Suppose that Gordon B. Hinckley really started misbehaving, sinning left and right, and generally leading the church astray. Some might find this unlikely on theological grounds, after all President Woodruff said:
- The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.
The implication seems to be that the Lord will “call home” any prophet who strays too far from the divine “programme.” Looking at the scriptures, however, suggests another possibility: Excommunicating the President of the Church.
According to D&C 107:82-84:
- And inasmuch as a President of the High Priesthood shall transgress, he shall be had in remembrance before the common council of the Church who shall be assisted by twelve counselors of the High Priesthood; And their decision upon his head shall be an end of controversy concerning him. Thus, none shall be exempted from the justice and the laws of God, that all things may be done in order and solemnity before Him, according to truth and righteousness.
The procedure from this passage is a little cryptic. The “common council of the Church” referred to is the Presiding Bishopric (See D&C 107: 74-76). In his book Priesthood and Church Government, Elder John A Widstoe had this to say about the judicial authority of the Presiding Bishopric:
- Should occasion ever arise that one of the First Presidency must be tried for crime or neglect of duty, his case would come before the Presiding Bishop with his counselors, and twelve High Priests especially chosen for the purpose. This would be a tribunal extraordinary – from which there is no appeal.
A couple of interesting points about the procedure. First, the twelve high priests who sit in council with the Presiding Bishopric are not the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, although presumably despite their ordination as Apostles they could serve. (Although the First Presidency is made up of “high priests,” Apostles regularly serve as members.) Indeed, as far as I know, the only times that this judicial machinery has been used – to excommunicate various counselors of Joseph Smith – the twelve high priests were not the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, but rather the local high council. However, as Widstoe suggests, there is no reason that they need to be high councilors, and the Presiding Bishop seems to have the authority to select any twelve high priests, regardless of their current office. The second interesting point is that the First Presidency is afforded fewer procedural protections than are other members of the Church. There is no appeal from the Presiding Bishopric, furthermore it is not clear if the procedural requirements that apply to other church proceedings apply here. For example, would President Hinckley have a right to have his bishop speak on his behalf?
Finally, the procedure sets up the possibility of a “constitutional crisis” within the Church. Suppose that the President of the Church were called before the Presiding Bishopric and excommunicated. Simultaneously, the First Presidency took jurisdiction over the Presiding Bishopric and excommunicated them. There is not right of appeal from either tribunal, and hence no “legal” way to resolve the controversy. There is, however, a pragmatic solution to the issue. This situation would force the Quorum of the Twelve to take sides. If they deem Presiding Bishopric’s action to be legitimate, then the Twelve become the presiding quorum of the Church, with the authority to select and ordain a new President of the Church. If, however, they deem the action of the First Presidency to be legitimate, then they would simply continue to follow the authority of the First Presidency and refuse to ordain a new President of the Church. Because the Presiding Bishopric has no authority over the Twelve, there is nothing that it can do to gain say the Twelve’s decision. The really difficult scenario would be one in which the Twelve sided with the Presiding Bishopric against the First Presidency, which refused to accept their combined decision. The First Presidency has the authority to excommunicate any member of the Twelve, and its decision to do so in unreviewable. Suppose, however, that the Twelve had already ordained a new President of the Church. We would now have the situation of two rival claimants to the Presidency, both with the unreviewable authority to excommunicate the other. One suspects that such a conflict would have to be resolved by the membership of the Church itself in general conference, much the way that the competing claims of Rigdon and the Twelve were resolved in 1844.
As far as I know, there has only been one attempt to institute an action against the President of the Church himself before the Presiding Bishopric. As I understand it, in the 1950s there were plans to shut down Rick’s College in Idaho (or at least there were rumors of such plans). Some of the local leaders in Rexburg were so infuriated that they tried to instigate an court to try President McKay. If this story is true, nothing ever came of it. Ricks still exists (albeit under a new name), and as far as I know, President McKay was never excommunicated.
Just as well. Things could get messy.