Drowning at church
This essay is a response to the First Presidency’s recent statements that encourage open discussion of hard questions at church. It is co-written by Jenn Kunz and Lori Burkman; two sisters who grew up as faithful Mormons in a literal-believing family. Upon reaching maturity and starting to teach the gospel and restoration to our own children, we realized that not everything added up as we had hoped. To solve these lapses in a cohesive restoration narrative and to better understand the evolution of LDS doctrine, we stepped out of the correlated teachings available to us in the Church Education System (CES) in the hope of further understanding the faith we are part of. What happened next was the most trying experience of our lives. Today we’re writing this essay on behalf of everyone else who has shared the same disappointment and isolation during a transition or crisis of faith, while simultaneously being told that the church is a safe place to ask questions.
“We understand that from time to time Church members will have questions about Church doctrine, history, or practice. Members are always free to ask such questions and earnestly seek greater understanding.”
Based on the first paragraph of the statement from the First Presidency and the general timing of its release, the letter is geared mostly towards Mormon feminists and OW. The list of questions we are referring to in this post does not include “may women have the priesthood right now” (worthy question though that may be, this is a grand simplification of the actual conversation OW is hoping to have). The questions that a growing number of Mormons want answered concern a wide variety of issues on everything from separating doctrine from culture in modern policy, past doctrines that were since proven to not be doctrine at all, the true nature of the first vision, the historicity of the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price, and pretty much all aspects of the restoration, the translation of scripture, and a great many others. The First Presidency is telling us that we are always welcome to ask questions and seek greater understanding. And where are these discussions about these questions to be had, we wonder? In a recent interview on RadioWest with church spokesperson Ally Isom, the following was stated:
Doug Fabrizio: How and where may a member express doubts or opinions in good faith? It seems like what you were saying before is ‘do it wherever you want, but use the right tone, use the right questions… What if you believe, as some women do, that it’s time for the church to give women the priesthood? Where do you express that?
Ally Isom: There are many avenues to express that and discuss that.
Doug Fabrizio: Where? In public?
Ally Isom: No one is questioning your ability to discuss it in a congregation, in a Sunday School class, or in a Relief Society class.
We mean this with all sincerity, without snark, and with the true hope that some future leader of the church might read it:
To whom? How is this to be facilitated in the current structure and CES of the church? And where does one ask these questions?
In which forum can we seek answers to questions that are not immediately faith-affirming and don’t have answers (or even get acknowledged) in correlated church material? If we have questions that have shaken us to the very core, that concern events that were previously withheld from our extensive, life-long education and that the church admits have a basis in fact—where are we “free to ask such questions and earnestly seek greater understanding?” Who is trained to answer these questions in our wards or stakes?
What manuals should we look in? What terms can we enter in LDS.org that will actually get results? Do the missionaries know the answers? Can we ask in Sunday School or Relief Society? If we ask there, what can we expect as a result? Can someone in the temple tell us? Can we ask our local Bishop or Stake President without fear of accusations or losing certain privileges as a member? Are they trained in these deep and difficult questions? If we write letters to General Authorities, will they write us back?
From our own experiences and the experiences of thousands of others who have been through the same thing:
There are no manuals printed by the LDS church that cover these issues. LDS.org has only just begun to acknowledge the most troubling issues by posting essays pages anonymously onto the “Gospel Topics” section of their official website, but even then they are making sure that these essays are not promoted at church or made readily available in the CES. I suppose we’re supposed to look at FAIR, but it is not an official church resource and often leads to even more questions than you had in the first place. If you ask the missionaries, they are just as likely to be hurt or confused by the questions as you are. Asking in church meetings—if you dare—will likely cause you to lose friends, get a bad reputation in the ward (it rhymes with bobastate), be accused of reading anti-mormon literature (though you aren’t), and you’ll more than likely receive a special invitation to meet with the Bishop. Most of us looked to temple attendance, personal prayer, and deep scripture study for answers, but walked away with more confusion and questions than before. Local leadership may help if you are extremely lucky, but the more probable outcome of asking questions that call attention to the many dichotomies, discrepancies, and coverups in church history and doctrine would be that you’ll lose your recommend, or your calling, or your fellowship. At the very least, you will more than likely be asked not to speak about your issues in class or anywhere that others might be affected by your struggle. If you write to a General Authority, they either won’t respond or they will tell you that your questions aren’t important; you need to change your focus and have more faith.
This isn’t just our collective experience as two sisters who have gone through the heart ache of seeking truth while active members of wards who had no answers or place for us, but it is the experience of thousands of people (literally, whole stakes worth of people) asking sincere questions RIGHT NOW and being told to stop. Saints across the world are told that they are wrong, beguiled, misled, sinning, apostate, or seeking trouble. That they need to stop asking questions and instead just have faith that everything is as good as it seems. People who are in this place of seeking are not trying to destroy the church—if anything, they are desperate to find their place in it. They are not apathetic, luke-warm believers, but rather they are people who seek truth and simply want clarity and peace in the gospel and church they have devoted their lives to. They do not fear the price of studying and asking the hard questions because they know that they’ll never be able to have integrity in bearing their testimony of the restoration until these questions are satisfied.
So again, Church leaders: if we’re polite, respectful, and sincere enough—in which class on Sunday and to whom do we ask our questions?
Telling someone who is in or has been through a crisis of faith that they’re free to ask questions in the church is like telling a drowning person that they are free to grab onto the life preserver that no one is throwing to them. It is standing aside and watching someone drown all the while telling them that they should have seen the warning signs or turbulent water. Nevermind that the signs that were needed to avoid this crisis were long since buried in the sand of correlation.
It’s a slap in the face to people who would give anything for a safe place to ask questions, who have tried every route their broken, faithful hearts could find available, and found nothing but confusion, endless voids of gray, punishment, and accusation. People who have lost their communities and at time their families as the result of their need to ask questions that had no answers or even a safe forum for asking.
We as sisters are not asking for ourselves today, because we’ve found our peace. I’m asking for Jenn of February 2012, who was at the bottom of a deep, terrifying hole and couldn’t see the light, who wanted nothing more than to keep her happy little family safe in the community and gospel we had built our lives around. I’m asking for Lori of July 2013 who was asked to stop voicing her concerns in church settings and who literally lacked a single church leader or teacher who even know what she was talking about when she came to them with her quandaries. Because of Jenn of ’11 and Lori of ’13- and all the people we know who have experienced the exact same thing—we can’t read Saturday’s statement from the First Presidency and not have the wind knocked out of us. We can’t help but see it for what it is: a public statement that assures everyone that everything is fine and there are already channels in place for people like us. This only solves the problem for people who think Mormons only leave the church over pride, being offended, or wanting to sin. Unfortunately for the rest of us, our individual experiences prove otherwise.
Don’t tell someone who is currently drowning, unaided, about the abundance and safety of life preservers.
Jenn Kunz is a 30-year-old “retired Mormon” who has been watching the church with love from the outside since my faith crisis in the spring of 2012, after 27 years of stalwart membership. I have two delightful young children and work full-time from home as a web consultant while my husband is a stay-at-home-father. We attend a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Marietta, Georgia, and I blog occasionally at http://www.seekinggoodness.com.
*drowning picture found at : http://fwallpapers.com/view/drowning