This post must begin by acknowledging the current events regarding the excommunication of Kate Kelly. Regardless of how you feel about the excommunication, we should all be mourning together. We should all be grieving. We should all follow our baptismal covenant to comfort each other and bear each other’s burdens. We need to avoid using this as some piece of evidence to prove that our view or approach is right.

The Catalyst

But I digress. This post is not directly the excommunication. It is about an idea which was brought to light in an interview on RadioWest with church spokesperson Ally Isom. First, it’s important to note what Ally Isom from public affairs had to say about the autonomy of the Pulbic Affairs department:

Well first let me be clear that public affairs does nothing in isolation or insulation from our church leaders. We act at their explicit direction. In fact, we have a number of them who chair a committee who sit in counsel with us regularly. They are well aware of our efforts. They are well aware that I’m here today. They are well aware of what the message would be going forward. We do nothing in isolation… [Public Affairs work] is actually a First Presidency assignment and we work in concert with them very closely.

Just a couple minutes after her statement that public affairs does nothing in isolation from the church leaders, there was this surprising exchange (Doug Fabrizio in italics & Ally Isom in bold):

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?

 

There are many avenues to express that and discuss that.

 

Where? In public?

 

No one is questioning your ability to discuss it in a congregation, in a Sunday School class, or in a Relief Society class.

 

In a congregation a woman can stand up and say that?

 

She can certainly have the conversation. In my Relief Society we can. I love what Sister Burton just said this very last Sunday when she talked about women.

 

Now remind us who Sister Burton is.

 

Sister Burton is the Relief Society General President. She’s a wonderful example. She travels the world. She meets thousands of women and has very personal conversations with them. She says in this really personal way “Women shoulder burdens. We come from so many backgrounds, but we have to be each others’ safe space.” It has to be through one another that we can have these conversations.

 

So it’s ok for a woman in a Relief Society meeting to stand up and say… you know within the proper context of the lesson or whatever it might be

 

Yeah, respectfully…

 

…respectfully…

 

of course.

 

“Hey sisters! Let’s talk about the possibility that it’s time now for church leaders, like they did with the priesthood and blacks, to change that? I mean, there were lessons from history where women reportedly gave blessings and we did have this power and it sort of went away from us. Let’s talk about that.” The church is cool with that?

 

The conversation is welcome. We’ve had a similar conversation in my Relief Society in Kaysville, Utah. We had a similar conversation about gay marriage in our Relief Society. My daughter in Palo Alto just had a very interesting conversation this very last Sunday. We have those conversations. It is a safe place.

 

Transcribed from the interview on RadioWest found here.

So, we are being told by the church spokesperson that they don’t act in isolation from the First Presidency and we’re being told that Sunday School is the appropriate venue to discuss our faith struggles and our doubts. Earlier in the discussion she said that it wasn’t appropriate to do so in public.

 

Sunday_School

The Plan

How many of you have Sunday School classes like Ally Isom and her daughter? I’ve lived in literally dozens of wards and only one ward came close to having a Sunday School that was as open and understanding as their wards. How would you describe your Sunday School?

In many of the wards in which I’ve lived Sunday School is more ritual performance than collective learning. I mean it literally meets the definition of ritual.

Ritual: a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to set sequence.”

In those Sunday Schools, we wear our ritualistic clothing (which we only wear on Sundays), we gather together and go through the same 4 manuals on rotation. Additionally, you might hear the ritual words of Sunday School, also known as the “Sunday School Answers.” “Read your scriptures.” “Pray.” But how often are people truly authentic in Sunday School? I think the very fact that in the vast majority of wards you don’t ever hear the gender-ban on the priesthood or same-sex marriage being discussed as possibilities within Mormonism. If you hear someone actually bring up one of those topics the response is often negative towards them and the discussion is very quickly brought back to the manual and the Sunday School Answers.

I’m very glad to hear that some wards are more open and authentic. However, we have to all change our mindset when it comes to Sunday School if we ever want this to happen. We can bring our struggles, our doubts, and our opinions, but we must come with an extra portion of charity. I have the blessing of being a Sunday School teacher in my ward. Last Sunday, I began to lay the foundation for such a Sunday School.

Here was how I started Gospel Doctrine this week:

I wanted to start off by sharing a little bit of something that I wish we could make happen more as we gather as saints to discuss and learn gospel truths. I love the way the School of the Prophets was set up to start each meeting. In Section 88 we can read about that. The teacher comes in early and prays that the spirit can be there. Then when each additional person enters the class, there is a ritual greeting that would take place. The teacher would get up and with uplifted arms salute the person entering the room saying: “Art thou a brother or brethren? I salute you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in token or remembrance of the everlasting covenant, in which covenant I receive you to fellowship, in a determination that is fixed, immovable, and unchangeable, to be your friend and brother through the grace of God in the bonds of love, to walk in all the commandments of God blameless, in thanksgiving, forever and ever. Amen.
I feel like that’s just such a beautiful way to start out a meeting in which people are going to be commenting and learning together. It establishes the fact that there is a true bond between you, a bond of love and friendship, which is the foundation upon which you can have more understanding. This is especially true if you’re discussing things with each other and there are differences of opinion. When you come into it with this basis of love and understanding, then it makes it easier for us to hear these differences in opinion and to seek greater understanding of others’ views.
I’m sure some of you have been watching the current events taking place with the church recently. A church spokesperson this last week pointed out that, first of all that church spokespeople are given assignments personally by the 1st Presidency and say the things the 1st Presidency wants them to say. The spokesperson said that Sunday School, Relief Society, and Priesthood Meetings, are the places in which members can discuss the things that they have questions about or are struggling with. Two specifics which were mentioned by the church spokesperson were women and the priesthood and same-sex marriage. So these are topics where there are big differences in opinion, but it was explicitly said that the places for discussing these things are Sunday School, Relief Society, and Priesthood Meeting.
That’s why at the beginning of class, I really wanted to emphasize the importance of having the foundation of love and understanding, because without that I’m not sure that any discussion of those issues would bring about much understanding or learning from the spirit. My plans today don’t involve discussing either of those issues, but I just wanted you to know that because that statement is out there, should any of you feel moved to bring any questions you might have, or if you’re struggling with anything, that this is a safe environment for discussing those things. I would urge all of us to listen and to discuss things together in the spirit of love and understanding, that we can learn from the spirit, and grow closer to each other and to God.

However, saying this and doing it are two very different things. Many people find it impossible to even discuss their concerns and doubts with their family, let alone with others in their congregation. Part of the reason for this uneasiness is that there are mixed messages in Mormonism regarding doubts and concerns. On the one hand, we have talks from President Uchtdorf and Elder Holland telling us that it is ok to doubt.

It’s natural to have questions… There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions.

Be as candid about your questions as you need to be… Hope on. Journey on. Honestly acknowledge your questions and your concerns, but first and forever fan the flame of your faith.

On the other hand we are told that questioning our leaders is “the road to apostasy.”

When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan–it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God. – Ward Teachers’ Message for June, 1945

The definition of apostasy is not clear in our church. If you’d like an example, listen to that interview with Ally Isom. You’ll hear her claim that the church has made it clear what constitutes apostasy while also claiming that whether or not a given action is apostasy is different for each individual. Is that clear enough for you?

In a “living” church that sustains its leaders as prophets, seers, and revelators, all our doctrinal beliefs come from them. So to some extent to question some aspect of the doctrine or policy is to question the leaders. I think that some in our congregations hear about some doubt or questioning and immediately respond by saying “you just have to have faith and take those first steps into the dark,” or “you just have to trust that God is leading his church and our leaders are doing what God wants.” While very well intentioned such statements often come off sounding like the undertone is “you just need to have more faith and then you won’t have those problems.”

So how do we address this? How do we prepare ourselves to have enough understanding to be able to have sincere authentic dialogue without speaking past each other? I’m not sure. I think that going into it consciously giving others the benefit of the doubt and assuming they are well intentioned is a major step. But is it enough? Do we need to have a larger shift in how we as a church understand doubt, how we understand what constitutes “sustaining” our leaders, and how we understand apostasy?

I’d like to hear from you readers. How is your Sunday School? What steps must we take to make our Sunday Schools the places to discuss our true thoughts and opinions? Is it enough to emphasize love and understanding with fellow class members, or are there additional steps we need to take? How can we make this happen?

Geoff was born in Northern Utah and raised primarily in Central California. He received a BS in Biomedical Physics from Fresno State, a MS and PhD in Bioengineering from Stanford, and is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah working as a Clinical Medical Physicist. He served his LDS Mission in Donetsk Ukraine. He’s married and has two boys and two girls. He is currently the ward organist and primary pianist.

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