Some Thoughts on a Recent Excommunication

We recently received this communication from a friend, who wishes to remain anonymous.

It’s been a difficult week, but now I’m just sort of irritated all around.

I’m irritated with the Church for treating Kate Kelly as an existential threat rather than a nuisance. Kicking her out polarizes the situation, makes everyone wary and fearful of sharing honest opinions (except for those who are confident that the Church can do no wrong), alienates members, scares off investigators, and makes an essential conversation on gender issues much more difficult.

I’m irritated at Kelly for her intransigence. Perhaps she believes that her cause will be best served at this point by becoming a martyr, but I would like to think that a little humility and flexibility would have gone a long way in this situation. Instead, she’s scripted out a “Here I stand” narrative that practically guaranteed the outcome. Alternatively, one could say that Kelly has imported her ecclesiastical grievances into a civil rights model of political interaction. It may not be a great fit, but the Church, as a very conservative institution, has demonstrated a tone-deafness to civil rights discourse over the years that makes it vulnerable to such tactics. Sentences like “She was tried in absentia by an all-male panel of three judges” (Reuters) will not make anyone think more highly of the Church, despite the valiant efforts of Public Affairs, and I imagine that other people have had uncomfortable conversations with non-Mormon colleagues this morning about the issue, like I have. (It was definitely not a missionary moment.)

But I’m also irritated with her local leaders for playing into her narrative. Disfellowshipment would have slowed down the process and kept the “E” word out of the papers. Non-Mormons will respond to “excommunication” differently than “disfellowshipment,” which is a puzzling insider term; and actions that might seem outrageous in a church culture of deference and conformity can appear incredibly mild to outsiders. One of the purposes of disciplinary councils is to “safeguard the . . . good name of the Church.” Kelly was determined to show the world that the LDS Church is patriarchal, backwards, fearful, and repressive, and her former bishop and stake president generously obliged her by being just as inflexible as she was. As a result, the good name of the Church will suffer for decades to come.

And finally, I’m irritated with myself for thinking that things might have changed since 1993. Didn’t we learn anything over the last twenty years? How could we have not have figured out that high-profile apostasy cases are counterproductive? There are other, perhaps more effective and less disruptive ways of dealing with doctrinal disputes rather than casting out those with contrary opinions. Here are a few quick ideas:

1. If the First Presidency and the Twelve are afraid that members will be confused or swayed by Kelly’s arguments, they could issue a formal statement on “Women, the Priesthood, and Church Administration” that clearly lays out the Church’s position, much like the “Proclamation on the Family.” I’m not in favor of regular position papers on every topic, but once a decade or so, on matters of crucial significance, doesn’t seem unreasonable. On this issue, the time has come.

2. They could rewrite the section on apostasy in Handbook 1 to better reflect the difference between heresy and apostasy, and to better accommodate the challenges of the Internet and social media. If Kelly had found a sympathetic priesthood holder to actually ordain her as an elder, and then she proceeded to perform ordinances, that would clearly be apostasy deserving of excommunication. But simply trying to persuade others of her opinions, even in an organized way, is a much harder call. And as an ex-member, her arguments will still need to be dealt with. Condemning the messenger isn’t a long-term solution to the problem, and it probably exacerbates it. At the very least, the Church could rewrite the Handbook to reflect the careful qualifications that have been coming from Public Affairs: “When it goes so far as creating organized groups, staging public events to further a cause or creating literature for members to share in their local congregations, the Church has to protect the integrity of its doctrine as well as other members from being misled.” If that’s the actual line that cannot be crossed, it would help to make it very clear to bishops.

3. They could acknowledge that apostasy is not strictly a local issue. Disciplinary councils for violations of the law of chastity (by far the most common form of such councils) work well enough as private, local matters. But apostasy, or heresy, has effects far beyond a single ward or stake. And in cases like Kelly and Dehlin, these are essentially public councils, with the correspondence from local leaders and the defense briefs from the accused being quoted in national newspapers and posted online, so that everyone can make their own assessment of the fairness of the process and the validity of the charges. Bishops may not understand the nuances of opinions, they may not be aware of the possible impact to the wider reputation of the Church, and individuals in different wards may be treated very differently for similar actions.

There has been another recent issue in which the Church recognized that it would be better to provide assistance from headquarters rather than having each bishop work out potentially explosive problems on his own, and that is with accusations of abuse. Because there are legal consequences for taking action (or not taking action) with regard to sexual and physical abuse that reach all the way to Salt Lake, and because bishops are not always well equipped to deal with the legal and psychological issues entailed, the Church set up a help line where bishops can consult with experts before they make decisions on how to handle the problem at the ward level. A similar service might help local leaders who are trying to determine what does or does not constitute apostasy, and what the church-wide implications of different courses of action might be.

4. Alternatively, local leaders could be instructed to treat members who are organizing groups, staging public events, or creating literature to pressure the Church into doctrinal or policy changes much like those who are not in compliance with the law of tithing or the word of wisdom—withhold temple recommends but don’t take any disciplinary actions that affect membership status or weekly worship. And take no action at all against members who merely express an opinion publicly, participate in a public event, post a profile, or sign a petition. This would keep wavering or questioning members within the fold while long-term discussions are ongoing, both at the local level and in the Church as a whole, yet still allow for a distinction to be made between Big-Tent Mormonism and Temple Mormonism. The Church is easy enough to leave; I’m not sure that it is helpful to push people out who are keeping the basic commandments and still want to be a part of it. (The wolf in sheep’s clothing metaphor seems way overused in the context of a large, well-established, highly hierarchical church where most members are very attuned to guidance from prophets and apostles. It would be better to give a firm response to Kelly’s ideas rather than make it all about her personally.)

Kate Kelly’s excommunication was a tragic event for all involved. What can we learn from it? And how can we move forward together with greater faith, obedience, and love? It’s hard to imagine that what happened yesterday is the optimal outcome.

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