Michael Davidson is a repentant attorney, father and husband. This post is cross posted to his personal blog “Exploring Redemption.”
It seems that the excitement of General Conference started a bit early this year. The Deseret News and the Church Newsroomhad articles this morning talking about changes to policies related to discipline of people engaged in same sex marriages and the legal children of such individuals. Despite a lack of specifics regarding what the new guidance in the Handbook entail, the usual suspects are declaring victory. Some are claiming that this vindicates the role of activism in the Church towards changing Church teachings; others are claiming that this is being forced by a drop in tithing revenue; while others are claiming that this is an effective repudiation of revelation as a guiding force in the Church. All of this is nonsense.
Let’s put some of the discussion in context. In the summer of 2015, there was a young lesbian couple who were attending a ward in the Seattle Washington North Stake. They got engaged and announced their intention to be married publicly. According to their blog entries about this matter, this resulted in a series of conversations with their bishop and their stake president in which they were told in no uncertain terms that they would face church discipline if they went ahead with their plans to marry. These blog posts created a great stir in some quarters, and I suspect that the bishop and stake president involved received communications of varying degrees of politeness in response.
Then, something unusual and unexpected seemed to happen. According to a further blog post, this lesbian couple reported that their stake president had a change of heart! He reportedly told them that he would not allow them to be disciplined for getting married, and that for as long as he was stake president, no one in their stake would be disciplined for contracting a gay marriage. This blog post when viral, but someone told this lesbian couple that sharing such a thing would likely get their stake president in trouble with Salt Lake, and so they password protected the post (the password was “gay” and was easily guessed by a friend of yours truly) in hopes that they could erase the potential for blowback on the stake president for taking a position that was obviously in contradiction of Church teachings.
At the time, I argued in several places that entering into a gay marriage was something the would mandate Church discipline, for apostasy and otherwise. I have previously talked about apostasy on the virtual pages of the Millennial Star in a post entitled “Apostasy for Dummies.” At the time, there were four potentially relevant and independent grounds for apostasy, including acting in “clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders.” It is clear that the Church has spoken against same sex marriage for some time. There is no equivocation on the subject. And so, to enter into such a marriage is to act in clear, open, and deliberate defiance of Church teachings. There is no two ways about it.
Furthermore, discipline is mandated in cases in which there is a pattern of serious transgressions or publicly engaging in a serious transgression. Contracting a same sex marriage is a serious transgression, as is any sexual congress associated therewith. As a result, getting married (which is a public act legally) is, by definition, publicly engaging in a serious transgression that would require discipline even if one did not go into whether or not any physical breaking of the law of chastity were involved.
Frankly, by allegedly asserting that he would not allow disciplinary councils in any cases in which someone contracted a same sex marriage, the president of the Seattle Washington North Stake was taking a stand that was clearly contradicted by the instructions he was given as stake president by the Church. To add fuel to the fire, I was aware of similar stands being taken by stake presidents in California and other places.
About six weeks after this last blog post was published by this lesbian couple, a member of the stake high council of the Seattle Washington North Stake at the time leaked updated language from the Church Handbook to to likeminded folks on the internet, which was then published broadly. This new language included two basic changes, one being that the definition of apostasy was expanded to specifically include entering into a same sex marriage and the second being that the legal children of people entering into such marriages or similar relationships would be treated by the Church in the same way as children of polygamous families.
Now, from my way of looking at things, adding same sex marriage to the definition of apostasy was redundant, but it has long been my speculation that the Church did so because of the unwillingness of bishops and stake presidents in some places to discipline those contracting same sex marriages. I have always seen it as a wake-up call to the leadership in stakes and wards that while same sex marriage is now legal in the USA, it is still a serious transgression in the Church. I am not the only one to feel that way, as even one of the lesbians in Seattle later publicly apologized to the lgbt community for her role in the roll out of the policies leaked in early November 2015.
So, while there is serious gloating and celebrating in some quarters this morning, I suspect that there is going to be some serious whiplash in the lgbt community in the coming days as the details of this new change come to light. It is only a matter of time before the new handbook language is released. So, while many are high-fiving each other, it appears that most people are taking a very superficial view of this, and not reading what was actually said in the Church’s statement linked above.
In looking at the details outlined by President Oaks, who is very careful in his language, I don’t see reasons for people in same sex marriages, or those contemplating the same, to be all that happy with this. For instance, Pres. Oaks is reported to have said: “children of parents who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender may be baptized without First Presidency approval if the custodial parents give permission for the baptism and understand both the doctrine that a baptized child will be taught and the covenants he or she will be expected to make.”
It is instructive that he said “identify themselves as” rather than simply referring to people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. This is something that will continue to be a difference between those of the Church faithful and others. Also, it seems clear to me that instructions will be given to priesthood leaders to explain to these parents that the kids will be taught that same sex marriage and any homosexual relations are sinful. Further, it seems like bishops will be required to explain that the baptismal covenant will require them to live by and affirm those doctrines.
The next paragraph of the details states: “A nonmember parent or parents (including LGBT parents) can request that their baby be blessed by a worthy Melchizedek Priesthood holder. These parents need to understand that congregation members will contact them periodically, and that when the child who has been blessed reaches 8 years of age, a Church member will contact them and propose that the child be baptized.”
Again, if you look at this carefully, it is saying that anyone can come to the Church and ask to have a baby blessed. It implicitly states that lgbt parents are on par in this with any other nonmember parent. These parents will be told that they should expect ministering visits, and it is possible that their agreement to these visits may be a requirement for moving forward. When baptism is proposed, I am expecting that the bishop will be required to interview (like all baptisms) and confirm that the child has been taught what he or she needs to be taught, and will perhaps require that the child understands that same sex marriage and homosexual relations are sinful.
With respect to contracting same sex marriages, Pres. Oaks provided that “While we still consider such a marriage to be a serious transgression, it will not be treated as apostasy for purposes of Church discipline.” Assuming that this is simply a return to the old language in the Handbook, which could not be the case, then disciplinary councils should be held for anyone in a same sex marriage. As noted above, councils are mandatory when there is a pattern of serious transgressions. Homosexual conduct and homosexual marriage are serious transgressions, and in the case of marriage an ongoing and continuing one. Councils are also mandatory when a serious transgression is widely known. In the case of same sex marriage, unless they are keeping it a secret from the ward, it will be widely known and must require discipline.
When the language is released, either by the Church or by someone following in the leaker’s footsteps, there will likely be a lot of consternation by those who are not inclined to follow the Church’s teachings on chastity and repentance in the first instance. This is to be expected. But what has actually changed? Same sex marriage has always been a transgression, this has not changed. Homosexual relations have always been a transgression, this has not changed. Children who are baptized need to have support in keeping their covenants and learning the gospel. This has not changed, but where that child is in a household whose foundation is based on transgression, the Church will have to step in a bridge the gap from that child’s everyday lived experience to one in which a solid foundation can be built.
It is clear to me that these children will need more care than any others, not because they are or should be ostracized due to the sins of the parents, but because they will be taught two very different things at home and at Church. Those kids will need special attention and care in coming to understand and recognize the sins of their parents for what they are, in a way that other kids will not face. My prayer is that each with have ministers up to the task, and perhaps that will lead to the repentance of their parents.