Delivered to the Beyond the Walls congregation on January 22nd, 2023.
At World Conference in April 1968 Doctrine and Covenants Section 149 was canonized, and verse 6A in part says:
“I will reveal [the functions of the temple] through my servant the prophet and his counselors from time to time, as need for more specific direction arises.”
This direction came 2 months later in the June edition of the herald, the church’s magazine, when the First Presidency published an article which was a pivotal moment in Community of Christ’s history in relation to its understanding of temples. This article was so important that I have on occasion mistaken its contents as being a D&C section. There is one particular quote from this article that has always stuck out to me, and I would like to read it to you now.
“Let us think of the temple as a place where those who are called to share in the ministry of Jesus meet with each other and God to ask hard questions about the demands of redemptive ministry. … Unless the temple of Zion serves this function, it is better for us not to build it.”
Take a moment to let that sink in. One of the first instructions we received regarding our holiest site was that it MUST be a place where we can ask difficult questions, where we can re-examine, where we can deconstruct and rebuild if necessary. If the temple didn’t serve as a beacon for these things, then we didn’t, and still don’t, deserve it.
Those who know me know that I don’t shy away from asking difficult questions. I am sure my pastor John, Apostle Art, and the entirety of the First Presidency would sometimes prefer if I kept some of these questions to myself, but I believe that asking these difficult questions is a core part of what we consider to be sacred and holy. I consider asking challenging questions which make us uncomfortable as an act of worship which gives opportunity for growth.
So in light of that, I must ask: Are we united in purpose? This is a rather broad question, and the answer may change depending on the context in which it is being asked. Let me rephrase the question to put it in the context which I am asking in: Does Community of Christ collectively strive to protect the LGBTQIA+ community and uphold our worth and giftedness?
Many people wish that this answer was a simple “Yes” or “No”, but the history and current situation make it so much more complex than that. Today, I would like to take you on a bit of a tour of Community of Christ’s history with the LGBTQIA+ community, and then ask some questions which further expand upon our chief theme: United in Purpose?
C. George Mesley was born in 1900 in Australia, and moved to Iowa in 1924 to attend Graceland College. In 1927 he married his wife, Blanche Edwards. George was very active in the church and joined the priesthood in 1929 and eventually became an apostle in 1938.
George was known for being passionate about the church, his affinity for poetry and music, and his great capacity to love others. However, in 1947 accusations began to swirl that George was bisexual or gay. These accusations followed him until they came to a head in 1954 shortly before World Conference. There was a strong possibility that his personal life would be exposed and ridiculed at World Conference through discussions about his ability to remain an apostle, simply because he may have been a part of the LGBT community. Instead of enduring this, he decided to take his reputation into his own hands and resigned from the Council of Twelve.
In those days it was tradition to honor outgoing apostles in the next D&C section, which would have been section 143 in this case. However, George Mesley, who had been an apostle for 20 years, received no such honors after he stepped down. After his days as an apostle were over he continued to be stigmatized and silenced because of these accusations, despite being an active and beloved member of the church.
- Would an apostle be treated like this today if they came out of the closet?
- Would modifying the introduction to section 143 to recognize and honor George Mesley be a meaningful olive branch for the LGBT community?
- What can we do to prevent ousting good and passionate priesthood members today?
The 1962 and 1982 Policies
In 1962, after the tragedy that Mesley endured, the Standing High Council recommended a church policy which stated that homosexuality in adulthood should be regarded as a problem that is to be cured, bar folks from the priesthood, and be seen as a sin which could be grounds for excommunication – which in terms of severity put it right alongside adultery and child abuse. The First Presidency accepted the Standing High Council’s exclusionary recommendation and made it the church’s official policy.
After this, the topic wasn’t talked about in public much until the Stonewall Uprising in June 1969. These are the protests where LGBT folks, who had been systemically marginalized and often criminalized, stood up for their right to exist. The events of this uprising re-ignited the topic in Community of Christ as well. The 1970s represented a shift in our collective understanding, and even those who helped design the homophobic policies began to question the validity of them
In 1978 president W. Wallace Smith commissioned a committee to study human sexuality, part of which included LGBT topics. In 1981, from this subcomittee, we LGBT folks saw the first advocacy for us at an institutional level when it called for queer acceptance, the possibility for queer ordination to the priesthood, and the church to be LGBT civil rights advocates.
Others in the church weren’t as thrilled with the progress. Unfortunately, the Standing High Council was among them, and in 1982 they gave another recommendation that reiterated that the LGBT community would be relegated to 2nd class status in the church. This policy, among other things, said that:
- LGBT folks could be ordained ONLY if they remained celibate, and made distinctions between homosexual inclinations and behaviors, the latter always being considered unacceptable while the former as an unfortunate reality.
- Heterosexual marriage is the only acceptable form of marriage
- Homosexuals should only be accepted in congregations if they are not actively homosexual
- Did these policies embody our Enduring Principles of “Unity in Diversity” and “Worth of All Persons”?
- Should Community of Christ apologize for its part in the persecution and exclusion of the LGBT community?
In 1992 a resolution was brought forward to World Conference which stated that prejudice based on many things, including sexual orientation, undermines the personal and spiritual development of both the abused and the abuser and that as people of faith we have a responsibility to resist that hate and fear and instead seek unity in diversity. After a discussion, this resolution was passed unanimously and today exists as World Conference Resolution #1226.
In the months following the passing of this resolution a wave of discussion regarding LGBT acceptance washed over the church. Some felt like the church was on the right course and that God “summons us to free ourselves from antiquated religious laws and concepts”, while others clung to the more traditionally homophobic perspectives and felt like the church should explore conversion “therapy” as an official stance.
For those who are unaware, “Conversion Therapy” is any attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. This barbaric practice starts with the assumption that being LGBT is something to be cured, and seeks to eradicate this aspect of our identity. This has been so harmful that the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner has recognized it as a form of torture. This torture has included being told degrading things from medical professionals or spiritual leaders, often times leaving the LGBT person traumatized and suicidal. In the most extreme cases it has included ice-pick lobotomies, chemical castration, and electroshock aversion training.
Unfortunately, Community of Christ tried to balance the perspectives of those who wanted to be inclusive of the LGBT community along with the perspectives of those who wanted to engage in the torture of the LGBT community. In 2001 the Human Sexuality Task Force made a course entitled “Homosexuality and the Church”. While this was one of the first even relatively pro-LGBT materials that the church put out, about 30% of it also advocated for the torturous “Conversion Therapy”.
In this Community of Christ coursebook there were articles from “Exodus International”, which was an organization which advocated for “conversion therapy” for decades. Exodus International has since willingly closed because it recognized that they were inflicting harm due to their incorrect teachings and issued an apology for all the harm it has done over the years.
- Has Community of Christ ever admitted that it advocated for the torture of the LGBT community?
- Has Community of Christ ever tried to apologize for its previous actions?
The topic of LGBT rights and inclusion in Community of Christ reached its boiling point at the 2010 World Conference when twenty-one resolutions were presented from around the world regarding LGBT folks. It was clear that the time for the church to have answers had come. Among the most central to these questions was how to be inclusive and celebratory in some countries, while also protecting members whose nations’ laws were homophobic.
D&C 164 was canonized into scripture on April 14th, 2010. Among other things, this section advocated for unity in diversity and tolerance of the diversities of gender identities and sexual orientations. It clarified that God “ultimately is concerned about behaviors and relationships that uphold the worth and giftedness of all people and that protect the most vulnerable” rather than how relationships are structured.
However, this section also made concessions for the nations whose governments make the denial of human rights for members of the LGBT communities their public policy, by creating a new level of polity: national conferences. National Conferences are where nation-specific policies could be developed based on their individual needs. This was billed as the balance which could be struck with allowing LGBT-affirming nations to be so, while also allowing other nations to continue “working on it” within their own cultures to get to that point.
The first National Conferences took place in the summer of 2013 and policies written by unknown authors were passed. These policies affirmed LGBT peoples’ God-given rights, and for the first time in history we had access to things like the sacrament of marriage in our church. However, there was a catch: our rights were only seen as “Interim” policies. Synonyms for “Interim” include “temporary”, which doesn’t feel fantastic that my rights could be described as “temporary”. In the secular world, LGBT folks have a history of having their rights systematically recognized only to have them voided, and many LGBT folks were worried that we may also lose our rights in the church.
These “Interim” policies were supposed to undergo a 2-year revision period and then be implemented as “Official” Policies. However, somewhere along the way the First Presidency and the Council of Twelve had a miscommunication about how exactly this process was to happen, and both thought that it was the other’s obligation to finalize these policies. Unfortunately, this miscommunication led to the 2-year revision timeline becoming over 6 years.
This miscommunication was not resolved by the Council of Twelve and the First Presidency on their own. It took LGBT advocates pushing for years, often in the face of harsh criticism and personal sacrifice. However, after years of effort, in late 2021 the First Presidency finally clarified that the Apostles were to handle the revision process and the Presidency would give the final approval. In response to this the American Apostles committed to completing the revision process by the end of 2022.
It took over 12 years since we canonized D&C section 164, over 12 years since the National Conferences, and a revision timeline that was over 3 times longer than expected, but 18 days ago LGBT members of Community of Christ gained Official rights for the first time in history.
- Why did it take so long for the policies to become official?
- Why was giving marginalized people their first official rights in the church not a top priority?
- What can we do to prevent bureaucratic sluggishness in the future?
The first National Conferences were scheduled for the summer of 2013, and in anticipation of them the First Presidency received requests for clarification about the international church’s policy with the LGBT community. In the March 2013 edition of the Herald, the First Presidency reaffirmed many of the exclusionary aspects of the 1982 policy. In July 2013 when the nations posted their revised policies, the International Church again made sure to reiterate that the default for Community of Christ is still exclusion.
Among what was clarified was that:
- The church still considers heterosexual marriages as the ideal default
- Community of Christ ministers cannot perform LGBT marriages even if it is legal where they live UNLESS a National Conference has voted to recognize the rights of LGBT folks
- LGBT folks can be in the priesthood as long as they are celibate.
- Why is the default for Community of Christ still homophobia and exclusion?
- What would it look like if the default was inclusion and acceptance, and individual nations who needed more time were the ones to conduct National Conferences to create nation-specific policies?
In the Temple School training manual called “Introduction to Priesthood Ministry”, we are told:
“When a community hurts or marginalizes someone, it is not enough to simply say [they] didn’t intend for that to happen.
Instead, [they have] to be intentional in language and behavior to create an environment that upholds the worth of all persons and the blessings of community.”
Unfortunately, Community of Christ has hurt marginalized people, and in many ways continues to do so today. Many believe that we already treat the LGBT community with the dignity and equality that we deserve, but I do not believe that the church as a whole is united in purpose.
The difficult question that we need to ask ourselves is “What can we do to be united in this purpose?” While I don’t have all of the answers, I do have some suggestions:
- Confess to the harm that was done in the past
- Develop new policies which start from a place of love and inclusion
I have asked many difficult questions, and they undoubtedly are hard to hear. However, we have been called to look to the temple, and we have been taught that the temple is a place to ask these sorts of questions. Let us take up the cross and let us become what we aspire to be.