The Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles released a short three-paragraph statement on Saturday June 28, 2014, posted at the Office of the First Presidency page at LDS.org. It seems like a helpful and timely statement responding to issues raised in the wake of Kate Kelly’s excommunication on June 23, 2014. In particular:
Office of the First Presidency. Statements from Public Affairs are helpful but not definitive, as it is never quite clear what authority PA statements carry. I have heard several variations on the comment “It would be nice to hear what Church leaders have to say on this issue” over the last week. Now we know.
Only men are ordained … for now. Some people are reading the statement as a definitive rejection of the announced mission of Ordain Women, as if it read, “Only men are ordained, forever and ever.” But you can never really say that in a church founded on continuing revelation, and the statement doesn’t say that. It appears to simply be stating current LDS doctrine, although one could read the expansive first sentence as hinting that a male-only priesthood is part of God’s Eternal and Unchanging Plan of Happiness. Here are the first two sentences:
In God’s plan for the happiness and eternal progression of His children, the blessings of His priesthood are equally available to men and women. Only men are ordained to serve in priesthood offices.
No, you won’t get exed for blogging or Facebooking. That seems to be the upshot of this sentence in the second paragraph: “Members are always free to ask such questions and earnestly seek greater understanding.” However, I have read a number of credible accounts from members who share questions or doubts with their bishop, only to get involuntarily released from callings and even have their temple recommend cancelled. Others in the same situation receive support and encouragement from their bishop to work through such questions. The sad fact of the matter is that it is safer to ask questions of FARMS, FAIR, and your favorite online forum than to ask your bishop. If leaders want to encourage members to bring questions and doubts to their bishop, they first need to discourage bishops from overreacting to disclosures and prematurely shifting from pastoral to disciplinary mode.
This statement only refers to asking questions, but earlier statements gave a broader view of the process. Here’s from a Church statement posted at the LDS Newsroom on June 11, 2014:
There is room for questions and we welcome sincere conversations.
And here is part of a statement from an LDS Church Spokesperson in a June 20, 2014 Deseret News article:
[T]here is no effort to tell local leaders to keep members from blogging or discussing questions online. On the contrary, Church leaders have encouraged civil online dialogue, and recognize that today it’s how we communicate and discuss ideas with one another.
So the most recent FP statement, along with the earlier statements, appears to be an attempt to counter the understandable idea that that recent actions are part of a larger campaign to shut down online discussions by members. They are saying that no one is trying to shut down online discussion.
A public definition of apostasy. The definition of apostasy that local leaders are given to guide their local disciplinary actions is contained in Handbook 1. In most cases someone charged with apostasy does not have access to the relevant material in Handbook 1, although the bishop is supposed to summarize that material in the letter to the accused. Bishops don’t always do a great job of sharing that information. For example the June 8, 2014 letter to Kate Kelly told her the time, date, and place of her church court and that it was called “on the grounds of apostasy,” but did not bother to give the definition of apostasy (!) or identify which ground of apostasy (there are several) was being applied to her case (!!!). So yes, publicly posting a reliable definition of apostasy is a real step forward. Here it is, from the third paragraph of the FP statement:
Apostasy is repeatedly acting in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders, or persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine.
A narrow definition of apostasy. Furthermore, the definition of apostasy (which is now public, so we can actually talk about it) is narrow, not broad. I titled this post “calibrating apostasy,” and that is what the wording of this definition appears to do, narrowing the expansive popular LDS understanding of the term. Not just public statements or criticism: it has to be “public opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders.” And not just any old public opposition, but public opposition that is “clear, open, and deliberate.” The second clause is likewise rather limited. Just teaching false doctrine is not apostasy (heck, that happens every Sunday at church). You’ve got to be persistent about it.
So this short statement does a lot of good things. Let’s hope local leaders take it to heart.