Wednesday, November 11, 2015

This Watershed Moment for Mormonism: An Introduction [Series Part 1]

As everyone who would read this blog knows by now, it was recently discovered that a change had been made to the Church’s administrative guide, Handbook, Part 1, which declared that members in same-sex marriages were to be considered apostates, and that banned children of members in same-sex marriages from being blessed as babies, or baptized without First Presidency clearance, and only after such a child “specifically disavows the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage”—effectively stating that they do not support the same-sex marriage of their parent (who may well have raised the child).

This much is well-known, not just among Church members, but well beyond the boundaries of the Church, as national media have taken up this story. Also becoming increasingly well-known is the immense pain that this policy change is causing even now, not even a full week after the change became known. People have decried the pain this is causing to themselves, and to their children. Suicide attempts in Utah have spiked. People—formerly faithful members, including straight family members affected by this change—are leaving the Church over this policy change; one account puts the number who are submitting resignations of their Church membership at over one thousand.

What I do not think is as widely recognized is the degree to which this is a watershed moment for the Church. Things will never be the same in the Church after this moment; the only question is, in what direction will the Church go?

What is a watershed? Geologically, it is a place on a land mass that separates the rivers and streams that flow in one direction (say, east) from those that flow in another direction (say, west). Metaphorically, a watershed moment is an event that changes the direction of a movement, even a war. The Kennedy assassination was a watershed moment in American history; never afterward could one feel that ‘everything is under control.’ The development of the Salk and Sabin vaccines were watershed moments in the fight to eradicate polio.

People rarely realize that, although watershed moments create change, the nature of that change is up in the air in the early part of the watershed moment. Things can work out in several different ways. And that is the situation in the Church today: we will not come out of this as the very same organization, the very same people, as we were when we entered it. But in what way will we and the Church be different? That all depends.

Below, I list several ways in which the Church could be different—if we make it so.
This is thus the index post of a brief series of blog posts that I will be issuing over the next few days, regarding ways in which the Church could develop in positive directions because of the turmoil caused by the policy change. I see these changes as potentially including the following: 
  • A redefining of the nature of ‘General Authority’ in the Church.
  • Increased transparency in the Church.
  • A refocusing on the central Gospel message.
  •  A destigmatization of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

I shall conclude the series with a post on how members of the Church can nurture these sorts of outcomes.
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I discuss the growth of the Church of Jesus Christ in my book, The Rise of the Mormons, and I discuss another important issue in my book, Latter-day Saint Women and the Priesthood of God (both available here.)

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Copyright 2015 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.


  1. A key to Mormon belief is Eternal Progression: that worthy men will eventually lead and populate their own worlds. They must progress through the Priesthood and fulfill various earthy obligations, such as marrying a worthy woman to help partner their future world. I think this is the root of the apostasy designation for those in same-sex marriages, and the reason that adult children must renounce their parents' gay "lifestyle." The Church came a long way by acknowledging that Same Sex Attraction exists, and said it is OK as long as people never act on their feelings and urges-- in other words, do not have a life. This is not tolerance or love; it is the Church clumsily defending a core and necessary (to them) patriarchal position. I share your grief at the pain this is causing.

    1. KDM, thank you for your comment. I feel that there has to be a way to make same-sex marriage work within an LDS framework. I'll be saying more about this on this blog.

  2. KDM and Mark, I think that one of the main reasons people fail to reconcile LGBT relationships with Church doctrine is that they are focused too myopically on the nuclear family and not sufficiently on the Body of Christ metaphor. Humans are primarily raised in the context of their immediate family, but not exclusively so. They are also raised in the wider contexts of their neighborhood, their village, their metropolitan area, their country and their world. There are outliers in any community who don't fit the standard mold but whose contributions to the community are vital. The Church is so focused on the individual narrative of eternal sealing to spouse that it has neglected the wider narrative of community and the body of Christ. We have the seeds of this wider narrative in the early days of the Church, when sealings of friendship occurred between non-related people, and Joseph Smith declared that "that same sociality that exists among us here shall exist among us there." In earlier times, it was recognized that the outliers were wonderful contributors who didn't have to fit the standard mold, but today we attempt to force all individuals into the same Procrustean standard. We need to widen our model and our metaphor if we are to make it into this new age intact.

    1. Carl, thank you for your thought-provoking comment. Quite frankly, we could all do with more focus on the metaphor of the Church as the Body of Christ. Right now, too many of us seem to think we can do without this or that appendage or organ.


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