Sometimes technology changes everything. First came writing, then television, now the Internet: Instant global publishing by just about anyone on the planet. You. Me. The guy who just got called in for a chat with his stake president.
I don't think the Church has really figured this out yet. The Church is doing a great job of using centralized websites (LDS.org, Mormon.org, FamilySearch). The Church has brought discipline to its curriculum and publishing activities through Correlation — you may not like the end product, but at least be grateful for all the screwy ideas that don't get published under the banner of the Church. But LDS disciplinary councils (previously called "church courts"), in particular those that address conduct or speech that might constitute "apostasy," have somehow slipped through the cracks. They are not centralized. They are not correlated. And, this being the Internet Age, they can create a lot of bad publicity — avoidable and unnecessary bad publicity — for the Church.
Don't Believe Everything You Read on the Internet
Before we talk about perceptions, let's talk about reality. When you read an online account of an LDS disciplinary council, you are only reading half the story. There is always more to the story. Always. Your evaluation if you knew the whole story would likely be rather different than your initial reaction to the half of the story you read online. While I am sure that from time to time a local leader acts improperly or a proceeding arrives at an incorrect resolution, in any online account I will always give the benefit of the doubt to the bishop or stake president. That's a winning bet about 99% of the time.
I have never met a local leader that approached a disciplinary council with anything but seriousness and concern. Bishops spend a lot of time trying to get people into church — none of them want to terminate or discipline a member of their ward or stake. I offer my truly sincere apologies to anyone in that 1% of the cases where a proceeding was improperly conducted or a wrong outcome arrived at. God or the next bishop will make it right for you.
So What's the Problem, Dave?
The problem is that perception does not always track reality. The Internet creates institutional publicity and transparency to a degree never approached before. A local story known to a half-dozen people can go viral overnight if it hits a media or online sweet spot. And, like it or not, "Mormon excommunication" is one of those sweet spots. The Thomas Murphy fiasco should have put everyone on notice: even though the LDS disciplinary council in that case eventually took no action and allowed Murphy, an anthropologist who published criticisms of the Book of Mormon, to retain his LDS membership, the story generated lots of bad publicity. Using an LDS disciplinary proceeding (or the threat of an LDS disciplinary proceeding) as a fishing expedition is going to end badly even if no action is taken.
Rather than disclaim any central headquarters involvement in LDS disciplinary councils when apostasy is an issue, maybe an opinion from a central council or committee should be required in such cases. It would be helpful if the institutional benefits of boundary maintenance and fairness to other local members could be balanced against the possible harm to the Church as a larger institution. A central committee is better situated to provide that input and relieve local leaders from the responsibility of proceeding in a case where the end result might be bad publicity to the Church and bad feelings by the individual involved. If such direction guided the ultimate outcome in the Murphy case, so much the better. What's wrong with someone at the COB directing local leaders to avoid similar scenarios before they have begun?
I think another problem is that most LDS lay priesthood leaders have little or no experience running such proceedings. Despite clear directions on how to proceed that are contained in guidance provided to local leaders, they sometimes do it wrong. Senior LDS leaders have stated that this is a problem. Here is what President Monson said at the 2010 Worldwide Training:
During the past several years, the Office of the First Presidency has received hundreds of requests for ratification of improper actions. Requests for nullification of ordinances that have been improperly performed, though fewer, also number in the hundreds. One area where errors occur frequently concerns disciplinary councils. There are really two types of councils: the ward or branch disciplinary council and the stake disciplinary council. Each has a different function, and if we stay within those rather specific functions, we will be all right.
Unfortunately, such is not always the case. As an example, we’ve had bishops’ councils excommunicate elders when, in actuality, holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood must be handled in a stake disciplinary council. If procedures are not followed correctly, then we of the First Presidency must ratify the action or have it redone. If we’re not familiar with policies and procedures, aberrations can creep into our Church programs.
And how are local leaders supposed to evaluate a claim of "apostasy"? Whether it is a case of publicly opposing the church or teaching false doctrine as LDS doctrine, the definitions are very fuzzy. I don't expect a 1000-page tome nailing down all those loose doctrinal strings (a real "Mormon Doctrine"), but a central committee could at least provide memorandum guidance to local leaders dealing with specific doctrinal questions. It sure would help the rest of us if they'd post those memos online at LDS.org. At present, the absence of clearly defined official doctrine makes a definitive determination of false doctrine rather difficult, doesn't it? And it's not like teaching false doctrine really gets you in trouble. I'll bet you hear false doctrine every week in church. What gets you in trouble is ... publicity.
What's Playing on Broadway
So let's get back to the guy who just got called in for a chat with his stake president. I doubt it had anything to do with "apostasy," even if you could define it. John has been doing Mormon Stories since 2005; hard to see why that site is suddenly a problem. I doubt it has anything to do with Middle Way Mormons or New Order Mormons or even Uncorrelated Mormons (John's latest term for those balancing faith with doubt). No one gets excommunicated for jargon. And it doesn't make much sense to tell a guy who started the StayLDS.com site that he is trying to lead people out of the Church. Anyone who spends 30 minutes Googling "Mormon church" or "LDS history" knows what sites that try to lead Mormons out of the LDS Church look like. StayLDS.com isn't it.
No, I think John's recent transgression is publicity. He went to New York to see "The Book of Mormon" musical and got quoted in the New York Times. With a photo. Applauding. I think somebody out there doesn't care that the play got 14 Tony nominations. I think somebody out there doesn't care that, in the end, the bizarre publicity from the success of the play might just rebound to the benefit of the Church. I think someone out there just felt strongly that no good Mormon should be clapping for "The Book of Mormon" (the musical) and decided to do something about it. (Okay, I suppose John's plan to create "communities of support" for Uncorrelated Mormons didn't help either, but John's plans rarely last more than six months — it is likely no plan to organize Uncorrelated Mormons will ever get past the group dinner at the local taco shack stage.)
I know more than half the story, but not the whole story. I trust the local authorities to decide that having your picture in the New York Times applauding "The Book of Mormon" or posting podcasts of candid discussions of LDS history and doctrine are not a basis for disciplinary action. [I also trust that if action is eventually taken, there will be, somewhere in the rest of the story, a legitimate basis for the action.] But if no action is to be taken, can't we get there without the bad publicity? Does every dialogue with a marginal Mormon or a doubting member or a wayward Saint have to end up as a disciplinary melodrama?
Originally posted with comments at Times and Seasons.