Modern Mormon Church
As most members of the Mormon church are aware, the afternoon session of General Conference is when members are given the opportunity to sustain the general leadership of the church. It is a practice that goes all the way back to the original roots of the faith. In fact, the practice of sustaining members comes to us from a rather obscure and easy to forget section of the Doctrine and Covenants that is only two verses in length. The second verse is of particular note:
And all things shall be done by common consent in the church, by much prayer and faith, for all things you shall receive by faith. Amen.
The Doctrine and Covenants goes even further to clarify that "No person is to be ordained to any office in this church...without the vote of that church" (D&C 20:65).
It is the way we as Mormons have conducted our affairs ever since the initial conception of the church. In many ways, sustaining is a founding principle of the faith that we cannot ignore or do without. In almost all cases, the sustaining of members (on the local or church-wide level) results in a unanimous vote in the affirmative...almost a mere formality or ritual that precedes any calling in the church. Yesterday's sustaining vote, however, saw a different outcome:
And though the natural visceral response of any believing Mormon might be to respond to such a display with anger or disgust, I would ask you to stop, take a breath, and consider the fact that the act of sustaining/opposing is fundamental to our faith. If there were to be a "Mormon Constitution," surely the right of Common Consent would be in its Bill of Rights.
A perfect illustration of just how important the "common consent" of members truly is can be found in the very history of Mormonism's founder. While serving as President of the church, Joseph Smith had a brief falling out with his friend and First Counselor, Sydni Rigdon. Smith, who was a man of great emotion, was adamant that Rigdon be removed from the First Presidency. During a general meeting of the church, Smith petitioned the congregation to not sustain Rigdon as First Counselor. The "common consent" of the church, however, went against the Prophet, and Rigdon was sustained as First Counselor. Smith, though upset, accepted the decision of the congregation and continued with Rigdon at his side.
Another example, from a more recent time, dates back to the April General Conference of 1977. During the sustaining of leaders, President N. Eldon Tanner had the following exchange with a member who opposed the sustaining vote in the Tabernacle:
The dissenting voice was that of a member who disapproved of the church's ban of Black members receiving the priesthood.
Just stop for a moment and think on these two accounts. In the first, Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism, who, in the estimation of all who believe, restored Christ's church upon the earth, translated the Book of Mormon, established temples, and revealed a veritable treasure trove of doctrine that makes Mormonism what it is, was given a resounding NO by the very congregation he helped to convert. Rigdon was, by the common consent of the church, there to stay, and not even the founder of Mormonism could prevent it. In the second account, one man, alone, stood to oppose church leadership over a matter of church doctrine that would later be reversed. Was he right in his opposition?
In today's church things are obviously far less intimate. The church has grown to become a worldwide entity, with branches, wards and stakes stretching across the globe. We also live in a modern age of technology in which meetings such as General Conference can be broadcast far and wide. The church and its membership have benefited greatly from this technology, as resources like LDS.org, LDS Tools, the digital Gospel Library, etc. have improved the church-going and daily devotional experience of Mormons the world over.
It is this same technology that has provided today's Mormon with far more information than at any time before. Church history, in all of its complexity, literally rests at our fingertips. This advance in technology has not come without its fair share of problems. Today's member may be able to easily access his/her ward directory or watch a past Conference talk on his/her iPhone, but that same technology also opens the gate to many historical/theological/
It is essentially because of these concerns that a handful of members stood in opposition to yesterday's sustaining vote of church leaders. Anyopposed.org a website dedicated to showing that "unanimity among the members is not accurate," helped to bring a number of members together for the purpose of voting in opposition to current church leadership and/or church practices. The website, which has garnered a lot of attention over the past few weeks, likely came to the attention of President Uchtdorf and other church leaders, which is why he was prepared to respond as he did yesterday.
At this point let me briefly state that I do not support or affiliate with anyopposed.org or anyone associated with it. I sustain President Monson and the other current leaders of the Mormon church. With that being said, I also feel that I can empathize (or at the very least understand the motives) with those who chose to publicly oppose church leadership during yesterday's Conference. In recent years, the church has experienced an exodus of some of its best and brightest. This exodus, motivated in large part by the historical/theological issues that have been brought to light by the Internet, has exposed many difficult facts (and yes, they are FACTS regardless of what members want to say) that have led to many members choosing to depart from the faith. How we each choose to interpret the motives of those who struggle with these issues is irrelevant. The fact remains that a portion of church membership has become aware of these problems and many have chosen to speak up.
And their numbers are growing.
Whether it be due to the recent excommunications of John Dehlin, Kate Kelly and other prominent Mormon dissenters, or due to recent publications such as the church's new essays on troubling matters, the fact is that many Mormons are wanting answers that they feel the church isn't currently providing.
To be certain, not all members of the church who are familiar with these issues elect to leave. Many remain in the faith and try to find ways to answer these tough questions or at the very least find the pearls of divinity in the faith to keep them going. I count myself in this particular group. Faith is always going to be uncertain and frankly, I actually enjoy the "struggle" that comes with uncertainty. As Paul reminds us, in this life we walk by faith, not sight. This is why I disagree with those who chose to oppose church leadership in yesterday's conference. Do I feel as though I understand their motives? Yes. Do I agree with them? No.
But there is another group of people who have upset me even more than those who opposed church leadership. It's a group that should know better but chose to react to yesterday's events purely out of emotion as opposed to honest reflection. I'm speaking of the "knee-jerk" Mormon.
Let me be even more specific. To be certain, many (if not most) of my fellow Mormon brothers and sisters refrained from commenting or pontificating on yesterday's events. Most Mormons probably (hopefully) allowed those who opposed to speak their peace and then moved on. That's how it is supposed to play out. A person's opposition is their business and President Uchtdorf was right to encourage them to speak with their local stake presidents. But sadly, some members fell victim to the idiocy of the moment and chose to spew their ilk to the rest of the civilized world:
It is unfortunate that so many seem to lack even a basic understanding of how their faith actually works. Are we really so ignorant as to think that people (members) don't have the right to speak their mind? Are we so oblivious of our own doctrine and scripture that we don't recognize the importance of sustaining/opposing according to the dictates of our own conscience? Is the concept of common consent somehow powerful enough to persuade Joseph Smith to accept the will of the general membership (when it went against his desires) but not strong enough to appease our overly-sensitive notions of behavior during a typical General Conference? When a group of 5-9 individuals (out of 21,000) stand in protest are we really that threatened? Are the "end days" really our best "go-to" explanation for why somebody might DARE to stand in opposition?
I'm afraid that the answer to these questions is oftentimes: yes.
Maybe it was a good thing that some unexpected drama took place at General Conference this week. Complacency and feeling too comfortable in one's faith is, in my estimation, a very bad thing. After all, religion (in this blogger's opinion) is not supposed to be a warm, comforting electric blanket but rather a cross. We are admonished to not become too set in our ways. The "humble smugness" of many a member who clothes himself in a false blanket of security, believing that our faith alone has "all the answers" to life's questions is a FAR greater threat to the church than 5-9 random members who stood in opposition at a General Conference!
In conclusion, allow me to share one of my earliest church-related memories. As a young boy (I couldn't have been more than 5 or 6), I recall sitting on a pew in the chapel with my parents and younger brother. To be sure, I was busy coloring away or imagining riding my Big Wheel once church had ended. And though my mind was caught up in the typical matters of boyhood, I was also somehow aware of the fact that something important was taking place in church. The man at the pulpit (I assume a member of the Bishopric) had announced a particular calling had been accepted by a member of the ward (what member and what calling I cannot recall). But this wasn't in any way significant to my 5-year-old mind. What I vividly recall is that an older woman (again, I don't know who she was) stood and publicly stated "I oppose." I remember a hush falling over the entire congregation. My parents sat up a little taller in their seats and I immediately perked up. Something of note, I didn't know what, had just transpired. The man at the pulpit, a little flustered and stumbling over his words, went on with other matters of ward business. My mind quickly returned to images of Big Wheels and Legos waiting at home, but not before my father seized the moment. He looked down at me, and whispered something to the effect of, "It's a good thing that people can express how they feel in this church."
And so it is. Regardless of how you feel about yesterday's dissenting votes of approval for church leaders, I do hope you acknowledge the fact that it is a good thing for people to be free enough to express their honest feelings. I have no idea if that elderly woman who opposed somebody had good grounds or not. Maybe she was just bitter and wanted to make a scene. Then again, maybe she really had a good reason. Obviously I will never know.
In short, it is the words of Voltaire that seem to make the most sense of yesterday's proceedings (at least for Yours Truly):
"I hate to death what you are saying, but I would defend to the death your right to say it."The vote has been noted!