The thread following Dan’s post on the church’s apparent (and inconsistent) “tonsorial jihad” has come to focus on the matter of “unwritten policies” and the existence of an “oral law”–something Jim doubts that any culture can exist without. I agree with him–there is and must be a place for mores, for unwritten guides to belief and behavior, in any healthy society. But it’s worth thinking a little more deeply about what this dynamic should and shouldn’t involve, in the church and elsewhere.
Any discussion in the church of whether or not men in ward or stake or temple callings should be expected to be clean-shaven, and other similar matters that seem to exist in that broad gray area between the Standard Works and legends about the Three Nephites, is bound to eventually get around to Elder Packer’s address, “The Unwritten Order of Things”, and this thread isn’t an exception. Elder Packer said his sermon could be described as “The Ordinary Things about the Church Which Every Member Should Know”–implying that there is an order–dealing with where people should sit, and who should speak last in our meetings, and how people ought to dress for church, etc.–that is, or ought to be, simply known to members, passed down and along to children and new members as appropriate. Again, I couldn’t agree more–one of the great failures of contemporary society (though, obviously, there are upsides to this change as well) is that it has come more often than not to ignore the role that customs, manners, traditions, the unspoken consensus, decorum, even shame and peer pressure, play in teaching virtue, making civil relationships possible and thereby strengthening communities. Our church ought to have–and needs to maintain–a strong oral, unwritten agreement on “how things are done” if it is to function properly.
But Elder Packer made, I think, a serious mistake in giving this sermon: namely, he gave it, and it was printed in the Ensign, and now it’s not, strictly speaking, “unwritten” any longer. What Packer considered to be the appropriate unwritten order of conducting meetings has now been turned into a written text that those concerned about the order of conducting meetings will be able to consult. The interpersonal and evolving character of his counsel has been lost, because it’s been printed. I think this is a terribly important point. The spoken, dialogic word is different from the written one, a difference that can be exemplified by looking at the word “policy.” One can imagine an unwritten, oral law, premised on unspoken traditions and received customs; but what could an “unwritten policy” be? The very idea of a policy is that of a standard or order that may be “policed,” enforced throughout a “polity,” because it is a “political” (read: public) determination. Elder Packer made who sits where in meetings–a orally handed-down and thus ever-interpreted custom that consequently had an important communitarian function to play in our wards–into something public, which means he made it (presumably unintentionally) political, the kind of thing that could result in discipline, rather than informal argument and interpersonal dialogue before or after meetings. Because he took it out of the realm of unspoken (publicly, that is) custom and put into General Conference Lecture form, the continued adaptation and evolution of that particular order is no longer organic; when it happens–if it happens–it will be the result of confrontation and debate. Not that the one necessarily and completely excludes the other; clearly there’s a continuum here. But to talk of “unwritten policies,” to blithely tell people what they “ought to know” when one is speaking publicly in a position of authority (as Elder Packer clearly was) and thereby is guaranteed to have one’s counsel about standards transformed into rules (to use Dan’s categories), is, I think, irresponsible to say the least.
Well, you know where this is going. I have a beard. I accept that the current unwritten order of things in the church is that men not have beards. As this particular order gets internalized and argued out in various wards and branches, I’ve found myself in contexts where the beard has mattered and affected my standing in the eyes of fellow members, as well as in contexts where it hasn’t. That’s life in our community, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. However, to the extent that the church is a hierarchical organization, committed to the implementation (as most successful large organizations are) of consistent rules, this unwritten order occasionally gets politicized in unfortunate and unnecessary ways. BYU’s grooming standards (which themselves are kept in place by a hierarchical confusion of unwritten preferences with necessary rules) slowly morph into a general rule for the church as a whole, thus allowing for distinctions and line-drawing where none is really appropriate. In short, it’s not so much that the church shouldn’t care about beards. It’s that the church, so long as it is unable or unwilling to turn beardlessness into something with fundamental doctrinal import, ought not allow that concern to be articulated as an “unwritten policy,” which strikes me as a category error of a fairly high order. If it’s important enough to be a policy, write it down and make it a rule; otherwise, let it be enforced and hashed out informally, like all good customs are.