“Woe is me! The end is nigh! Only the Apocalypse can save us now! Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war! All is lost!”
It seems like this is what I hear all the time now at Church – thundering cries of despair and panic echoing from the pulpit and out of the classroom doors. Tormented souls in Stake Priesthood Leadership proclaiming their disillusioned anguish about missionary efforts failing repeatedly to gain the momentum they once seemed to have and disappearing into the hellish void. Speakers at General Conference choking out proclamations of pain and doom in the face of insurmountable odds as the Conference Centre takes on the gloomy ambience of a global crisis in the United Nations General Assembly or the war room in Doctor Strangelove.
….Well, I may be exaggerating slightly, but on the current trajectory we might as well start behaving like this now because it is where we will all be in 5 years at this rate I reckon.
I should be used to this by now – I was a Mormon teenager in the 1980’s, pretty close to the front line of the Cold War in Southeast England where we were told to expect a 4 minute warning of Soviet nuclear strikes compared to the 30 seconds that Germany had. The TV and newspapers were very clear that there was a high probability that we were all going to be killed by, or even worse survive, a nuclear apocalypse at some point, unless a highly improbable political miracle occurred and the entire USSR collapsed without an atomic exchange.
My generation of young Mormons were also being told, in time honoured tradition, that we were the most super-special, saved for the last hour of the last days to witness the Church fill the earth… and then to have the ‘privilege’ of watching it all go up in plague and famine and flames and behold the returning Christ with his red robe of vengeance kicking some communist butt, hopefully rescuing some of us at the last minute. The details change a bit, but it is heart-warming to see our grandchildren starting to be told the same story about their challenging and noble destiny. Bless. I presume it’s this sort of thing Elder Ballard meant in his October 2016 General Conference talk ‘To whom shall we go?’ when he said “Where will you go to find people who live by a prescribed set of values and standards that you share and want to pass along to your children and grandchildren?”
The Prophet of my teenage years was Ezra Taft Benson, a right wing nut job who wrote books about the Red Peril that my parents lapped up. As an Apostle he had declared to the world in October 1967 General Conference in his eye-watering talk ‘Trust Not in the Arm of Flesh’, after first asserting the divinity of the racist priesthood ban, that the civil rights campaigners were naïve stooges being led and controlled by communists, and allegations of police brutality against the Negroes were part of this deceitful conspiracy.
Shortly before President Benson possibly had a machine sign my mission call to Alabama to find out for myself what the Civil Rights fuss had really been about and slipped into a coma, I had the privilege of a school trip to Moscow and St Petersburg in Russia in February 1989 to catch the last moments of totalitarian communism before Perestroika unleashed the miracle. We swapped chocolate and biros for Soviet flags and badges with the huddled masses and spoke to young people our own age whose further education and careers had already been decided for them by the government. I hope freedom came just in time for them to start choosing their own destiny rather than being trapped in the aftermath of a flawed 10 Year Plan that was never going to work decided upon by regional level bureaucrats without consulting them. As my Church region stares into the scary end if the 2010 Europe Area 10 Year Plan to double sacrament attendance amid falling attendance and the inevitable conclusion that whatever ‘Hasten The Work’ was meant to mean it has in reality slowed ‘The Work’ down…a lot…I have growing empathy for the demoralising experience of dysfunctional totalitarian systems that was the stuff of their lives.
While I was having a wonderful time navigating the apartheid communities and cultures of racist Alabama (where ironically the Mormons were one of the very few local churches with racially integrated congregations) everything got turned on its head. The Soviet Union did collapse without nukes going off. The First Gulf War began the replacement of goose-stepping Commies with radical Muslims as the new antichrist warriors of Armageddon. “Maybe Saddam ‘So Damn Insane’ Hussein is the prophesied antichrist?” the Bible Belt was wondering to itself out loud around me as we watched the midnight bombardment of Baghdad on TV, tied yellow ribbons around trees, and prayed for the men and women of the Alabama National Guard to come home safe while an understandably jittery USA engaged in its first proper war since the debacle of Vietnam.
After my mission I started to hear some truly weird stuff from Gordon Hinckley, the genial new prophet. He seemed to think the end wasn’t quite so nigh after all. He seemed to think that maybe Armageddon and the return of Christ wasn’t definitely happening in the next 10 years. He seemed quite perky about the awesome possibilities the modern world offered us. He was happy to chat to the media like a friendly and open human being, an essential skill in the 1990’s when it was still possible to project and control a coherent impression to the public through the limited number of media outlets that everyone depended upon for information. He even told us Young Single Adults in a broadcast to plan for the future, expect to raise grandchildren and need a pension, and told us to stop being fatalistic snowflakes. He lived through the actual Great Depression at our age, and nothing we were going through was really worth getting all doomy about compared to that. His generation survived and thrived, and was reaching out from history to slap some common sense and a reality check into us with a cheerful chuckle.
Well, that was a pleasant surprise! We were allowed to be hopeful, not take ourselves too seriously, and take our ‘attitude of gratitude’ into a sunny future where we could fill the world with the Gospel, and maybe actually enjoy it for a while before the wars and plagues. Doom was still inevitable of course, but for the first time we were allowed to start questioning the urgent timetable for it that Cleon Scousen and the ward preppers had always seemed so sure of.
And so we entered what seems like a brief golden age now, like the Edwardian summers before the Great War. Our wards in the International Church (which includes the Deep South outside the Deseret Motherland of course) had matured to the point where a stable Seminary and YSA program and going on a mission were the norm rather than the exception. The internet was something you did inefficient research for university on. Social media was still a dream for a future age. The Church social life was great; the black Mormons were marrying the white Mormons and making beautiful babies, sometimes in that order, and noone freaked out with visceral racist bile. The secular youth culture of the time was about neo-hippy love, tolerance, environmental awareness and having friends who were gay and legal. The world was becoming a kinder and gentler place, and it felt like the Church’s rhetoric and culture was becoming the same under Gordon’s mostly benign leadership.
They even rewrote the whole missionary program to be flexible and put the investigator and their interests first rather than railroading them through a one size fits all straight jacket of artificial dialogue, and seemed to care more about retention than targets and numbers.
Hinckley also purged the really terrifying and creepy bits out of the temple Endowment and basically made the Church safe enough for my Granny, who had raised a huge clan of Mormon children and grandchildren, to finally join it herself. She became a great fan of Gordon and Marjorie Pay Hinckley, whose vision of embracing the world with non-judgmental, down to earth compassionate love so closely chimed with her own. Gordon had worked closely with my medical student Grandad on various LDS youth projects during his pre-War mission in London at the start of both their long lifetimes of service in the Church, and had now poetically become a crucial player in completing Grandad’s eternal family dream when his Best Beloved was baptised just before he died.
And to top it all off, serious scholars like Rodney Stark were projecting exponential growth and a Mormon membership of 265 million by 2080.
So where did all that positivity and hope go?! Why, instead of each of us being a stake president of a multitude of recent converts as we were told to expect in our youth, am I surrounded by people who have given up hope for growth and are blaming everyone but ourselves as an institution for our plummeting Church attendance rates? Why are we haemorrhaging so many of our brightest and best young people, and even experienced leaders, who can’t stand it any longer? Why are our steadily falling conversion rates per full time missionary now so bad that 2016’s overall growth rate of 1.59% was the lowest we have had since 1937 when my Grandad finished school and headed to London?
Why have we got more people in the Address Unknown Files than the ward lists, and most of the people still on ward lists are inactive? Why does the gentle embrace of the world in a warm hug in an increasingly tolerant and politically neutral Church seem like such a distant memory as we pick through the aftermath of another wave of brutal, polarising and divisive doctrinal and political Mormon attacks on civil rights and equality, this time against the “counterfeit” relationships and families of people based on their sexuality rather than their race?
Why do a lot of the leadership seem to be having a collective stroppy sulk after inevitably losing the battle over Gay Marriage that they never stood any chance of winning, despite their claims to be prophets with wisdom and foresight who have a clearer overview of what the future holds then the rest of us? Why are they stomping about the earth promoting a persecution complex by obsessing about imaginary threats to religious freedom when we are less persecuted than at any time in our history? Why has Utah’s government declared pornography a state of emergency public health crisis while Utah’s religion is still unable to talk about teenage sexuality with common sense and healthy honesty to our conflicted and guilt-ridden young people?
And why are they spiritually throwing actual babies and children, along with several fundamental scriptures and Articles of Faith, under the bus with the tragicomedy of errors that has burst out of the November 2015 Policy…in whichever of the 4 forms it has now been presented to us it even exists? I’m all for getting with the march of 21st century science, but to have my trust in the leadership’s competence severely rattled by a policy/political statement/doctrine/Revelation that exists as a sort of quantum probability wave that resolves itself into radically different forms depending on who is explaining or observing it is something I definitely was not expecting. Crazy times.
I am just relieved that Gordon and Marjorie and my grandparents are not here watching this car crash with me in the last twilight of their lives. This is the Great Depression my generation has to find a way to survive.
The apostles for a while now seem to have been bred more to be dependable managers of the many institutions and investment wings of the Corporation of the President / Presiding Bishopric of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and Deseret Management Corporation than to be sophisticated theologians and historians, cocooned from our realities by a General Authority salary beyond most of our wildest dreams as we have discovered this year. They have also clearly been taken as much by surprise by the poisoned chalice of suppressed information and inaccurate history telling their predecessors handed us all as we have been after the internet information tsunami of the last 10 years blasted through all our front doors.
Somewhat to their credit, they haven’t even pretended to know what to do with or about all that and have delegated the job in total to friendly professional historians, apologists and lawyers who have written the important stuff for them, such as the Gospel Topics Essays, the Joseph Smith Papers Project, new more accurate biographies of Joseph Smith, and allegedly even a lot of the content of the Proclamation on the Family, which was initially created to assist the early campaign against gay marriage legislation in Hawaii.
The problem is though that the ministering wing has hardly begun to process and offer spiritual and emotional context and support to the membership in dealing with the fallout from the radioactive information bombs being dropped by the industrious new information wing of the Church. At first there was uneasy radio silence in the mainstream formats for communicating with the membership – the Church magazines and General Conference; just more of the default mode steady patter of dire warnings against seeking information about Church history and doctrine from the internet while carefully avoiding naming any of the herd of elephants in the room. As anyone knows who actually uses the internet for research every day (i.e. all the developed world’s school children and most of the adults) this is the exact logical equivalent of telling the entire membership not to depend on researching in libraries if you want accurate information. Just trust one ideologically biased publisher which has just admitted a lot of its previously published materials were very inaccurate.
Elder Ballard, car salesman by training, has stepped up and been earnestly urging everyone to get familiar with the Essays and the new materials and “know them like the back of your hand” as he said in his address to the CES teachers last year. Of course, typically, that single punchy and memorable phrase was edited out of the version of his talk published in the Ensign in December 2016 because someone somewhere is apparently still very keen that we don’t actually get to know the Essays quite THAT well because…well…have you READ them?!!! They reveal a horror story of deceptions, racism, adulterous betrayal of male and female spouses, and undermine several key pillars of our collective beliefs about ourselves and where our religion came from.
So we are in a strange period of radical transition where the left hand if the leadership really don’t seem to have fully understood yet what the right hand is doing, or how to help the membership cope with things like the seer stone appearing in photographic form in the Ensign, and cartoon form in the Friend magazine in February 2017.
There is a general cacophony of ‘OK, yes something major is afoot and the Good Ship Zion has indeed crashed into some rocks, but stay in the boat anyway, everything is fine…if you see anything disturbing or confusing don’t look too hard at it, remember what a great ship this is when it isn’t sinking and concentrate on that! The people who have jumped off and run ashore were just too weak and lazy to hold on.’
We start to notice individuals we recognise becoming caricatures of themselves as they cope with the crisis by holding tight to their personal ‘happy places’ where they feel most confident and secure, and trying to shore up the heart and head of the stranded Body of Christ. Eyring and Holland are taking care of emotional business – Henry weeps endless stigmatic tears like a comforting Pieta while Geoffrey is getting cross and ranting about ‘taffy pulling’ wimps, not breaking your Mother’s heart by leaving the Church even though we expect people to do that to join it, and declaring yet again that noone could fake even a page of the Book of Mormon. It’s all nonsense, but reassuringly familiar and delivered with that same uncomplicated confidence from the happy days before nuanced reality and sceptical analysis of what they were actually saying came and spoiled it all.
The Autistic Spectrum Male Rationalists Oaks and Bednar are working on the head rather than the heart, fixing everything with their version of logic by explaining that the problems we think are there don’t really exist. We have all simply misunderstood the true meaning of WORDS, and they are helpfully teaching us the real meaning of the words in the ship’s operating manual…and the dictionary, which people so often get so wrong. If we will just listen to their helpfully thorough explanations of the etymology of reality and words like ‘loyal opposition’ and ‘homosexual Mormon’ everything will make sense and we will realise the ship is actually still sailing along fine out there in the sea over there, not run aground here, despite our befuddled perceptions that have got lost in translation.
Oh, and conveniently there is no need to actually apologise for anything bad or deceitful or harmful they or their predecessors did because (pay attention to the “Prophetic Voice” now! Can you feel it?) “I know that the history of the Church is not to seek apologies or to give them.” “I am not aware that the word apology appears anywhere in the scriptures – the Bible or the Book of Mormon. The word apology contains a lot of connotations in it and a lot of significance…blah blah etc etc” (His ACTUAL words!) Well, that’s sorted that misunderstanding out then. Thanks Elder Oaks!
With a few very noble exceptions in each Conference, pretty much everyone else has reverted to basic 1980’s mode to cope with failure and decline – it’s because the world is becoming more wicked, and the other churches are declining too, so it’s inevitable really.
The thing that enrages and terrifies me in equal measures about this increasingly universal negativity narrative is that it is a complete betrayal of everything we are meant to be about. Of course the other churches are declining – to paraphrase the immortal Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch, they are apostate! They’ve passed on! They are no more! They have ceased to be! They’ve expired and gone to meet their maker! They’re bereft of life! They rest in peace! Their metabolic processes are now history! They’ve kicked the bucket and shuffled off their mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!!
WE, however, are the true and living Church with the real priesthood and power of God and living prophets. We are the stone made without hands rolling forth to fill the world. “The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing.”
Making it acceptable to decline in the same way as other churches in an increasingly secular world is to declare that all of the stuff about being the only true Church perfectly suited and prepared for the latter days and better than the rest is nonsense. It is totally deserting the ramparts, abandoning the battlefield, surrendering. We should be hoovering up the disillusioned multitudes fleeing the dead churches. We should be swamped by Millennials, not demoralised and scared by them – we have the gospel for the modern age and the Hubble universe. Our theology embraces the positive social action and community they crave AND the trillions of galaxies with their hundreds of billions of solar systems teeming with life. Every Stake boundary is full of millions of decent, tolerant, compassionate human beings who care about freedom and feeding the poor and not bullying people for their race or sexuality. People who will flock to the True Church if only they can be shown where to find it. This is the moment we have been preparing and working for – but apparently that party has been cancelled.
Instead we are going to obsess about opposing gay marriage and alienate people with compassionate instincts for justice and mercy. We are going to invest billions in expensive property developments for the rich instead of building cities of light on a hill for the poor. We are going to tell people that obedience rather than love is the first law of heaven, and that ignorance and blind faith are more holy states than education and honesty. Instead of fixing the many obvious and easily reformable flaws in our outdated programs and strategies so they can work again, we are going to wait for an apocalyptic cataclysm like the wars and famines that humbled people in the Book of Mormon in the futile hope that this will motivate people to rush to our pews.
Come on people! If you really have no faith any more that our Church can and should be experiencing exponential growth before I shuffle off this mortal coil, attractive for its own merits without needing a cataclysm, for goodness’ sake stop bed-blocking and make way for, or at least listen to, the thousands of us who are brimming with ideas and inspiration about how to do all this a whole lot better. Seminary scripture Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-29 told us in 1831 that ordinary Church members already have permission from God to innovate and get creative in our ministry, and even that this is the only way to avoid collective damnation. It really isn’t rocket science. But the fear of change or innovations coming from the grass roots rather than octogenarian white Utahns is so overwhelming that time and again the Mormon with the temerity to suggest a better way to fulfil Joseph Smith’s vision of global triumph is slapped down, patronised, suspected of apostate rebellion and called an antichrist online, or to their face by ecclesiastical leaders.
So our steady decline into a small remnant of unimaginative and defeatist homophobic Amish with food storage instead of farms will inexorably continue. We are being sucked back into the pre-Hinckley feedback loop of impending doom.
Well, we need to nix this negativity narrative – kill it dead! Every time the doctrine and self-sabotaging excuse of despair and blaming the world instead of ourselves for our incompetent and too often pharisaical methods and attitudes rears its ugly head, we need to speak up and slap it down.
Just take the April 2017 General Conference. If people quote Elder Mark A Bragg’s completely delusional propaganda – “The Church is a beacon of light to a darkening world. This is a wonderful time to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints! The Church is stronger than it has ever been and quite literally grows stronger each day as new members join us, new congregations are formed, new missionaries are called, and new territories are opened to the gospel. We see those who have slipped from activity in the Church for a time returning as the rescue envisioned by President Thomas S. Monson brings daily miracles.” – we need to gently but firmly point out the real statistics and the waves of falling attendance and closing wards and stakes and suggest this isn’t the time to rest on our laurels, because there aren’t any.
When they get doomy like Elder Nelson – “My dear brothers and sisters, we live in a most difficult dispensation. Challenges, controversies, and complexities swirl around us. These turbulent times were foreseen by the Saviour. He warned us that in our day the adversary would stir up anger in the hearts of men and lead them astray” – we need to remind them that the Silver Fox apostle dropped another Dieter Bomb of hope and common sense as he struggles to co-pilot the Good Airplane Zion away from the looming tornado of despair he can see clearly on his radar:
“One of the ways Satan wants us to manipulate others is by dwelling upon and even exaggerating the evil in the world. Certainly our world has always been, and will continue to be, imperfect. Far too many innocent people suffer because of circumstances of nature as well as from man’s inhumanity. The corruption and wickedness in our day are unique and alarming. But in spite of all this, I wouldn’t trade living in this time with any other time in the history of the world. We are blessed beyond measure to live in a day of unparalleled prosperity, enlightenment, and advantage. Most of all, we are blessed to have the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which gives us a unique perspective on the world’s dangers and shows us how to either avoid these dangers or deal with them. When I think of these blessings, I want to fall to my knees and offer praises to our Heavenly Father for His never-ending love for all of His children. I don’t believe God wants His children to be fearful or dwell on the evils of the world. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” He has given us an abundance of reasons to rejoice. We just need to find and to recognize them. The Lord often reminds us to “be not afraid,” to “be of good cheer,” and to “fear not, little flock.”
Elder Uchtdorf is massively out-numbered like the rest of us in the Church who are still active AND hopeful for a future of real growth and progression if we can just throw off the mountain of pharisaical sediments he spoke about in October 2015; but I believe he is right, and truth can only prevail if we have the courage to keep speaking truth to power like he does.