By William D. Russell
THE COMMUNITY OF Christ has faced several divisive issues in recent history, the main ones being racial justice, women’s ordination, and LGBT ordination. Though some of these issues were handled well, we experienced significant fallout over others. The 2013 National Conference in the United States, where same-sex marriage was accepted as a sacrament of the Church, seems to show that the Community of Christ has learned much about how to foster fellowship among its saints even during times of disagreement.
After World War II, America began to wake up to the fact that African-Americans—those living in the North as well as South—were victims of significant injustice. Black men who had fought against the Nazis in Europe came home to find themselves still segregated. In the RLDS Church, people like Wilford Winholtz began proposing resolutions addressing racial justice to the general conferences. However, President Israel A. Smith, who ran the Church for twelve years right after the war, was cool to Winholtz’s resolutions, feeling that the Church was not guilty of racial prejudice or discrimination.
But, as Bishop Walter Johnson said to me in 1963, “It would be more accurate to say that in virtually every congregation where we had black members, there were at least some problems of equal acceptance.”
W. Wallace Smith, who succeeded Israel A. Smith (presiding from 1958 until 1978), wasn’t sensitive to racial matters either. However, the larger concern over the issue of racial injustice made itself known in dozens of articles that appeared in several RLDS Church publications after the war. Along with these articles came conference resolutions initiated by Church members and adopted at the 1948, 1956, and 1968 Conferences. These put the Church on record as being reasonably positive on the issue of race. So the issue was resolved by democratic means—by the vote of delegates—despite a lack of leadership from the First Presidency or the twelve apostles.
WOMEN’S ROLE IN THE CHURCH
BY THE 1970’s, feminists in the Church—female and male—were pushing for a more equal distribution of authority and responsibility. Every world conference between 1970 and 1984—with one possible exception—dealt in some way with women’s issues.
Finally, in 1984, the issue of women’s ordination was settled by the World Conference’s acceptance of a revelation proposed by President Wallace B. Smith, the son of W. Wallace Smith (who had opposed women’s ordination).
Approximately 20 percent of the delegates at the 1984 Conference voted against accepting Wallace’s statement as a revelation to be added to the Doctrine & Covenants. These dissenters felt that the Church leadership was simply caving to recent social trends instead of staying true to Holy Writ.
I think it’s fair to say that the majority of the people who voted against Wallace’s revelation soon left the Church. There are a number of reasons for the intensity of this fallout. One was that very little was done to prepare everyone, especially our more conservative members, for this new policy. As I pointed out, the Herald had published many articles and editorials on racial brotherhood, but prior to the 1984 World Conference, very little had been published about women’s issues. This was because in 1968 the First Presidency had adopted a policy directing the Herald to avoid controversial issues, making it into the First Presidency’s house organ.1
Though there was a lot of discussion among Church members about women’s ordination, very little was heard from the general officers of the Church and almost nothing from the Herald. Rather than providing the critics of Section 156 time to adjust to the new policy, giving them loving, pastoral care along the way, the Church actually silenced many dissenters without even a personal meeting or telephone conversation.
THE ROLE OF LGBT MEMBERS IN THE CHURCH
INTERESTINGLY ENOUGH, IT was at the 1984 World Conference, when women’s ordination was approved, that the organization called GALA (Gay and Lesbian Acceptance) was born. Word had begun to circulate quietly among gay and lesbian people at the conference that there were evening meetings for LGBT people, usually at the home of Arthur Butler, an elder and an elementary school principal in Independence.
GALA gradually achieved limited support from top Church officials and was soon allowed to use certain Church campgrounds for their annual retreat and other gatherings. Some Church appointees, including some apostles, began meeting with GALA leaders and attending GALA retreats, usually as guest ministers. Grant McMurray, who became Church president in 1996, was Arthur Butler’s friend and had a supportive attitude toward gays in the Church. His 1998 World Conference sermon and his attendance at the 2002 annual GALA retreat made this clear.
Earlier in 2002, Grant made a controversial speech where he admitted that he had attended services where openly gay men or women were being ordained—which was contrary to the current policy—and had done nothing to stop it.
For critics, the fact that the president of the Church allowed Church policy to be ignored was a shock. The Church in Haiti and some parts of Africa seemed to be in danger of folding if the World Church adopted a positive global policy toward LGBT acceptance. The level of hostility—at least in some parts of Africa—was illustrated by an African student of mine who, when I was talking about homosexuality in a class, said in a strong voice: “We don’t have homosexuals in my country. If we did, we would kill them.”
A few months after Grant’s speech, the Church Leadership Council issued a statement reaffirming the 1982 policy that only celibate gays and lesbians could be in the priesthood. But they also said that they would not rescind the ordinations of LGBT priesthood members who were in committed same-sex relationships.
Meanwhile, dialogue among Church members about the issue was encouraged. Church leadership recommended regularly scheduled “listening circles” where members could gather in small groups and listen to each other’s thoughts, the only rule being that no one could challenge the statements of others. Everyone would be heard without rebuttal.2
Church leaders continued to attend GALA retreats. For example, in 2009 President Steve Veazey attended their annual retreat at Excelsior Springs, Missouri, where he spent three hours in dialogue with the membership of GALA, responding to questions and comments. Apostle Ron Harmon did likewise in 2011. At one point during a dialogue, Harmon scanned the room, trying to make eye contact with all 75 people, saying, very slowly and sincerely, “I’m sorry for the pain that the Church has caused virtually every one of you.”
For 15 or 20 years, proposed World Conference resolutions poured in from various jurisdictions around the Church. Liberal areas like Canada, Minnesota, and California proposed resolutions supporting the integration of gays and lesbians into the priesthood. Meanwhile, resolutions reaffirming the current policy arrived from conservative areas like the American South.
But the First Presidency managed to put these resolutions on hold, asking the delegates to delay action until more dialogue among Church members could be had. Those who supported LGBT ordination were often frustrated by these delays, seeing their gay friends and family leaving the Church through the back door.
Finally, a decision was made by the First Presidency to have national conferences in countries where there was considerable support for policy change. These were scheduled for 2012 in Canada, Australia, and the United States, but soon the Church leadership decided to delay the USA conference until 2013 and hold it for two and a half days immediately after the world conference in April. The United Kingdom also met in 2013.
The five apostles who had apostolic fields entirely within the United States chaired the USA conference, and it is very likely, given the way they handled the conference, that they had learned some valuable lessons from the 1984 World Conference.3
They had probably realized that the Church leadership handled the disagreement over women’s ordination poorly, and as a result, drove a lot of dissenters out of the Church. They had learned how important it is to recognize the pain dissenters feel and take a pastoral approach toward them. Though we may differ on what role gays and lesbians should have in the Church, we all value the fellowship of saints and still seek to build community based on unconditional love for each other.
The Church leaders prepared a series of videos on subjects that were important for understanding LGBT issues and followed up with a statement titled “Faithful Disagreement” which they published in the March 2013 issue of the Herald.
Here are some highlights:
“Those who faithfully disagree are welcome to share their constructive voices regarding the established position with which they do not agree, with the intent of improving the overall faithful response of the church to God’s intended direction and without being categorized as unfaithful.”
“One’s love for the faith community is stronger than any particular disagreement.”
“Holding a differing viewpoint . . . does not diminish in any way a person’s participation as a faithful, committed, and responsible member of the church, nor does it impact a person’s ability to hold a priesthood office.”
“At no time is any personal sharing of opinions to be disrespectful, dehumanizing, or harmful to the body.”4
To stress the importance of each member’s relationship to the other, the organizers decorated the auditorium for the 2013 National Conference to resemble an aspen grove, reminding us that aspen trees cannot survive without roots that are connected to other aspens. We need each other.
The purpose of this particular conference was to decide three issues:
Should the Church honor same-sex marriages where they are legal?
Should the Church honor same-sex civil unions where they are legal?
Should members in committed same-sex relationships be eligible for ordination on the same basis as heterosexual members?
The apostles decided that the conference would require a 2/3 vote to adopt any of these resolutions.
The discussion of these issues was structured using five glass jars that were placed at the front of the auditorium. Those interested in addressing the conference were invited to place a card bearing their name into the jar most representative of their position on the issue. Jar number one was for those who strongly opposed the resolutions while jar number five was for those who strongly favored them. The three middle jars were for those who wanted to speak from more moderate points on the spectrum.
Names were drawn from the five jars, taking turns so that the same number of people spoke from each of the five positions. Therefore, 60% of the speakers did not represent either extreme, giving the conference a balanced cross section of opinion. I believe the preponderance of moderate opinions also encouraged those who spoke from the extreme positions to be more temperate in their statements.
One thing that was clear throughout the conference was that virtually everyone was eager not to drive a wedge between themselves and anyone holding an opposing position. For example, when Mike was called on, I was surprised to see that he had put in to speak from the #3 position—undecided. Lois and I had attended Mike’s marriage to Chuck at the Graceland chapel in 2009, one month after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Iowa’s DOMA law was unconstitutional. Ten years earlier we had attended his commitment service at our Peace Chapel in Kansas City. But Mike spoke from the neutral position, and it was a very emotional speech—he didn’t want to drive away those who opposed the Church recognizing his marriage to Chuck.
My wife, Lois, was also a delegate at the conference. During a recent sermon she talked about her feelings as she sat in the conference chamber.
As I held my strong opinions about what outcome I wanted for those I had come to love so much, I listened carefully to others who held strong opinions that were different than mine. I realized as I shared the conference chamber that many of the people who held different opinions were people that I had loved as family for many years, or for most of my life. Some of them would possibly leave the fellowship if the vote were in favor of full acceptance of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered individuals. I was not alone in mourning the possible outcomes of the conference. Some of the beloved people in the Community of Christ, I knew, would be deeply hurt no matter which way the vote went. Some, I hoped, would seek to listen carefully to their brothers and sisters in Christ and to seek more understanding of this group of people.
The conference chamber was filled with a strong sense of God’s Spirit of love for each other as we listened, prayed, sang, and talked together. Over and over we were encouraged to consider whether this love that we felt in the fellowship of the Community of Christ was more important than the details of any issue we might consider.
The final vote, taken on the third day, showed that 74% of the delegates were in favor of same-sex marriage being a sacrament recognized by the Church. Eighty-two percent were in favor of ordaining men and women in committed same-sex relationships. After the vote was taken, the auditorium was silent. The huge majority of people who had prevailed did not cheer or clap but were silent, anxious not to offend their brothers and sisters who voted in the minority.
I found myself crying tears of relief. But when my wife looked at our gay friend Todd, she saw shock and anguish in his face.
In an article published in the Herald, Todd wrote about the first day of the conference when a preliminary vote was taken showing that a majority of the delegates favored LGBT inclusion.
I felt a real shift in my attitude. Instead of feeling like the outcast, the other, the marginalized, the one seeking blessing, I found my heart going out to those dear disciples who are having such a struggle seeing how their ideas of revelation and sin are being challenged by brothers and sisters around them.
‘Bear each other’s burdens, share each other’s suffering.’ We used to sing that as a group of gay and lesbian church members, clinging to one another and praying we still could find a place to belong in the faith tradition we held dear.
This weekend as this familiar hymn tune was played, I ached for those delegates assembled with me who are now feeling as I once did—praying in anguish and asking whether there is still a place for them in this church.5
Concluding her sermon, Lois said, “It became apparent to me that it matters a great deal that we embrace each other in love and cling to our roots like the aspens, as the church works through the details of implementing the outcomes of the conference.”
In the April 2013 National Conference, 26 percent of the votes opposed recognizing same-sex marriage; 18 percent opposed giving the priesthood to people in committed same-sex relationships—fairly similar to the estimated 20 percent who voted against women’s ordination in 1984. Though these numbers are similar, it appears that the damage done to the Church’s membership as a result of the April 2013 National Conference was greatly reduced because of the care taken to honor all perspectives during the process.
As I see it, the Church leadership wisely prepared the ground for more than a decade, educating its members and avoiding showdowns, until the time seemed right for a positive vote. I think it is clear that people who are treated with respect and love are much more likely to decide that the fellowship of their brothers and sisters in Christ is more important than specific differences of opinion on issues facing the Church.