Headline in the Independence Examiner for Thursday, April 15, 2010:
“Delegation Takes No Action on Human Sexuality Issues: Church Will Continue Dialogue.”
Headline by John Hamer on BCC on Thursday, April 15, 2010:
“Gay Rights Revelation Added to The Community of Christ D&C”
The two headlines above generally cover the spectrum of opinion about what happened at the Community of Christ World Conference as it completed the process of canonization of a new Section 164 for its D&C. The spectrum of opinions about whether what happened was a good thing or bad thing, of course, runs even more broadly. Indeed, I’m not at all certain that we’ll even be able to see how intense the various “colors” of that spectrum will prove until information about the conference filters down to the bulk of the North American church that maintains no real connection to the World Church in the “Blogitorium”. As in many churches on the Christian left in North America, that membership tends to be somewhat more traditionalist than its leadership.
Nevertheless, I’ll give my view as someone from one part of the peanut gallery, focusing on what was in each portion of Section 164 and the effects of associated legislation passed to begin implementation. A future post will provide a similar analysis on legislation considered by the Conference not specifically addressed by Section 164 and suggest something about the overall direction of the Community of Christ in the future.
SECTION 164, PARAGRAPHS 1-4
President Veazey describes the experiences of meditation, particularly on portions of Galatians 3:27-29, that led him to offer the Section. After commending the church for similarly seeking to discern the Spirit in a structured process that has been going on for well over a year, he makes explicit an understanding of the church and its sacraments which has been implicit in CofChrist theology for a number of years.
“…Instruction given previously about baptism was proper to ensure the rise and cohesiveness of the church during its early development and in following years. However, as a growing number have come to understand, the redemptive action of God in Christ—while uniquely and authoritatively expressed through the church—is not confined solely to the church. God’s grace, revealed in Jesus Christ, freely moves throughout creation, often beyond human perception, to achieve divine purposes in people’s lives.”
The Community of Christ is to see itself as “one true church”, not as the “one and only true church”. How serious is this theological intent was earlier signaled by something I haven’t seen commentators note elsewhere. The first sessions of Conference always feature certain speeches of welcome. One is usually a non-CofChrist speaker. This speaker is often a local Congressman or a Missouri Senator. The speech is strictly non-political even then, but the identity is interesting because trends over time seem to show the direction of the church leadership’s interest.
This year that slot went to the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches. Kinnamon unabashedly spoke of the Community of Christ having unique gifts that should be seen as adding to bodies such as the NCC, rather than as a body going its own way. Ironically, contacts between the RLDS and the NCC were among the suspicions cited by fundamentalist opponents of the church circa 1970 as evidence of apostasy. Thus, such a speech 40 years ago might itself have been too controversial to occur.
Section 164 then lays out specific instruction (that will be followed quickly by formal administrative policy guidance to become effective by September 1, 2011). These policies will result in acceptance into membership into the Community of Christ upon confirmation by CofChrist priesthood – without requiring rebaptism if the original baptism: a) involved water; b) was performed by an ordained Christian minister; and c) as a personal expression of faith in Christ. In particular, we will not require someone to present proof of their baptism or the baptizing minister’s credentials, since that would be impossible in many places throughout the world. This clearly expands the notion of true priesthood authority beyond the boundaries of those called through the priesthood line passed to Joseph Smith.
The phrase “using water” also allows for baptisms done by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling, while upholding the church’s own standard practice of baptism by immersion at the age of accountability. There is also some additional specific guidance regarding the substance of the prayer of confirmation (Baptism of the Spirit) that is now the means by which one moves from being part of the Body of Christ into membership within the denomination. And preparation for confirmation will now be a formal requirement for the ordinance to occur.
Paragraph 3 contains a call for all members to serious consider and live the meaning of their baptismal covenants (water and Spirit). Paragraph 4 ties this call to consideration of the role the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper should play in renewing, witnessing, and amplifying our covenant. (Portions of the preamble specifically warn us to NOT make the meaning of the covenants atrophy even as we broaden the procedures, because of the concern that in some places this has happened with open communion).
This portion of the Section makes the Community of Christ look very Protestant – if you can call becoming more Protestant through modern revelation a Protestant concept in the first place.
SECTION 164, PARAGRAPHS 5-7
These are the paragraphs whose approval generated the widely divergent headlines above. Their actual content is to call attention to “serious questions about moral behavior and relationships” – but to prioritize those questions not simply as they are listed within the dominant culture of the denomination.
“These issues are complex and difficult to understand outside their particular settings because of strikingly different cultural histories, customs, and understandings of scripture. For example, the issues include female submission, female genital mutilation, child brides, forced marriages, and sexual permissiveness. They include cleansing and exploitation of widows, harsh conflicts over same-gender attraction and relationships, and varying legal, religious, and social definitions of marriage, to name just a few.”
More importantly, the Section calls us to see the solutions for these moral dilemmas as arising from an understanding of Christianity as a community that transcends definitions by economic status, social class, sex, gender, or ethnicity. They simply are no longer primary. 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.
Section 164 then extrapolates that these principles require that the church move the resolution of moral issues to the church in the cultures most affected by them rather than let the dominant North American church decide for the rest of the world. Field Apostles, under the guidance of the Presidency, are authorized to call and set the agenda for field, national, or (non-geographical) cultural groups to deal with issues such as those listed above as they feel directed.
Uncertainty about the nature and timing of these conferences is generating the widely divergent headlines about gay rights. First, everyone in the Community of Christ seems to understand that the leadership feels that it must not expose our leaders and members in cultures where discussion of gay issues is taboo. If so, they can hardly move toward expanded gay rights in the United States unless they can find a way to maintain what the government would call “plausible deniability”.
Second, there is a large body of conservative members in the US church (and non-members in society) whose reaction must be anticipated and allowed for. The LDS experience with Prop 8 shows what happens when the church in the US takes any position on controversial issues in the political arena. Many feel the church has moved too hesitantly and will continue to do so; others are likely to feel the church is moving in the wrong direction entirely.
Finally, there are logistical questions. It seems unlikely that the US church has the resources to assemble a national conference on gay rights issues before the spring of 2012 at the earliest. It will take until September, 2011, simply to implement the new conditions for membership.
The greatest sign of movement toward gay rights comes from something in administrative minutia. It is normal for the church to realign Apostolic Fields following a World Conference (our Apostles retire, so there are usually changes in the Twelve). This time a gerrymandered field has been carved out for Apostle Susan Skoor that stretches from Southern Australia to Eastern Canada – and just happens to cover all of the non-US jurisdictions that proposed World Conference legislation expanding full priesthood and sacramental rites for gays. The extension of rights in that Field or in nations within that Field might be granted while maintaining sufficient distance from the World Church (and prying media) to protect the church in cultures hostile to gay rights.
Expansion to the US is much more difficult to do while maintaining any credibility to foreign governments and religious bodies that “this is just local jurisdictions acting on their own.”
Perhaps more significantly in the long run than the particular moral issues – at least from the perspective of this Washington spectator – is the change these paragraphs make in the legislative rights of mission centers to set the agenda for the church. The Presidency immediately ruled 21 legislative proposals that had been painstakingly brought to the conference as out of order because they reflect National or Regional concerns. These rulings were entirely appropriate under Section 164 guidance.
However, the Conference later passed implementing legislation for the field and national conferences that make them “special conferences”. Such conferences operate under different parliamentary rules than World Conference. In particular, Mission Centers lack the right to place items on the agenda of special conferences; that agenda is set only by the Apostle who calls the conference with the approval of the Presidency. In short, this revelation makes the Community of Christ less democratic and more theocratic than it was a year ago.
SECTION 164, PARAGRAPH 8
Paragraph 8, by contrast, shows the flexibility and speed with which the Community of Christ can move on organizational issues when it wishes to do so. The Twelve and the Presidents of the Seven Quorums of Seventy have been meeting for several years in response to the immediately previous revelation (Section 163) to consider organizational changes to increase evangelistic effectiveness. Paragraph 8 is taken as authorization to make these changes.
Within 24 hours of Section 164 approval, the number of Quorums of Seventy was increased from seven to ten, the additional Quorum Presidents were named, and they were approved by the Conference and set apart to that calling. Jack Bauer couldn’t have moved faster. Clearly, the outcome of these discussions among the leading quorums was well prepared in advance, while they are still feeling their way around the notion of how and when national conferences will function.
Reorganization of the Twelve, while not fundamental, essentially separates the world into 10 Fields for the moment, each led by an Apostle, with the remaining two Apostles focusing on Headquarters-oriented tasks. For the first time, a single Quorum of Seventy will be aligned with the geographic or other missionary focus of a Field Apostle.
SECTION 164, PARAGRAPH 9
The final paragraph of the document is a benediction of sorts, and a challenge that the rise of Zion is no farther away than the willingness of all of us – all the “beloved children of the Restoration” – to overcome our insecurities and embrace a Christ-like life.
“The mission of Jesus Christ is what matters most to the journet ahead.”