I have received an unusual amount of email (see below) on the earlier post summarizing LDS policy on church courts and excommunication. Of course, policy and practice may differ: just having a good policy in place doesn't mean that's how things really work. Actual policy may differ from stated policy; practice may differ from stated or actual policy. Reports of actual practices that differ from the stated policy will always be dismissed on one ground or another. That is one of the purposes of stated policy: to give the PR folks something to say in their official statements. What can we say about LDS practices as opposed to the stated policies I presented in the earlier post?
On Policy. There are few easily observable items that will indicate how seriously an organization takes its stated policy. First, how much discretion to depart from stated policy do line managers (here, local leaders) have? LDS leaders have a great deal of discretion. Second, are the stated policies made available to those affected by them? No, the LDS Church vigorously opposes attempts to make the CHI publicly available. The CHI is furnished in its entirety only to local leaders, although rank-and-file members can theoretically ask and probably be granted permission to review it. Third, is there a control function that reviews actions of line managers to identify and correct violations of stated policy? No, there is little review of the actions of local leaders and there is no "LDS Ombudsman's Office" through which wronged LDS members might lodge a complaint outside the LDS priesthood hierarchy.
So, based on the observable features of the LDS system, the reasonable inference is that LDS leaders follow the policies when desired ends can be achieved under stated policies (admittedly, most of the time), but are able to depart from them whenever it is expedient to do so. That is certainly the case for "heresy trials." Official LDS statements invariably insist these proceedings are purely local matters when it is public knowledge that COB officials and staffers track the activities and statements of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of LDS members and communicate with those members' local leaders whenever the line (some line, never publicly disclosed) is crossed. This is a problem of the Church's own choosing; I think everyone would be happier if heresy inquiries were conducted from a centralized office and the guidelines the committee worked under were publicly disclosed. Maybe someday.
Some Comments. Anyway, here are some of the comments I have received since the earlier post. At one end of the spectrum, one reader wrote that LDS courts are run by "untrained" clergy, that they "serve to humiliate and dehumanize the individual," that they are "solely held to protect the Church, and that they "serve no benefit to the member." At the other end of the spectrum, I received a communication from a former LDS local leader who had been excommunicated for unnamed sexual transgression(s) and described his treatment and present status as "supportive yet realistic." He expressed no bitterness or hard feelings. Given the nature of serious disciplinary proceedings, I find it surprising that the majority of reports from participants are as positive as they are, suggesting that in many cases the system actually does work to the benefit of the member. At the same time, when there is a conflict between the interests of the individual and the interests of the Church, I know which interest trumps in the minds of LDS leaders.
Finally, a regular reader posted a comment that was so long I decided to make it part of a post. The general point was that if the Church has adopted a policy whereby individuals may request and obtain name removal without the attendant stigma of excommunication, why even bother with formal excommunications in cases like Simon Southerton's? He then gave a longish account of a case where official procedures were not followed (a GA allegedly intervened directly to obtain the excommunication of a local leader without a court being held), then, years later, after the accused individual was rebaptized, evidence came forth showing the individual had been innocent of the charges made. The reader recounting the episode had given evidence at one of the proceedings, and the whole affair caused considerable grief to many of those involved. The general point seems to be that the costs of an error are high enough that the whole system should be reformed.
[Note: I'll be on vacation for a couple of weeks, so new posts and comment posting may be sporadic for awhile.]