The three words, “Write a blog” have appeared in my diary consistently over the last few weeks bereft of a satisfying red line through it indicating its completion. My life has taken a turn to the extraordinarily busy of late, but here I am on a Friday evening, finally with just enough time to contemplate the thorny question of excommunication!
I haven’t been excommunicated or even formally disciplined (thus far) but I have a bee in my bonnet about it. I have to admit that I was pleased when my adulterous ex was axed. It seems churlish now but at the time, having him spiritually disbarred was a relief. It’s not nice to have your husband blatantly banging his squeeze and then passing you the sacrament – but that was a long time ago and involved some seriously silly decisions on the part of local leaders. While I do accept it as an important show of protection for those who have been left miserable by the impenitent, after some reflection I’ve decided that it bothers me intensely in the case of the heretic, and in a previous post I noted how it hangs over the aberrant like a meat cleaver. It intrudes by stealth, leeching away at ones heretical, radical and questioning inclinations like a tick. Excommunication isn’t simply plank walking for thieves and the sexually aberrant, it’s a constant and noiseless threat to those who question, wonder and dream.
Incidentally, I have yet to meet anyone who has been through a Church Disciplinary Council who has reported it to be the much touted ‘Court of Love’. It’s a strange oxymoron that speaks more to a rhetorical device aimed at constituting formal religious discipline as an ecstasy rather than a correction. In my conversations with those who have been through the process it’s not an ecstasy at all. It can be brutal, capricious and sometimes downright mean. I’m sure there are those who have emerged from these inquisitions humbled, reflective and at peace, but the notion of fronting up to a quorum of men with the expectation of full divulgence of ones moral or ideologically deviant transgressions seems somehow strangely absurd and antithetical to joyous transcendence. Even the New Zealand Family Court (where only those utterly necessary to the case are present) honours the delicate nature of ones most personal and tender of experiences with more aplomb than Church Disciplinary Councils (which might include an assortment of suited blokes who have variously sailed in from their desks at the insurance office, or their tool boxes at the building site to pass an eternal judgment upon one’s soul).
Excommunication in the LDS church is a strange American frontier bricolage, partly constituted as a 19th century legacy from Joseph Smith’s habit of excommunicating and re-baptizing all in the same week; partly an institutional form appropriated from the threads of other religious traditions; and partly a way of working out and responding to spontaneously occurring challenges to local authority. It has far too many of all kinds of religious discourses embedded into both its rationale and its execution and not enough care or thought into its management or its scope. It is all axe to the tree and not enough law and governance. There is too much judgment and not enough mercy, too many spiritual generalists and not enough religious specialists.
Mormon moral arbitration is a strange esoteric business involving more than the presentation and weighing of evidence. A supernatural, metaphysical and discarnate subjectivity is deployed in church disciplines in order to reach the final determination of either guilt or innocence – with a heavy emphasis placed on the ‘damage to the church’ incurred upon one’s transgression. Excommunication is a discursive practice in Mormonism that seems to make up its rules and declares its judgments as a matter of ‘intuition’, ‘revelation’ and ‘spiritual promptings’ which can be as subjective, variable, and as flawed as deciding what to have for dinner. There is simply too little in the way of regulation, study, context and intellectual work around the practice of excommunication from the LDS church to render me satisfied with its efficacy.
So for good measure, and in case a Bishop or Stake President is reading this – here is a wee beginners glossary to help navigate some of the more thorny designations for the intellectual sinner:
Apostasy: Formal disaffiliation or renunciation of a religion (we excommunicate for this)
Heresy: Opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, especially of a church or religious system (there are no formal ‘instructions’ to excommunicate for this).
Blasphemy: Irreverance toward God or sacred symbols of a religion (we seem fine with this).
Inasmuch as we have borrowed this practice from the Catholics it might also be instructive to point out that at the Council of Trent, ending in 1563, decided jointly that excommunication carries with it its own social and spiritual evils on account of the excessive and punitive use of the practice 500 years ago. In this case it was agreed that:
“Although the sword of excommunication is the very sinews of ecclesiastical discipline, and very salutary for keeping the people to the observance of their duty, yet it is to be used with sobriety and great circumspection; seeing that experience teaches that if it be wielded rashly or for slight causes, it is more despised than feared, and works more evil than good.”
While there does appear to be a diminution in instances of excommunication these days I still feel there is a mandate to review it and to reign it in as a practice with a huge question mark sitting over it – particularly with respect to who is entitled to censure, how this takes place, and upon what guidelines and edicts that censure occurs. Without it, it remains something to be ‘despised’, a flea in the ear and in the case of some healthy heresy – it is an aggravating encumbrance!