(HEART OF DISCERNMENT) Response to a Friend

By Evan Sharley

The following are the questions that a friend asked regarding my beliefs and the upcoming Heart of Discernment communion service. My friends questions are bolded, italicized, and centered in order to fully differentiate between what they asked and what my response is.

As a preface, it should be noted that I am only 1 of 5 people participating in this service, and do not speak for all of them, and only speak for myself.

1st, Are you aware that what you are planning to do would not be in harmony with church law? I am sure you are, but just want to make sure, just in case somehow you were not.

I am aware that D&C 17 “The Articles and Covenants of the Church” specifies who is and is not allowed to conduct the sacrament of communion.

However, I would like to turn your attention do D&C 20, which spoke on the topic of rebaptism. n our very earliest days, we specified that you had to be re-baptized to join the church. However, for decades people pushed and boldly started and maintained discussions for this to change, and we can find this advocacy in articles in Courage, Restoration Studies, the Theology lecture series, and in the Herald. In 2004 we were given D&C 162, which was powerful counsel, especially verse 2. This verse spoke powerfully about the need to honor our past, but not let it keep us from our future. This verse says:

“Listen carefully to your own journey as a people, for it is a sacred journey and it has taught you many things you must know for the journey yet to come. Listen to its teachings and discover anew its principles. Do not yearn for times that are past, but recognize that you have been given a foundation of faithful service, even as you build a foundation for what is yet to be. As a prophetic people you are called, under the direction of the spiritual authorities and with the common consent of the people, to discern the divine will for your own time and in the places where you serve. You live in a world with new challenges, and that world will require new forms of ministry. … The spirit of the Restoration is not locked in one moment of time, but is instead the call to every generation to witness to essential truths in its own language and form. Let the Spirit breathe.”

Eventually, we did just that in regards to the topic of rebaptism in 2010 with D&C 164: 2, which says:

“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. … Individuals previously baptized of water in an attitude of humility and repentance and as an expression of faith in Jesus Christ may become church members through the sacrament of confirmation of the Holy Spirit.”

Now, in light of all of that, I highly doubt that we would have D&C 164 if we hadn’t vocally undergone a discernment process as a people starting decades prior. This discernment process included people who constructively pushed boundaries and ruffled a lot of feathers, because reexamining and deconstructing tradition and scripture can be a painful and scary experience, but ultimately I believe it is worth it! I want to carry on that legacy of pushing the church out of its comfort zone so we can collectively discern if what we have is truly the best thing for us moving forward.

2nd, In answer to my question “do you find Community of Christ’s sacrament of communion to be meaningful?” you answered “I do”. And so much so that you have two cups just for communion (which, again, I think is a really neat idea!).

So here is the first thing I guess I’m confused about. Your concern seems to be that you have some serious misgivings about the priesthood of the church, which you have consistently described as hierarchical, and which you have also described as authoritarian.

The model of priesthood that Community of Christ has is, as you know, derived from the Doctrine & Covenants. The offices we have, the duties, responsibilities, etc., of each office, the quorums, councils, and orders, it is all derived from the Doctrine & Covenants.

The sacrament of Communion, as it exists in Community of Christ, is also derived from the Doctrine & Covenants (as an expansion of what is provided in the Book of Mormon). So, the prayers and various other particulars, including who can perform the sacrament, is all derived from the revelations in the Doctrine & Covenants. And, as you have indicated that Community of Christ’s sacrament of communion is meaningful to you, it perplexes me, given where everything about our denomination’s version of communion comes from, that you want to disregard the very same book of scripture that mandates who can perform this sacrament, and how you can find meaning in it (again, given that everything about it is derived from the Doctrine & Covenants), but find fault with our model of priesthood, which is also derived from the Doctrine & Covenants.

In Community of Christ we often hear people say something to the effect of “the highest office is that of Member”. While this is a wonderful platitude, neither the scriptural precedent nor lived experience does not actually illustrate this.

Scripturally speaking, this hierarchy can be illustrated in D&C 104 which explicitly describes the Melchisedec priesthood as being “higher” and those in it are the ones who have the right to lead and engage in “spiritual things” i.e. sacramental ministry. Other sections that speak on this hierarchy include D&C 17, 19, and 25-27.

The lived experience actually differs from the scriptural precedent in a number of ways. For example, “Pastor” and “Mission Centers” are mentioned nowhere in our Doctrine and Covenants, and thus are extra-scriptural, but they are undeniably an aspect of our current organizational hierarchy and how we pass legislation. Along those lines, “Stakes” were scriptural, but have since been discontinued. For practicality’s sake, I have created this chart to illustrate our lived organizational structure:

Those who are higher in the hierarchical structure determine who can be admitted into this structure. This has historically led to a supremacy of the existence, perceptions, ideals, and beliefs of straight, married, monogamous, White, American-midwestern men who are often from the Smith family.

The fact that women were explicitly denied access to any sort of hierarchical authority for a majority of our history should give everyone pause. If a hierarchical structure can deny half of the human family the ability to serve and help develop our tradition, is it a hierarchical structure worth perpetuating or would we benefit from a mindful reexamination? Have we truly fixed this problem, or have we just put a band-aid on a gunshot wound?

As a side note, the sacrament of communion as we understand it does not arise from the Doctrine and Covenants, and in fact arises from Moroni 4-5 in the Book of Mormon. The sacrament of communion is meaningful to me, but I believe that D&C 162: 2D-2E articulates what my relationship to our hierarchical structure’s relationship with the sacraments:

“You have already been told to look to the sacraments to enrich the spiritual life of the body. It is not the form of the sacrament that dispenses grace but it is the divine presence that gives life. Be respectful of tradition and sensitive to one another, but do not be unduly bound by interpretations and procedures that no longer fit the needs of a worldwide church. …

The spirit of the Restoration is not locked in one moment of time, but is instead the call to every generation to witness to essential truths in its own language and form. Let the Spirit breathe.”

I love our tradition, our prayers, and their history. However, I believe that we are constricting ourselves by so tightly regulating these rituals. In order to illustrate just how tightly these are regulated, I did some research and illustrated it in this chart:

3rd, you replied to Terri’s statement “Imo, church guidelines should be followed while we work to change those things which we think need changing.” with the words “I understand and respect that approach. I think there is value in it.” – but, how can you say you respect the approach of following the policies of the church, and consider that approach to have value, when you are intentionally planning to disregard church law and God’s will, even to the extent of inviting, encouraging, and scheduling others to do the same?

There are folks that feel they can push for change within a system. I think they should be permitted to do so, and I respect people pushing for change in the best way they know how. That being said, I also believe that there are multiple ways to push for change. I clearly believe another method is needed in this circumstance.

I am leery of any one person or institution that claims that they alone know God’s unchanging will, especially when they benefit from it.

4th, Will you be informing (continually, so that there can be no doubt that all participants were made aware), in the weeks leading up to this event, and then, at the start of the service itself, that what you and the other participants are doing will be an intentional violation of church law?

As you and others have pointed out, this communion service clearly is not officially sanctioned by the church. It seems pointless for me to continue to point out the obvious, especially when so many others are.

5th, the priesthood of community of Christ, while it does have, by design, a hierarchical structure is not authoritarian. Authoritarianism requires a sheep like mentality from the mases towards leadership (or, if not such a mentality, an overwhelming inability to counter oppressive rule), and for the leadership to be consumed with power, and to be beyond criticism, where there is no means for accountability or removal, etc., and where the masses cannot freely give expression to their opinions, express dissensions, etc. While this could be an understanding that has merit when applied to the priesthood of your former denomination, it is utterly not reflective of the priesthood of Community of Christ.

This is not invalidated by the fact that the church has understandings of authority. Authority and authoritarianism are not the same thing. The latter is the abuse of the former. And while it is of course possible that individual people who happen to hold priesthood have misguided views regarding what, if any, authority they have been granted, it is important to distinguish individual people from the institution of priesthood itself.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Community of Christ is a theocratic democracy (Bylaws Article III, Section 1). Since you have participated in congregational and mission center conferences, and have authored two of the motions being presented at the next World Conference, you know this.

The government of the church is “by divine authority through priesthood.” (Bylaws Article III, Section 2). If the priesthood was authoritarian, then, since the government of the church is through priesthood, the church as a whole would be authoritarian. Do you regard Community of Christ, as a denomination, to be authoritarian?

The Bylaws, by the way, when speaking of church government, also make this important fact clear: “It should be noted that the government of the church is through priesthood, not by priesthood. The distinction is important. Ministers must first of all be disciples. Disciples are those who seek to transform this world into the kingdom of God and Christ. In no other way can their claim to divine authority become rich and meaningful” (Article III, Section 2).

See the reply for #13, because they handle the same topics.

6th, Queer members of Community of Christ struggled for many years to advocate for the church to change its policies regarding the ordination of people in same-sex relationships, and the right for our priesthood to be able to solemnize same-sex marriages. So many of our queer brothers and sisters desired with all their hearts to be able to be ordained, and to serve in the various priesthood offices of the church. Or, to be married to their partners by our own ministers. But, they could not. However, because of their ongoing efforts, the sacraments of marriage and ordination were opened to them, in some parts of the world. How does your desire to diminish the very thing that they fought for so long to be able to be part of, honor them?

If its not clear, I am a part of the LGBT community. I think its a good thing that we adjusted the priesthood and our conception of authority to be more egalitarian (at least on a nation-by-nation basis). That being said, I don’t think that the work is done; I don’t believe that we have arrived in the promised land. There is still work to do in Zion.

I believe that we honor the people who fought for the rights we have today by continuing to fight for the rights of folks who have none, and fighting systems which deny them.

7th, Related to the above, how is what you want to do honoring the struggles of women and gay men in the LDS church who have yearned for priesthood and equality, but are still denied? Though you have left that church, I am sure you still sympathize with the plight of women and gay men in that church who do not have any hope of ever being able to hold priesthood, despite their deep desire to be ordained, and their assurance of being called to do so.

The women and LGBT folks in the LDS church have their own fight, but I have not been a part of that church for nearly 8 years, or about a third of my lifetime.

Regardless, as I mentioned in my last answer, I believe I honor the oppressed by continuing to fight for the rights of those who have none and fighting systems which I believe perpetuate that oppression.

8th, in a reply to Terri, you said: “As a queer person who will almost certainly never be permitted into the church’s hierarchical priesthood due to the cultural hang ups of non-queer people, I feel like my choices are to rather not share my gifts or talents or help shift peoples’ perspectives so that my gifts and talents could be recognized and valued.”

I don’t understand why you believe you could never be, as a queer person, ordained. You live in the United State of America and belong to a congregation based in Canada. The church has sanctioned, in both those nations, the ordination of people in same-sex relationships. And while I do understand that the interim policies have never rolled over to become permanent, they are both still in effect. So, queer people in the US and Canada are able to be ordained.

Your own pastor, who holds the office of seventy, and who is male, has a husband, so I am baffled how you can claim that because you are queer you cannot be ordained.

There are other ways of being queer, and Community of Christ has explicitly reiterated that people like me are relegated to a 2nd class status. I don’t feel comfortable or safe enough to come out regarding the specifics of this part of my life to you or those reading this response. Suffice it to say, the church bars the type of queer that I am from giving official priesthood and sacramental ministry.

9th, related to the above, it sounds like your concerns are derived from your personal belief that you will never be able to be ordained.

I am not sure I am following you correctly, but it sounds like you believe that in order for you to be ordained, you need to change the perspectives of non-queer people, meaning, (if I get what you are saying), if you could do that, you could then anticipate one day being ordained – and presumably, if no such hang-ups existed right now, you could see yourself being ordained in the current climate of the church.

If I have all that correct, that sort of reads to me that you are saying that you would be happy to be part of the priesthood as it currently exists – if you could be part of it. But, since you have concluded that you can’t be, you want to redefine the priesthood. Is that correct?

The systemic discrimination against me is what initially got me investigating our conception of priesthood authority, but it has expanded far beyond my own experiences.

For example, in the earliest days of the church there were discussions on whether people of color could hold the priesthood, because for many priesthood was an exclusively white institution that was given to white folks by God. Likewise, the church for a majority of our history believed that priesthood was an exclusively male institution that was given to males by God. Again, the church for a majority of our history (and indeed still by our default) that priesthood is an exclusively heterosexual institution that was given to heterosexuals by God.

In each of these instances, we simply tweaked our understanding of authority to make it slightly more inclusive of marginalized people, instead of critically re-examining and rebuilding it to make it so that our conception of priesthood doesn’t marginalize people to begin with.

10th, for the sake of this discussion, let’s presume that you are correct, and that for some reason, because you identify as queer, you cannot be ordained in the church. But, then you succeed after a period of time to get things changed, so that you can be ordained. What other factors might be taken into consideration when church members & leaders consider approving a priesthood call? Might your choice to purposefully disregard church law be a hinderance in you specifically being ordained?

If your objective is to bring about change that makes it possible for you to be ordained to the priesthood of Community of Christ, how does ignoring the policies of the church reflect upon you?

If me advocating for a more inclusive priesthood diminishes my potential to be a part of the priesthood, doesn’t that sort of prove my point that our priesthood is hierarchical and authoritarian and needs to be reformed to be more inclusive?

11th, are you feeling that you can’t be ordained because you have not already been ordained? You’ve only been a member for ten months after all.

I feel as if this is basically that I feel as if the only reason I haven’t been given it is because I am new and don’t fully understand Community of Christ. For the record, I am coming up on 24 months of being a church member. In that time, I have conducted over 80 official church meetings, given a half dozen sermons, presented at Sunstone twice, and read quite the library of books on our history. This image is what I read in 2022:

And no, I do not feel that I can’t be ordained because I have not already been ordained. I know that I can’t be ordained because I know the church’s policies, as expressed in the 2004 Priesthood Manual and the 2005 Church Administrator’s handbook (which I have also read in their entirety), explicitly excludes people like me from serving others.

12th, you were formerly LDS, and therefore already very aware of the model of priesthood outlined in the revelations within the Doctrine & Covenants. As you learned about Community of Christ, you of course would have come to understand that we also have a similar priesthood structure – arguably more inline with the Doctrine & Covenants than the LDS, as we still have a Standing High Council and a Presiding Patriarch (now known as a Presiding Evangelist, but the office and calling remain the same), and an increase in the number of presidents of Seventy, and therefore quorums of Seventy from seven to ten. So, if this model of priesthood is concerning for you, why did you leave one church with such a model for another with essentially the same model?

As I have illustrated, Community of Christ’s has changed its model over time. The fact that we don’t have Smiths as the president of the church or as presiding Evangelist also shows that our conception has changed. To reiterate what D&C 162:2E says:

“…The spirit of the Restoration is not locked in one moment of time, but is instead the call to every generation to witness to essential truths in its own language and form. Let the Spirit breathe.”

I believe that we should more mindfully take the time to see if we are letting the Spirit breathe, or if we are suffocating the Spirit.

Roy A. Cheville was one of the most influential theologians in Community of Christ history. Many people treat him with a well-deserved degree of reverence and admiration. Arguably Cheville’s lasting legacy is his views on the concept of priesthood authority.

As a convert to the church, the idea that we were the “One True Church” and that our priesthood stood apart and above others’ didn’t sit well with Roy. In his book “By What Authority?” Cheville articulated his understanding of what composed meaningful priesthood authority, and he identified 4 aspects:

  1. Legal / Hierarchical
  2. Moral
  3. Spiritual
  4. Competency / Educational

While all 4 of these aspects ideally are in harmony, that isn’t always the case. At the end of the day, the Legal / Hierarchical source of authority is only 25% of this priesthood pie.

Although Cheville’s book was only a mere 96 pages, it became so pivotal to our understanding that how Community of Christ’s priesthood manuals and priesthood training materials talks about priesthood are still built off of the foundation that he laid in 1956. However, in their modern recountings the criticism towards those who hold authority, especially in the legal / hierarchical aspect, are quite watered down. In light of this, I would like to give you an excerpt from the first chapter of “By What Authority?”:

“By What Authority” Excerpt

One day two kids, recently moved into a neighborhood, came to a playground where a group of kids were playing ball. One of the newcomers promptly inquired, “Who has the say-so around here?” They were raising a question that has been asked ever since people began to associate with one another. It is an inquiry about authority. Sometimes we do not give much thought, if any, to the question; we merely accept what the situation imposes on us and assume that whoever is in command is supposed to be there.

Sooner or later we rise above this unquestioning acceptance of what happens to be prevailing. The spirit of inquiry calls for interpretations and validations. Then such considerations as these take shape:

1. Who has the say-so?

2. On what basis do they have it?

3. What constitutes this say-so?

4. What are the evidences of this say-so?

As humanity has gone in history asking questions such as these, we have tended to go further. We have continued to raise such inquires as these:

  1. Is this particular form of say-so what we want?
  2. Do the times call for a more effective kind of say-so?
  3. Is say-so something that is kept indefinitely?
  4. Can we go about developing the power of say-so in ourselves?

Questions of this nature are highly important. Upon answer to them hangs the course of humanity’s destiny. How we answer them conditions whether we shall have retrogression or progress, chaos or order, the repressed or the reflective mind, ineffectiveness or effectiveness, compliance or creativeness, priestliness or prophecy.

What has been said about authority in general applies to religion. It is one of the fields in which questions of say-so are of great consequence. It is likely that in no area do ideas about authority become more involved and ingrained. Here there is more inclination to refer to sources of authority that are harder to identify and harder to grasp. Here there can always be an undefined reference to God. Here there is a common inclination to insist that authority be unquestioned. It can be considered dangerous, heretical, or sinful to probe into such matters. Yet I know of no field of life in which it is more imperative that sound investigation be made. Whenever any authority will not stand up under scrutiny, it must be inadequate in itself. …

13th, I saw your comment that if church leaders want to contact you to discuss what you are planning, they are welcome to do so. That sort of seems a bit backwards to me. I feel that as members of the church, we should not be doing things that run contrary to church law and policies, compelling church leaders to reach out to us. Rather, it seems more appropriate that we as church members approach our leaders, to ask for permission to do something that we are considering, and if permission is not received, then work towards changing the policies in question, but abiding by them until such time as they are changed. We are blessed to belong to a church that is a theocratic democracy, in which we truly have a voice, and also a time tested proven process for bringing about change through our legislative conferences. So many other denominations do not have this, or anything even close to what we have. Do your intentions perhaps diminish the meaning, value and significance of what we have, and possibly undermine the rule of law?

As I mentioned earlier, others are free to take different approaches, but I and the others in this service believe this is the right approach for us to take.

I LOVE that we have the ability to make legislative changes in our church, however, in practice there are some relatively big flaws with how we live out our democracy. Let’s say that I were to pass a piece of legislation at a congregational level today. It would likely be 6+ months before a Mission Center Conference would consider taking a vote on it. After that, it could be 4+ years before this is considered at a world-wide level. At every step of the way, it is up to the hierarchy whether this legislation is even discussed; pastor may not allow it at a congregational level, a Mission Center presidency may not allow it at an MC level, and the First Presidency may not allow it at an international level (which is what happened with Resolutions G-1, G-3, and G-4 in 2016). In short, our legislative process is sluggish and gatekept by the people who benefit from the status quo. This system is not what a healthy democracy is founded upon.

I believe fighting for what we love, even at the cost of personal sacrifice, elevates its meaning, not diminishes it.

14th, might their participation impact what opportunities become available in the church for (person) and (person), and the other people that will be participating in your service?

Again, if us advocating for a more priesthood diminishes my potential to be a part of the priesthood, doesn’t that sort of prove the point that our priesthood is hierarchical and authoritarian and needs to be reformed to be more inclusive?

15th, is intentionally disregarding church law regarding the sacraments of the church, and inviting others to do the same, reflective of the church’s enduring principle of responsible choices?

In a sermon last year entitled “Boldly Venture”, President Steve Veazey said:

“The world is changing. Old forms are crumbling. New possibilities are emerging. We live between “what was” and “What will be”. We need faith, curiosity, openness, and boldness. God is challenging assumptions, shaking up structures, disrupting routines, and making connections.”

In light of that, I believe that your question is framed incorrectly, so allow me to rephrase it:

“Is boldly pointing out crumbling conceptions of authority and exclusivity within our church and exploring new possibilities reflective of the church’s enduring principle of responsible choices?”

When phrased like this, I do believe that these actions embody our enduring principle.

Let me ask you a question: Is the church systemically barring people from helping facilitate fundamental Christian practices reflective of our Enduring Principle of “All Are Called”?

Community of Christ no longer believes that it is the “One True Church”, meaning we do not believe that our church/institution/hierarchy has the exclusive permission to perform sacraments such as Baptism, Marriage, and Communion. In fact, we accept the baptisms performed in other churches as real, binding, and valid baptisms even within our church. We have come to see that Cheville was correct, in that there are multiple sources of authority, and our hierarchical source is only one of them. Today we recognize that you don’t even need to be a part of our church/institution/hierarchy for the sacraments conducted without the permission of our church/institution/hierarchy to be real and meaningful. Why is it, then, that people like those in this service are being treated so harshly for what what we extend to other churches? If none of us were members of the church, would it be a problem?

Oddly enough, Community of Christ has “not-sacraments” that bear quite the resemblance to their sacramental counterparts. These “not-sacraments” are even often encouraged through the church’s priesthood training materials.

For example, we have “Agape Meals” and “Communion”.

We run into a similar circumstance with Administration and the “Prayer for Wholeness and Well-being”.

Another similarity that we find is with marriage and “commitment ceremonies”.

Since many of these seem to only have minor differences, and sometimes only a difference of 2 words, many wonder what the functional difference is between the sacraments and these “not-sacraments”. It seems silly that we could say the prayer with a couple of words changed and call it something different, and then it would have the approval of the church, but saying the prayer word-for-word and calling it communion is a big no-no. In light of this, we in this service decided to move forward with calling it “communion” instead of “agape meal” and using the communion prayers, because we don’t see a difference between the sacraments and “not-sacraments”.

I believe that the chief focus of the sacraments are to help facilitate a healthy and fulfilling relation with the Divine, not to uphold tradition, policy, and procedures. Since we recognize that other Christian churches have the authority to conduct the sacraments without Community of Christ’s priesthood, I believe we should explore non-priesthood members conducting the sacraments and helping to bring spiritual fulfillment to those they serve.