect, responsibility, justice, covenant, and faithfulness, against which there is no law.b.If the church more fully will understand and consistently apply these principles, questions arising about responsible human sexuality; gender identities, roles, and relationships; marriage; and other issues may be resolved according to God’s divine purposes. Be assured, nothing within these principles condones selfish, irresponsible, promiscuous, degrading, or abusive relationships”. Recognizing the complexity of dealing with this controversial issue across a diverse international church, the inspired counsel also stated “A worldwide prophetic church must develop cultural awareness and sensitivity to distinguish between issues that should be addressed by the World Conference and those that are best resolved nationally or in other ways.... d. Where possible and appropriate, convene national or field conferences to provide opportunities for broader dialogue, understanding, and consent. In those gatherings, let the spirit of love, justice, and truth prevail.”.

After almost a week of respectful and passionate discussion in priesthood quorums and in the general assembly, on April 14, 2010 the World Conference delegates voted to receive President Veazey’s document, now Doctrine and Covenants 164, as inspired counsel for the church. With the acceptance of Section 164, all 21 legislative issues concerning sexuality were removed from the conference legislative sessions. The church will now begin planning conferences to consider these issues in jurisdictions where they can be discussed by the membership. It is probable that policies may diverge between countries as it is not possible to discuss issues of sexual orientation in many jurisdictions.

1 Community of Christ Doctrine and Covenants Section 150
3 Restoration Scriptures, p. 191
4 The Sacrament of Marriage b Harry Fielding
6 Same-Sex Marriage and Homosexuality Issues in the Church An Overview of Relevant Policies, Doctrine, and Resolutions p. 3
7 2007 World Conference, the church received the report by the Committee on
Homosexuality on the Church. (See Appendix E)
8. Community of Christ Doctrine and Covenants Section 164

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