Thursday, June 12, 2014

Excommunication

Excommunication seems to be the word of the day, not just because of the impending disciplinary courts faced by Mormon activists John Dehlin and Kate Kelly. Quite coincidently, a post of mine (written several weeks ago) discussing (at least in part) my experience as an excommunicated gay Mormon being active in my LDS ward was published on the Rational Faiths blog just hours before the news broke. As a result of my post, a number of individuals had been contacting me privately to ask more about what that experience of being simultaneously active in the Church and excommunicated was like when the news about John and Kate hit social media. Finally, I've been involved in a conversation the last few days with a group interested in supporting LGBT folks in being active in the Church, and one of the hotter topics of that conversation has focused on the issue of what happens if a gay person in a same-sex relationship who has been inactive returns to Church activity. What happens if their reward for coming back to Church is to get excommunicated as soon as Church leaders learn of their relationship status?

It was painful for me to read some of the avalanche of conversations in social media about the disciplinary actions initiated against John Dehlin and Kate Kelly. I know John personally, and I like him a lot. It delighted me to be the recipient of a big hug from him on Sunday at Utah Pride. (I always have to stand on my tip toes and he has to sort of stoop over when I give him a hug, because he's so tall!) My heart sank when I read the news. I really wished it were not so. But I found myself unable to comment in the flurry of increasingly indignant responses to the situation on Facebook. A friend of mine emailed me privately and asked me what I thought, and I found myself wrestling with complex emotions and feeling really vulnerable trying to articulate my feelings.

My first feeling was, "I hope that they can work this out so that excommunication is not necessary." In my best of all worlds, these disciplinary councils would be opportunities, in an intimate, compassionate setting, and in a way that honors the complexity of these individuals' faith journeys, to discuss vital matters of faith, life, community and ministry. In my best of all worlds, these councils would allow for course corrections and corrections of misunderstandings, and would keep at the forefront the goal of continued Church membership. I'm praying for that.

In the likely event that continued Church membership is not possible, I thought this "Open Letter to the Saints" (also published on Rational Faiths) was a helpful reflection on the human weaknesses endemic in my church that make the topic of excommunication more volatile than it ought to be. I really hope that one outcome of this will not be, within Church circles, the vilification of John and Kate, nor the demonization of the very valid concerns that have brought them to this pass. Regardless of the outcome of their disciplinary councils, compassionate Church members will need to continue to be concerned about how sexism within the LDS community harms women, and will need to continue to be concerned about the rock and the hard place LGBT Mormons are caught between. We as a Church will still also need to learn how to wrestle with doubt and big questions, without demonizing doubt and without oversimplifying faith. If their councils result in fear of reaching out compassionately to one another in relation to these issues, we will all be harmed, every single one of us, male, female, LGB, SSA, straight, trans- and cis-gender; Iron Rod Mormons and Liahona Mormons alike.

For what it's worth, just as I feel every effort should be made to avoid vilifying John and Kate, I similarly feel it will not be helpful to lionize them or make them martyrs. Both of these attitudes (vilifying and lionizing) will cloud the issues by making this about personalities and politics. And both attitudes will make it almost impossible for the disciplinary councils to be about the specifics of these individuals' relationships with God, their faith, and the Church, which is what disciplinary councils ultimately should be about... Regardless of what commonthink says disciplinary councils and excommunications are "really" about.

I have had to face the ramifications of my own excommunication with a certain amount of faith and surrender. I love the Church with my whole heart, and I can imagine few things making me happier than to some day regain full membership status within it. I want to belong to the Church, not because it is a "cultural heritage." Mormonism as "cultural heritage" cannot save me. In my reckoning, "cultural heritage" = "cultural baggage." Who needs it? I want to belong to the Church because I have a testimony. Because I know it is true. Because I know God is real and God's real power is expressed through a restored Priesthood. What good is Priesthood if I don't honor it? If I don't accept the order that the exercise of the Priesthood requires? Even when mortals exercise it imperfectly! And what would my faith in God mean if I didn't have some trust that there is a greater good accomplished by delegating God's work to mortals and to earthly institutions, if I didn't trust in him to ultimately work things out, regardless of the vicissitudes of a world full of tares as well as wheat?

God has been merciful to me. I am blessed to have a ward and a larger community that loves and embraces me -- even given the complexities of being an excommunicated gay man in a same-sex relationship. Having been forced to set aside questions of status and membership, I've been blessed with the opportunity to exercise faith, indeed, to learn what faith really means to me, to learn how much it means to me. That learning has blessed me immeasurably. I wouldn't trade places with anyone else in this world.

My only prayer is that God be merciful to all of us: to John, to Kate; to the LGBT community, to the women who are hurting because of the priesthood ordination issue; to Mormons who are wrestling with doubt and to Mormons who are running in fear from doubt; to the whole Church. We could use a collective dose of mercy right now.

14 comments:

Edward Morgan said...

While I respect your choice to be "active" in a Church that has excommunicated you, and I have been encouraged by signs that the Church might have become more tolerant, for me the action being taken against John and Kelly again shows the true colors of the Church. As far as I can see the only sin that John and Kelly have committed is to ask honest (if uncomfortable) questions. They have not broken their marriage vows. They have not molested or maimed others. They have simply asked honest questions. For this their membership is now at risk. If there is no room in the Church for people like John or Kelly, there is certainly no room for for a gay returned missionary like me who is married to the man that I love but also questions some of the same things that John and Kelly have questioned. I see absolutely no place for me in a Church that wants to kick John and Kelly out unless they stop asking their honest questions. Your efforts to get people like me to attend Church again have just become much, much harder.

Papa D said...

Beautiful post. Thank you.

I wish it was as simple as Edward's summary ("They have simply asked honest questions."), but it isn't. Each case is indicative of the most difficult situations facing someone who believes excommunication should be a last resort for very few situations but that it must be an actual option.

May God bless everyone involved - and may the reviling and vilifying cease from both "sides".

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Edward - I'd prefer to wait until the process plays out, and would prefer to have more information before making final judgments about what this "means."

Bottom line, I do not believe that hard honest questions will stop being asked as a result of this. However, it will be impossible to find satisfactory answers to hard questions without patience, and if we don't avoid polarizing and demonizing.

I'm not trying to "get people... to attend Church again." People -- gay and straight -- are drawn to the Church because they find something in it they can't find anywhere else. Sometimes they even feel the Spirit. If we do feel (and follow) the Spirit, we'll find the patience it takes to work all this stuff through to the end, and we'll even find joy in the process... Even when things seem tough, as it seems to a lot of folks right now.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Papa D - Thanks. I think you captured my feelings about excommunication perfectly: last resort for very few situations, but necessary as an option.

Edward Morgan said...

John - thank you for your thoughtful reply to my comments. I do appreciate it. And again, I do respect that for you attending Church is the right thing even if you have been excommunicated. While we might not see eye to eye on every issue, I would hope we could always have a respectful dialogue. May I ask, did you find my comments polarizing and demonizing? I have read through them again and believe I was just stating my honest reaction to what is happening. I do not dispute that the LDS Church (or any church for that matter) has the right to decide who may and who may not be a member in good standing. But does that mean I am not allowed to protest when I think the Church is threatening excommunication for something that I believe is not worthy of excommunication? And if I do protest is that demonizing and polarizing? Is the Church itself not demonizing and polarizing when it threatens to kick out members like Kelly and John? I can understand if the Church wants to excommunicate someone for a terrible sin like murder, molestation, abuse, theft or betrayal of a spouse. But I think it is clear that in this case those are not the issues. What is it that Kelly and John have done that is so absolutely terrible that they are being threatened with excommunication? Is it a sin worthy of excommunication to honestly ask uncomfortable questions about the history of the Church, the treatment of LGBTQ people in the Church or the treatment of women in the Church? Is it a sin to have doubts about certain Church doctrines and policies and honestly say you have doubts? Is it a sin worthy of excommunication to desire to still be a member of the Church while still holding and expressing those doubts and questions? If Kelly or John desired to no longer be associated with the Church they would have resigned already. But they have not. They obviously have a desire to still belong despite their doubts and questions. But if they do end up losing their membership in the Church, what does that say to the rest of us who have similar doubts and questions?

alan said...

The way I see it, they aren't on trial for their questions, but rather for the hubbub they've created as they ask them. If one person asks her bishop about female ordination, he can talk to her about it, but if ten storm his office at once, it appears as more than just a "question." It's harder for the bishop to do his job, and what's worse, in the chaos, it's harder to hear each other's voice and learn each other's intentions.

The Church says, "We don't know the answer to the question," which essentially means "so stop asking it so loudly, cuz you'll wake the kids, the neighbors and the dog, and then we'll have a problem."

From my perspective, this Mormon instance of keeping things calm and the flock stable reminds me of the argument against integration that many states in the US South made after civil rights legislation -- that integration would be too "socially disruptive," and so it was bad to push it too fast. But it's like, "No, actually, if you hadn't held onto your bad thinking for so long, none of us wouldn't be in this position...so don't continue to take it out on me."

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Edward - I guess I read your comment about this "[showing] the true colors of the Church" as a presumption of malefic intent.

I read the Church's statement in response to this situation, and I basically agree that the Church has the right to establish clear boundaries about what is doctrine and what isn't, and who is authorized to speak on behalf of the Church and who isn't. How could the Church function as a church if it didn't?

As I understand it, this is the concern in these two cases... Not that John or Kate are terrible people, but that they are redefining Church teaching or identity in a way that the Church regards as potentially confusing. Whether John or Kate are actually guilty of that is a separate question. Presumably the purpose of the council is to determine that.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Alan - "Good order" is a terrible excuse for injustice.

Still, I see how good order is advancing discussion about sexuality and gender in the Church in a way that it couldn't if people felt insecure, and felt like things were up in the air. That's my observation, anyway, in real-life, on the ground discussions that I've participated in.

Edward Morgan said...

John - I see your point but I guess we just view this differently. I am not under the impression that either Kelly or John claim to speak on behalf of the Church. I thought they were trying have an honest dialogue about Church doctrines and policies that they legitimately question and are troubled by. I guess we will just have to agree to disagree on this point. I think it will be tragic if they are excommunicated and will do the Church more harm than good.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Edward - I think we both wish this weren't happening. It doesn't make me happy to think of John or Kate being excommunicated. I really wish that some resolution could be found that would allow both of them to stay with integrity.

I'm not a judge or jury in either of these cases. I guess at this point still watching and waiting to see what happens, and praying for a good outcome whatever happens.

Who Me? said...

I have to say that I loved this post. I have felt very uncomfortable with the dialog that I've seen come through my facebook feed surrounding this issue. Half of them seem so "shocked and appalled" by the actions of the church after reading the NYT article, but with little other information but other bloggers reactions to the same article. The other half tend to try to justify why John or Kate could be deserving of excommunication, which I find even worse. We don't have all the information, and we probably won't ever have it. Being patient rather than jumping to conclusions is in order here.

Again, this is a great post. I have enjoyed reading your blog. It is one of my favorites.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Who Me? (gotta love your Blogger log-in!) - thanks. Yep, those have been my reactions to Facebook lately too.

Duck said...

John, I love you so much. You, as always, think through hard things before you even try and react. To me, you are a voice of reason.

You have stated good facts, have stated hard things, and I am grateful for what you have posted here.

My heart hurts because of potential and impending church discipline for John- I feel he has saved so many LDS lives through his "Mormon Stories" podcasts and other interviews, and has done more with his support for LGBT LDS members than almost any other person of whom I can think. I know there are other issues also joined with his activism in LGBT issues that brought his church leaders to ask him to "formally resign his membership or face church discipline." Still, it hurts my heart. Thank you for giving me some salve to put on it tonight. I so appreciate it.

Love, always, Duck

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Duck - thanks!

My sense is that excommunication is not a foregone conclusion in either of these cases, depending on how John and Kate interact with Church leaders.

Also, I'm seeing good signs that -- contrary to some of the fears that have been expressed -- this is not a "crack-down" or an attempt to close off discussion of sensitive topics. It may be an attempt to clarify the ground rules for discussing difficult things -- ground rules that, long term, may help discussion, not hurt it.

As always, glad to hear from you!