Friday, November 13, 2015

Clarification of the Updates to Handbook 1

The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has issued a clarification letter regarding the changes to Handbook 1 last week, much needed after all the unrest the new policy caused. This update was also followed by a letter from Michael Otterson on Mormon Newsroom. I would encourage you to read them both if you haven't yet. First, a look at what the First Presidency sent.

November 13, 2015
To: General Authorities; Area Seventies; General Auxiliary Presidencies; Stake, District, Mission, and Temple Presidents; Bishops and Branch Presidents 
Dear Brethren and Sisters:
The Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles provides the following guidance in applying provisions on same-gender marriage recently added to Handbook 1: 
Revealed doctrine is clear that families are eternal in nature and purpose. 
-- Families are eternal in nature and purpose. That is the revelation part.
We are obligated to act with that perspective for the welfare of both adults and children. 
-- How they proceed isn't necessarily by revelation but how they interpret how they should proceed with this knowledge. This doesn't mean it wasn't done without prayer and contemplation, but it also doesn't mean that the Lord appeared unto them and said, "Proceed this way."
The newly added Handbook provisions affirm that adults who choose to enter into a same-gender marriage or similar relationship commit sin that warrants a Church disciplinary council.
-- A little bit of odd rhetorical phrasing here. Who exactly added the Handbook provisions? They didn't just appear.
Our concern with respect to children is their current and future well-being and the harmony of their home environment. The provisions of Handbook 1, Section 16.13, that restrict priesthood ordinances for minors, apply only to those children whose primary residence is with a couple living in a same-gender marriage or similar relationship. As always, local leaders may request further guidance in particular instances when they have questions.
-- This is different than what was said last week. The provisions said "a child of a parent who has lived or is living in a same-gender relationship." Past and present. This update means the "has lived" part must not be going into Handbook 1 after all. Which is better than it staying in there. That last sentence also makes it clear they're giving a lot of leeway to local leaders.
When a child living with such a same-gender couple has already been baptized and is actively participating in the Church, provisions of Section 16.13 do not require that his or her membership activities or priesthood privileges be curtailed or that further ordinances be withheld. 
-- The way it had been worded made it sound like their church progression would be halted until they turned 18 and did some disavowing. I'm glad this is not so.
Decisions about any future ordinances for such children should be made by local leaders with their prime consideration being the preparation and best interests of the child.
-- Or is it? Translation: That baptized 12-year-old son of a gay parent? Local leader could still decide to not make him a deacon. Leeway.
All children are to be treated with utmost respect and love. They are welcome to attend Church meetings and participate in Church activities. All children may receive priesthood blessings of healing and spiritual guidance.
-- Now we remind all the things that children get regardless of whether they live with gay parents. This narrows the number of kids that will be marginalized by this new policy, but there will still be marginalization.

Now to Brother Otterson's letter.

SALT LAKE CITY — If there’s one thing that virtually all Christians agree on, it’s Jesus Christ’s tender love of children. Both the Bible and Book of Mormon deliver touching accounts of His love for “little ones,” blessing them and forbidding His disciples from keeping children from Him. 
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the family is reverenced and children are its centerpiece. Yet last week an instructional letter from Church leadership addressing the sensitive topic of how to respond to same-sex relationships sparked a wave of inquiries from Church members. Most of the questions were about children. 
Because the letter was an instructional document to leadership throughout the world, and not a Church-wide announcement through or through Church Public Affairs, there was no additional information or context on the usual Church websites. That prompted questions from many Church members, who were mostly reading media headlines portraying the instructions as a rejection of children and refusal to name babies. Members understandably had specific questions about how the announced change might affect their loved ones. 
-- "mostly reading media headlines..." Come on. We're reading the actual words in the Handbook.
The episode demonstrates clearly the dangers of drawing conclusions based on incomplete news reports, tweets and Facebook posts without necessary context and accurate information. 
-- No, no, don't victim-blame here. We read the words from the Handbook update, and no other context was provided. This is how the internet works, and sometimes the Church seems like it hasn't really wrapped its head around that.
The Church quickly responded to many of those concerns with a video interview with Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. By the end of the weekend, that interview had been viewed by millions. 
-- The video interview did very little to clarify anything.
Today, a letter clarifying what the Handbook changes mean and do not mean has been posted on the primary Church website,
-- Thank you!
One difficulty was a general lack of understanding of the Handbook itself, which is a guide for lay leaders of the church in 30,000 congregations across the world. A purpose of the Handbook is to provide bishops and other leaders with a standard reference point when they make decisions. Because it is a policy and procedural manual, the Handbook is not written in language that is necessarily contextual or explanatory. Church leaders are encouraged to use the Handbook in conjunction with the guidance of the Holy Ghost. Sensitivity to individual circumstances is learned through the Spirit, Christ’s teachings and example as found in the scriptures, from talks and teachings of General Authorities, and from the leaders’ own experience and exposure to real-life situations.  No handbook can answer every question or address every circumstance.
Here are the key points to understand as background to the recent changes and additions to the leaders’ Handbook:
It is not a sin simply to feel attraction to another person of the same sex. Some faithful members of the Church experience those attractions yet participate in the Church without breaking the Lord’s commandments. They serve missions and attend the temple.  The Church teaches its members to embrace these brothers and sisters and encourage them in their faithful lives in the Church. 
There is no change in the doctrinal position that sexual relations between people of the same sex are sinful.
-- Though there could be doctrinal change down the road on this. It just seems more merciful.
There is new information in the Handbook that addresses a narrow range of situations involving the children of same-sex couples.
With same-sex marriage now legal in the United States and some other nations, the Church felt the need specifically to address such marriages in the Handbook to draw a firm line and encourage consistency among local leaders. 
-- This also provides stronger legal ground to stand on in case of future lawsuits.
In particular, Church leaders are concerned for children–whether biologically born to one of the partners, adopted or medically conceived. In reality, very few same-sex couples would bring children for the formal Church ordinance of naming and blessing, since this creates a formal membership record. But Church leaders want to avoid putting little children in a potential tug-of-war between same-sex couples at home and teachings and activities at church.
-- This still marginalizes them and sends a message to gay couples that you are not welcome here. Why do we do this?
This sensitivity to family circumstances is practiced elsewhere. For example, the Church doesn’t baptize minor children without parental consent, even if the children want to be associated with their LDS friends. A married man or woman isn’t baptized if the spouse objects. Missionaries don’t proselytize in most Muslim countries or in Israel, where there are particular sensitivities with family. In some African and other nations where polygamy is practiced, anyone whose parents practice polygamy needs special permission for baptism so they know that a practice that is culturally acceptable for many in the region is not acceptable in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  
 -- Do they have to wait to be 18 years old in Africa? I genuinely don't know.
Of course, there are always situations that fall outside general guidelines and principles, which is why local leaders may ask for guidance from more senior leaders in particular cases where they may have questions. 
The vast majority of Church members understand that there has been no doctrinal change with regard to LGBT issues.  Church doctrine is consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. 
-- Let's take that last line apart a bit. "Church doctrine is consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ." For the most part, yes. What really makes the Church function and grow and thrive and allow others to feel the Spirit and come unto Christ are those good members who practice what they preach, who love God and love their neighbor. Everyone's trying; everyone's doing their best. Church doctrine has not always been consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Blood atonement, Adam-God, the Law of Vengeance, polyandry, interracial marriage, the priesthood/temple ban on the African race, and so forth.
There is a strong tendency today for many to talk of Jesus Christ as if His teachings on love were somehow inconsistent with his teachings on divine commandments. Of course the Savior’s love was never withheld from anyone and His words on the cross exemplify that. But, He also expressed love by teaching clear doctrine and standing firmly against sin with sometimes-tough lessons for which people rejected Him. 
-- He was never clear on homosexuality. How do we really know we're not keeping the tradition that homosexuality is sinful when we now know that people are born that way? It's only in the past few years that church leaders have been willing to admit that this is so. How do we really know that our doctrine on same-sex attraction isn't based on similar confirmation biases, customs, traditions, prejudices that kept the priesthood ban in place until 1978 when it was wrong the whole time? How many suicides could the Church prevent by really stepping back and examining this? I would point out that the ones Jesus condemned the most, the ones He called out on a regular basis were the scribes and Pharisees.
That is where Church leaders stand today – holding firm to the doctrinal position of right and wrong, while extending love to all people. Church members who believe in modern prophets and apostles understand and appreciate the intent of their leaders to guide the Church through the complexities of diverse societies and rapidly changing social circumstances.
-- I do understand and appreciate their intent. But we're also duty-bound as members to get our own testimonies that what they're doing and saying is God's will. So far, this feels more like legal base-covering than what Jesus would actually want.

Every six months we have the opportunity to sustain or oppose the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. Sustain means "to hold up, or provide what is needed." We provide them our obedience, our support, our tithes, our time. It's a difficult job, and it's one they do for life. Part of the Church's problem is that it's grown so big, members can't walk up to President Monson and say, "Can you explain this to me? Are you sure this is what you mean?" like they could to Joseph Smith. It used to be if someone opposed in General Conference, the opposers could talk to a General Authority that day. Now the direction is if you oppose, go talk to your stake president. Why you're opposing won't make its way back up to the Brethren, but you could get excommunicated for your troubles.

There's a mass resignation happening on November 14. I know some people participating. It's sad it's come to this, but it's unsurprising with how the Church has handled the LGBT issue the past few years. In fact, Pres. Monson hasn't been the front-and-center leader that Pres. Hinckley was. It's too late for him to start now, what with his health issues. I would just like to see a way that LGBT members could feel like they could feel the love of Christ safely in our congregations. Some do. All should be able to.


  1. Wow, John. Your comments feel a lot like the early people of the church who began to criticize Joseph Smith. It feels so dark to read this and it makes me sad to see your LDS views going from slightly friendly to slightly unfriendly to downright critical and condemning. This seems like a precarious place to perch yourself, brother. I'm assuming you're joining the mass resignation as well, since I haven't seen a friendly LDS comment come out of you for a long, long time?

    If you hate the church as much as you do, why do you stay in it? Your wife left a while ago, and hasn't been nearly as critical as you are. It makes me sad to see this from you even more than every other anti-Mormon anxious to join the moral relativists' bandwagon.

    1. Unknown, you're acting like you know me but you just packed a lot of untrue, unkind things in there. Why do you hate me?

    2. That was the most bizarre comment I've read in a long time. "Unknown" sounds like he's trolling and in one of the worst ways possible. John, I appreciate your insights and that includes this post. The letter from the First Presidency really helped me understand what was really happening. I feel like some of the changes wouldn't have taken place if the original edit wasn't so widely questioned. Brother Otterson's letter was not helpful. It made me wonder who had approved it. It was antagonistic and lacked empathy. Am I judging Brother Otterson? No, I'm stating that the letter was not a good idea, that is all. Thanks for posting this, John.

    3. Thanks, Richard. I'm 99% sure I know who "Unknown" is. It's been a while since I've seen him. If he wants to reach out to me privately, he can.