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Thanks for the information, Dave. This is a great post, and it's nice to know how these things work. I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on the meaning of "clear, open, and deliberate public opposition" in practice? This strikes me as the kind of test that seems self-explanatory until you actually try to apply it to a given case.

I wonder how many people in the 'Nacle have sat on a church court to determine church discipline for a person. I haven't. So to a certain degree I feel my personal opinions on the matter lack the kind of wisdom that arises from practical experience. If a person who has that experience can share practical insights (even if it must be done anonymously and with vagueness of details) ... I think it would be of interest.

I just had a thought. Whether it is constructive or not, I don't know.

Let's imagine we have a temple-endowed Melchizedek-priesthood holding man who has committed adultery. His bishop learns of this. Now let's imagine that the bishop does not call for a church disciplinary court. Isn't that a lot of responsibility to take, even for a bishop?

Rather than a sign of abuse of power -- a formal discpinary council may in effect be a concession that there are decisions that are too big for a single ecclesiastical leader to make.

It would be odd to complain and say that when nothing happens, it is an abuse of power. But that might be the case in some instances.

A bishop has a lot of power because sometimes he has the ability to handle matters of sin in a completely private one-on-one setting. Hypothetically, I suppose, a person could confess adultery to a bishop and the spouse and community could never find out what had happened. That doesn't seem appropriate at all (particularly the spouse not knowing) but it strikes me as a potential situation. It might especially be a temptation if the sinner is a one-time offender. After all, the bishop might reason, the person is truly penitent, made a terrible mistake, but will never do it again.

Holding a church court in a sense takes away all the dangers of something like this happening. The bishop appropriately recognizes his inadequacy to resolve the situation by himself and takes the appropriate steps so that the matter is handled correctly.

Of course a committee or council is capable of abusing power too. But it seems to me that in the most serious cases or with the most serious sins, it is a better possibility that a group of priesthood holders will arrive at a wise and correct solution to the problem.

Enrichment Section I in the back of the CES D&C study manual is an interesting retrospective.

There are a couple of other important points as well: Church courts are "privileged" in that information garnered by the church is kept confidential from legal proceedings (though individuals are encouraged to come clean with local authorities). Results are no longer announced in sacrament meeting, which, I believe, is a very good thing.

Courts are courts of love. I have participated in two as a counselor in a Bishopric. One for a transvestite who asked to have his name removed, but did show up for the court, "dressed" up.

The second for a woman whose actions would have appeared to automatically excommunicate her. We all decided she should be excommunicated. The Bishop then had each of us offer a vocal prayer to confirm our "judgement". Wow! it was one of those times when the spirit really did manifest itself.

We all knew our judgement was wrong. We re-evaluated and decided disfellowshipment was right. We prayed again and got confirmation.

It was difficult for her, but several years later when she was fully active and happily married she confided to me that if she would have been excommunicated it would have been so hard on her she felt it would have ruined her life and she would not have been able to return to activity.

It was an amazing experience for me.

Don, thanks for your comments. That sounds like just about the ideal version of priesthood leadership in action. We've all had our good experiences like this; I've also had my bad experiences of abusive leadership from priesthood leaders. The thought of being judged by one of those leaders (or one like them) for any reason just makes me sick inside. Not that I'm expecting this to happen or anything. But every time the issue comes up with some scholar or author facing a court, I imagine these kinds of worst-case scenarios.

Now I'll try to supplement that with a best-case scenario or two ...

I have only participated in one disciplinary council, and that was when I was on the stake high council. I would add two points to Dave's excellent summary.

First, Melchizedek priesthood holders are only disciplined by a stake disciplinary council if excommunication is expected. The Bishop is responsible for any court involving lesser charges even in the case of a Melchizedek priesthood holder. And the Bishop may use informal probation, formal probation, or disfellowshipment without referring the matter to the stake. But in every case a Bishop must notify and receive authorization from the stake president when a Melchizedek priesthood holder is involved.

Second, the stake president is the judge, and he makes his decision by receiving revelation. The members of the high council are not a jury in the same sense commonly understood in civil courts. The high council merely serves in an advisory capacity. They cannot overturn a verdict, nor is their unanimous concurrence required. However, the stake president is required to seek their unanimous concurrence if such is possible.

In the one disciplinary council I was involved in, I did not agree with the verdict or the other members of the high council. I felt that the offender was unrepentant and should not be acquitted. But I understood that my authority was merely advisory, and I had confidence in the stake president's ability and stewardship to receive the necessary revelation, and so I voted with the rest of the council and the decision was unanimous in favor of the defendent. Had I been able to "hang" the jury, I might have done so. But a stake disciplinary council is not a jury trial, nor should it be. A stake president is the Lord's spokesman and revelator within his stake just as surely as the President of the Church is over the whole Church.

I learned something else interesting at the time this took place. The Church is no longer excommunicating as vigorously as it once did and as suggested in the standard works. Our prophet-leaders have found that a person who is excommunicated is much less likely to repent and be rebaptized than one who is allowed to retain his Church membership during the repentence process. If at all possible, members who have committed serious sin are allowed to retain their membership in situations where once they would have been excommunicated. However, this is obviously not the case when there is an ongoing threat to the Church or its members.

In the case of Simon Southerton, and here I am just speculating since I am not his stake president, I imagine that if he is excommunicated, it will be the combination of adultery and apostasy that ends his priesthood career and hope of eternal life. Had he been humble and repentant, and had he been guilty of only his admitted adultery, he might have retained his Church membership. The fact that he has widely published his opposition to the Church and its teachings, and the fact that he is defiant in his attitude towards priesthood leadership, will probably get him excommunicated because it greatly magnifies his sin of adultery. When the day is done, most of those who get excommunicated are the rebellious, not the humble and contrite.

We need a court for a guy who wants his name removed who happens to be a cross dresser?

Thank you, Don and John, for adding your own experiences with disciplinary councils. Policies and procedures don't really give the full story. I find John's comment that there has been an informal (and apparently unannounced) move away from excommunication in favor of lesser forms of discipline to be particularly noteworthy. Now if they would just change the antiquated terminology ... (I like "involuntary name removal" for excommunication, a nice complement to the voluntary name removal procedures that were set up a few years ago).

I think these are all very interesting, but sooooo much hinges on the acceptance of the Church speaking for the Almighty, who is somehow not mighty enough to speak for himself and who depends on those who often think too highly of themselves and the warm fuzzies in their tummies.

It is so twisted that those who believe in the atonement also believe that they have the power and authority to take it away. It’s akin to Celestial abortion - removing the opportunity of salvation before a full term.

On the other hand, Darren, every denomination and secular voluntary association must regulate its membership -- questions about what triggers action and how, procedurally, a proceeding is conducted can be discussed independent of claims to revelation or inspiration. In practice, it sounds like LDS officers rely on revelation to give softer discipline despite clear evidence of serious transgression rather than to find guilt without sufficient evidence.

Wow, reading what others have written from practical experience again shows me how little I really know about the process. I see that an analogy of church disciplinary courts to legal courts (which I also know little about) isn't very accurate -- though I imagine the ability of a group of men to offer counsel and perspective would still be significant.

Thanks to Don and John for sharing.

John wrote: The Bishop is responsible for any court involving lesser charges even in the case of a Melchizedek priesthood holder. And the Bishop may use informal probation, formal probation, or disfellowshipment without referring the matter to the stake.

A basic question: If a bishop holds the court, who sits in the court besides the bishop? His counselors only? Or is it just the bishop counseling personally with the person?

"I imagine that if he is excommunicated, it will be the combination of adultery and apostasy that ends his priesthood career and hope of eternal life."

Come on John, you're taking church courts far too seriously. Southerton has already excommunicated himself. A church court would just be doing paperwork. And your statement implies Southerton can never repent and come back into the grace of JC.

I say this as someone, as I've posted elsewhere in the bloggernacle, who has been through a church court when my wife reactivated me before we got married. And those were pretty much the words I heard: Church courts are just doing paperwork ... By your actions you suffered excommunication long ago ... There is no need for us to formally repeat any disciplinary process ... Marriage by your Bishop will get you out of this sinful situation ... Activity as husband and wife will prepare you for temple marriage.

And forgiveness by the grace of JC? That is a private metaphysical phenomenon completely separate from a church court.

Without current access to the Church Handbook of Instructions, I cannot be sure; but if I recall correctly, a Bishop's court is made up of the Bishop and both of his counselors.

danithew, When a Bishop's court is held, the Bishop and his two counselors are there, usually with a clerk to take the minutes. A Bishop can restrict some member's rights through his regular counseling sessions, or confessionals. If the Bishop determines the offense is great enough for stronger action (and I don't know exactly where that line is drawn ... maybe someone else can comment, but it is at least at disfellowshipment / excommunication) then a court should be held.

Side note: I was a counselor to a Bishop who did abuse his power, made several bad judgments, ruined several lives and later was disiplined by the church court for his conduct/personal problems. Fortunately for me he did this in private meetings and without the knowledge of either of us as counselors. It was only after the fact that we were made aware of the situation. He put up a great front for a lot of years. A perfect example of a "whited sepulchre."

Danithew,
The Bishop and his counselors make up the court with a clerk present to take notes and write up a report.
And I would like to add my voice to those who have spoken of the revelatory nature of the experience and the reasons action are taken. When I have been involved in these situations, we have always come down to the question of what was most calculated to help the person to repent. In the case of a person with no intention or resolve to do anything about their transgressions, someone who doesn't care, that may still be excommunication.

Steve EM,

I do not believe it is required to hold a court for someone who requests to have his/her records removed. The bishop needs to meet with them, but I am unaware of any procedure that states a court needs to be held.

danithew,

A church court at the ward level consists of the bishop, his counsellors and the executive secretary.

The ward clerk does not attend church courts.

A church court is held if the Bishop feels that there is a good chance of formal probation, disfellowshipment, or excommunication, though, of course, there are certain situations in which a court is mandatory, as the post mentions. Despite this, a court can still end in no action or informal probation.

Dave - I agree that a secular org must regulate membership, but in effect, the church is regulating membership to heaven, replacing God. That seems like a very large assumption and speaks volumes on the lack of institutional and personal humility and deference to God.

Thanks to everyone for the clarifications on a question I had.

This is one area where I find the gendered power structure of the church distressing. I think it is simply wrong that a woman, in addition to what is bound to be the difficult and painful process of formal discipline, often has to face that process as the only female in the room. There's an element of intimidation in that situation that seems terribly disturbing to me.

In response to Steve H. on "Name Removal", this is incorrect. If a person requests their name removed and requests NO CONTACT, a Bishop must fill out the proper forms (as dictated by the CHI).

Unfortunately, most Bishops completely disregard the wishes of those who are resigning from the LDS Corporation causing the member wishing to resign to have to either continually call Church Membership Records, or threaten legal action.

The LDS Corporation needs to change it's doctrine that when a member requests resignation that the process be completed immediately. Unfortunately this is not the case and most members are forced to wait as many as six months. At the same time, these members are harassed by Bishops who feel if they could only "talk" with the member they could change the outcome.

Soon there will be enough legal precedent to force the LDS Corporation to handle requested resignations in a timely manner. At present it is solely up to the Bishop and Stake President to “sit on it” as long as they want. It needs to change.

Would someone be excommunicated for being a monothiest? Or for confessing that God was unchanging?

Phil, Bruce R. McConkie thought God was unchanging, and argued for it strenuously. So I don't think that would be an excommunicable offense. As for monotheism, I suppose you'd have to add what you meant by it. Unfortunately the terms for views of God tend to obscure many subtleties in the perception of God.

Kim, I think you have it backward. The executive secretary does not attend, it is the ward clerk. I'm sure of it.

Kristine, I'm completely with you. I've sat in on several disciplinary councils involving women, both young and old, married and unmarried, and the sense of awkwardness is often downright palpable. Councils involving men, while often unpleasant, generally don't have that same undercurrent. The Bishops involved in my experience have all tried their level best -- with varying degrees of success -- to try and mitigate the unease. Still, it takes a brave soul for a young girl to confess her sexual sins to four typically middle-aged men.

But I'm not sure what to do about this. I suppose a woman facing a court could bring someone with her for moral support. Better than nothing, I suppose.

Perhaps the powers that be could change the procedures so that the RS president sits in on disclipinary councils of women. Would that make things better or worse? One upside of this idea is that it wouldn't necessarily require a wholesale change in church doctrine, as other possible solutions might. (In other words, it might be more realistic in the short term.)

I sat in on an excommunication "trial" once as a ward clerk. The person was an inactive endowed member (divorced, female) who was cohabiting with someone. (She was "discovered" by tracting missionaries.) We were surprised she showed up, and she basically said she didn't want to be exed and threatened to sue if she were. Ultimately, the bishop decided he would be justified to ex her, but that doing so would probably make it so she wouldn't ever return to the church. I think he ultimately decided against any kind of formal disciplinary steps, since he felt that the only justification for them would be to help the person involved, and she at the time wasn't in a position where anything would help her.

RE #27: It's preferable if it's the clerk, but if he can't be there, the council will usually not be held up. Someone else, usually the exec. sec., can fill in. As that person has no formal input or mantle for the situation, the calling he has is less important than his ability to remain tight-lipped and write fast.

RE #24: I keep hearing about having enough law to "force the church" to do what you're explaining from the oh-so-objective folks over at the RfM board, but I've never seen any case law to back it up (and I've looked). Any chance you could point me towards some sort of useful law on this subject, or is this just repeated rhetoric? It's of personal interest to me.

RE #23: I've had someone say that to me in a council and asked for my response. I was totally unprepared for the question, but apparently gave her an answer she was comfortable with. At the end of the day, however, what other solution is there? The people involved are largely indespensible, and inviting another woman into the process would seemingly violate confidentiality.

In response to JimBob on RE #24:

"RE #24: I keep hearing about having enough law to 'force the church' to do what you're explaining from the oh-so-objective folks over at the RfM board, but I've never seen any case law to back it up (and I've looked). Any chance you could point me towards some sort of useful law on this subject, or is this just repeated rhetoric? It's of personal interest to me."

There is currently no law in the works or on the books with the intent to force the LDS Corporation to change its rules concerning the length of time concerning the resignation process.

It is well known that the LDS Corporation processed close to 100,000 resignations during the year of 2004. Greg Dodge at Membership Records in the Church HQ recently increased his staff to handle the load. The Corporation has gone from printing nice colorful “Please Come Back” pamphlets to just attaching black & white photocopies of the same pamphlet.

The LDS Corporation must allow a person who wishes to resign their membership to do so in a professional manner that involves ONLY Corporation Membership. The LDS Corporation continues to ignore members who wish NO CONTACT by forcing the matter down to the Ward level.

No member signed any legal document making him or her a member of LDS Inc. No member should be forced to wait while untrained male clergy decide what is best for the member, including forcing a 30-wait period.

The United States has declared through case law that any church member may resign from a church simply by drafting a signed letter stating the desired resignation. Case law shows that the letter once delivered severs the tie between the member and the church, and that no other means are necessary. There is lawful precedent showing that persons who have requested name removal from other churches in the United States and who have been excommunicated instead of name removal – these persons have filed and won judgments against said churches.

All that a member who demands resignation from the LDS Corporation wants is the letter stating that their name or names have been removed. It is a healing process for those who are on their way to recovery. This is something LDS Inc. cannot fathom, that a person would need to recover from their dominating hierarchy. Because of the case law wording, the LDS Corporation is not obliged to even send the member any such letter stating completed resignation.

The LDS Corporation has no idea how many people it has hurt. In my opinion, LDS Corp. does not really care because it sees those who resign as chaff.

danithew wrote in #3: "Hypothetically, I suppose, a person could confess adultery to a bishop and the spouse and community could never find out what had happened. That doesn't seem appropriate at all (particularly the spouse not knowing) but it strikes me as a potential situation."

***
Is it always better for the spouse to know regarding the transgression? Many times this spousal confession results in broken families and does nothing more than comfort the soul of the confessor. If someone truly wants to change, why shouldn't confession to the Lord and subsequent change be sufficient?

It is also interesting to consider what happens behind the scenes of a disciplinary council.

I was disfellowshipped by the stake high council once and later learned that the record of my "trial", kept by the stake exec secretary on a computer during the trial (he was typing about 30% of the time), would be included in my "confidential" membership file permanently -- even after the matter was "resolved" 6 months later after a lot of contrition and soul searching on my part (i.e. the disciplinary concil was reconvened and my disfellowhipment removed). I figured this out by asking the Stake President after I had repented and after he had signed my new temple recommend. Remembering the secretary's constant typing during the trial I asked the SP what becomes of the "notes" taken in the meeting. He seemed somewhat uncomfortable discussing the matter with me, but I pushed him (I'm a lawyer and have some experience at getting people to talk about things they don't want to). So, he eventually explained how the notes (consisting of a "few pages") will be permanetly stored in SLC and that high level church leaders (SP and up) would have access to them and would certainly review them if I was ever considered for an important calling (bishop or better) or if I ever sinned seriously again.

Learning this disturbed me quite a bit for 2 reasons. First, as the SP told me, my sins, which were very personal and embarrassing, were recorded in some detail in this record, including recounting of other past sins that were not the cause of my dissfellowshipment, per se. It is disturbing to think that these records will always be with me in the church and will always be available to those higher up the latter. On the other hand, I recognize that the church has to do something to keep track of bad eggs in the church. Perhaps, however, this would be more appropriate for repeat apostates or for sexual predators. But for me, someone who fornicated with one other person consensually at the age of about 24, I'll have that on my "secret" record for ever, as far as I know. I'm not sure if that is needed and I will never know who has been looking at them. (For example, my old Mission Pres, a church employee at the COB told me once he has a "special way" to make sure that his missionaries are keeping on track -- I can only guess what that means.) Maybe if I was a child abuser or possible rapist this would make sense, but for 3 acts of consensual sex with the same person?

The other thing that really disturbs me about this, and for which I think there is no justification, is that no one told me that such a record would be kept (or any other "interim" records for that matter). I made all my confessions to the bishop, SP, and high council all under the impression that, although my sins were yet as scarlet, they would later be as white as snow -- i.e. they would be forgotten after real repentance. Perhaps if someone would have told me up front I wouldn't have been so suspicious. The fact that I didn't find out about this until after it was all too late (and the fact that most people who I've talked to in the church are not aware at all of these seceret records) really has caused me to distrust my priesthood leadership more. A more transparent and upfront approach could have avoided this, IMO.

If resignations are legally effective the moment they are delivered, then a 30-day delay in forwarding it to Salt Lake shouldn't really make any legal difference. There is, however a practical reason for the short delay in record keeping. Without the delay, anyone could send in spurious resignations for church members. The delay allows the member to be informed that a resignation has been recieved. If the resignation is legitimate, it's already legally valid before it's sent to Salt Lake, and the member knows (and has written evidence) that it's been received. According to church procedures, no other action by the member should be needed.

If the resignation is illegitimate, the member has a chance to intervene before having their membership record revoked without their knowledge or consent. Either way, it seems like the member is better off than if the paperwork goes straight to Salt Lake without any acknowledgment.

Of course, the paperwork doesn't always get sent off in the timely manner it's supposed to after the short waiting period. But then sometimes it does. I don't know how we would get a proper statistically random sample to find out how often it really goes in on time. A sample based on "horror stories" posted on ex-Mormon websites isn't exactly random. So I don't know how we could verify the claim that "most" resigning members have to wait extended periods of time.

The story of recent staff increases has been around at least four years, so it's probably not so recent any more.

I'm a bit leery of "well known" but undocumented facts. I hope we're all as skeptical of such rumors, regardless of whether or not they support our prior perception of the church. As far as I have been able to tell, the resignation figures that get bandied about all originated from someone with a web page that claims to know someone in the Church Office Building who claims to know the real numbers. The provenance of these "well known" data does not exactly inspire awe. I could probably find equally reliable stories that Jesus and Gordon have a personal face to face chat in the Salt Lake Temple each week.

#31 The Corporation has gone from printing nice colorful “Please Come Back” pamphlets to just attaching black & white photocopies of the same pamphlet.

Two people who have received their acknowledgement letters in the last six weeks have received black and white brochures printed on semi-gloss paper - not photocopies. One person who received his letter yesterday got the full-color brochure.

If photocopies were used in the past, they aren't being used any more.

What is your source for the "100,000 letters" statement?

Infymus: Do you have some citations to substatiate your assertions? As I stated, I know there is purported to be case law out there, but was hoping you could tell me where to find it.

In defense of the church's alleged dilatory manner of handling resignations, I would point out in spite of Infymus's contention, my experience after being in a couple of bishoprics is that it isn't a request that very many bishops see very often, so frequently no one knows what to do with it when it is received. And since bishops and (more important in this context) clerks turn over fairly frequently, the "institutional knowledge" of what to do with the request is frequently lost. I will admit that some bishops get caught off guard and try to salvage an unsalvageable situation, but to the extent that this is a problem at all, I would suspect it is tied more to the fact that this is a fairly uncommon experience for most leaders, and nothing near as sinister as Infymus seems to imply.

I sent in my resignation letter two weeks ago. Today I received a form letter from Dodge stating that the matter had to be handled by the Ward and Stake officials. Also, I received a glossy black and which brochure. Do they really think I would change my mind because of a brochure?

I received an interesting comment that needed some editing, but because the author submitted a PHONY EMAIL ADDRESS there's not much I can do about it. What is it with these people who think rules apply to everyone but themselves? Is submitting a real email address really that big a hurdle? There's a reason Comments FAQ is so prominenetly displayed on my main page. Anyway, the comment discussed a couple of legal cases relevant to resignation from churches; see here for a similar discussion.

I love that woman who threatened to sue. Good for her. I will remember that in case I ever get threatened with excommunication for living with my boyfriend.

I will also insist on my female lawyer being present. My female very publicly Mormon lawyer.

My therapist told me a few days ago that LeGrand Richards' dad, who used to be a big cheese, was quoted in manuals, handbooks? as saying that a bishop was not doing his job if he didn't excommunicate at least one person a year. He (my guru) said that Dallin Oaks has been very instrumental in having the process changed.

How do you know the addresses are phony?

I place my hands on the screen and let the spirits speak to me.

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