Some years ago while H1 was a serving as a bishop we attended a very pleasant cottage evening at the Mission President’s home. As we prepared to leave, Sister President took us aside and effused, ‘Thank you so much for coming. Its wonderful to have the brass turn up”. I hadn’t thought about myself as ‘brass’ before and at the time was deeply discomfited by such a statement. It did draw my attention however to the habits of our religion in reproducing the ‘culture of the brass’.
That we live with an institutional hierarchy shouldn’t be much of a surprise to seasoned Mormons. We symbolically reenact these hierarchies in the way we arrange seating in our services, in the titles we ascribe certain officers in the church and in the processes we operationalize. I will submit that the church usually operates a well oiled machine which is the envy of many religious organisations. There is order, regularity and predictability in our operations, with everyone seemingly accountable to someone for the performance of their duties. When heeded to, the General Handbook of Instructions is a wealth of relevant and helpful information which emphasizes stewardship and accountability. From what I have read of church policy there seems to be an emphasis on servant leadership and pastoral care of all in our congregations. Theoretically nobody should be overlooked or unattended either spiritually or materially.
So when exclusive dinners are held for visiting church dignitaries under the noses of the members, when special entourages flutter about General Authorities with obvious disdain for the unwashed masses, when members rush to the podium to shake hands with the elite, when one is asked the position one holds in the church in order to ‘gauge’ their ‘worthiness’, when people line the streets to wave handkerchiefs at passing cavalcades or certain dignatories, or when the voices of the ordinary are shouted down so that the bellows of the few can be heard, it does give me pause for thought at the kind of organisation we are creating which privileges the few and excludes the many.
I recently had a lengthy conversation with Kevin Tapper, a wonderful vicar at St Augustines Anglican church. It was one of the most thoughtful, uplifting dialogues on the subject of religion I have had for sometime. He inevitably asked, ‘You Mormons aren’t really Christian are you?” I shared my testimony of Christ and explained that is was within the context of the LDS church that I received this testimony but I had to submit that there might be something amiss in the attention we tend to afford ‘leadership’ (beginning with Joseph Smith) on balance with the attention we give to Jesus Christ.
I do believe I have read the Bible quite closely and intently in order to understand the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and I can’t help but think that our toadying ways need to be called into question. And I have to wonder what church members think they are getting out of sucking up? Do they think that the aura of righteousness that accompanies the great congregation of the anointed will somehow transfer to them? Do they think that visiting authorities will notice them and single them out as a ‘special spirit’? Do they believe that these authorities will be able to read their spiritual barometers and feed the meter with some personalised sermonizing? It beats me!
I recall – having lived in the home of the Stake President for many years, an apostle came to Christchurch to reorganise the Stake and came to our place for a discrete lunch with his entourage. He sat quietly in the corner eating his meal with the air palpably loaded with expectation at his saying something meaningful or transcendent. There was so much tension it made my foster mother swear quietly under her breath in the kitchen and then duck out to the shop to pick up some cream (on a Sunday). I recall him shift slightly, all eyes turning to him. He sucked in his breath and with great meaning said, “Great dessert, I’d like seconds”.
I also recall a wonderful and most diverting conversation about which sport was the Celestial sport while Nathan and I were talking to a friend at church in Hong Kong. He happened to run the HKRFU. We were wearing jeans to church as somehow we had forgotten to pack our formals. A charming gentlemen came and introduced himself to us as Brian and joined in. He was smartly, but good humouredly, shot down as being clueless when he suggested that basketball and not rugby was God’s chosen physical pursuit. It turned out he was on the Area Presidency. These men are flesh and bones. Some are dry, some are funny, some are dizzyingly clever, some practical, and most of them are honest and good. But none of them are Jesus.
I don’t believe we dignify church leaders by putting on airs, and being so ‘reverent’ around them that anyone looking in from the outside would mistake them as the objects of our adoration. Mormonism isn’t a career, its the context in which we practice our worship of Christ. Anything that we do which competes with our loyalty to Christ must be called into question. And next time there is a mid-week fireside with visiting GA’s, please go to a restaurant!