Pants, now prayers. Some LDS feminists have raised the banner again and invited members to send letters to general authorities petitioning that women give prayers in General Conference. Once again, it’s a fairly (strategically?) trivial issue that has become symbolic in the effort to bring policy and practice in closer alignment.
I’ve done some more thinking about appropriate responses to concerns with Church policies. Last time, I suggested reorienting our expectations and proactively fulfilling some of those needs that the Church isn’t necessarily responsible for meeting. I am still a fan of that approach, but I’m not sure it adequately addressed Mormons’ commitment to community. That community element, responsible for so much of the cultural codes and excess baggage we would do well to shrug off, is also the source of our profoundest spiritual growth and fulfillment. It isn’t quite as simple as taking the teachings, ordinances, and our personal revelation and leaving the building of Zion to the millennium.
After all, I can study teachings, participate in ordinances and pray in relative spiritual or emotional isolation. In fact, my freshman year of college, I did that very thing, and felt quite smug about it. After attending sacrament, I’d hold my own personal scripture study. It felt far superior to tedious gospel lessons riddled with clichéd questions and trite answers, and I didn’t have to bother with all that cumbersome human baggage in BYU ward life. It wasn’t too long before I stumbled on Eugene England’s essays and began to discover what it meant to be part of a community. I started to realize my own spirituality was uncomfortably and inextricably tied to others; that salvation is relational; that my own growth and happiness is contingent, in so many ways, on how much charity and mercy I extend to other people. In the words of Daniel Coleman, I learned spirituality is “not just an inner feeling…or process of interior discernment…it is the way we live out our relationships with our environment and with other people, as well as with our secret selves.” I discovered that Mormonism is more than ordinances, revelation, and teachings. It is also a community trying to use those things to build the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Before I promptly set the bar heaven-high, I suppose I should remember that this kingdom of heaven was compared “unto a net that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind.” And out of this net, we ramshackle vessels are to come together as the “body of Christ,” a “household of faith,” “one flock,” “fellow citizens,” a “people of one heart and one mind” – Zion.
Not only that, but this community has an element of order—rather than the organic nature of a circle of friends or the spontaneity of a neighborhood party. There are vertical lines of hierarchy that intersect with horizontal lines of brotherhood and sisterhood. The mix of equality (all are equal before God) and stewardship (God designates people to certain service and responsibility) can be difficult to navigate, especially when these stewardship roles are filled by “imperfect but honest” men and women who are trying to receive and act on revelation in the midst of their own weakness, cultural context, personal experience, and subjective concerns.
To make it even more complicated for Mormons, there are scriptural mandates against “steadying the ark,” or intruding on responsibilities God has handed over to particular individuals. Does that mean we sit back and let leaders just take the reins? Well, not that simple either; we’re also taught that every member is an essential part of the “body of Christ.” My take-away from that Pauline analogy has as much to do with my responsibility to participate as it does with my need to feel valued. And the same canon that tells us to be “anxiously engaged” also tells us to receive the words of the prophets “in all patience.”
What do we do then? When to participate, when to refrain? When to question, when to sustain? And more importantly, how?
Letter writing? Marches? Blogging? No one seems to have found a silver bullet. But I do know that if we create a culture where activism is the response to every single issue in the Church (and there are plenty of issues), I’m going to be too tired to go anymore.
Not to mention that I just don’t think an adversarial approach works in a community that rests on trust more than rights, on shared weakness more than merit. Furthermore, there is the potential to create a misleading sense of direct causation. Dialogue can open spaces for revelation where direct petitions seem to only corner leaders into reaction. That isn’t a posture anyone, I think, would really like to promote. I like H.W. Trevor-Roper’s sentiment: “Heat and stress do not provoke new thought: rather, they drive men back into customary, defensive postures…but in the mild warmth of peace, the gentle give-and-take of free and considered discussion.”
That means we need a replacement for this inherently adversarial and political language of “rights,” “oppressors,” and “victims.” And on a different part of the spectrum, other critics voice their concerns with a sense of ownership that makes the Church sound like the heirloom quilt they inherited from their grandmother. The former seems to ignore the horizontal lines of community that bind laymembers and leaders and focuses only on the vertical lines of stewardship. This approach treats the Church like a corporate or political institution that requires an active and vocal, even angry, union to keep them accountable. It fails to acknowledge the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood that entitle us all to charity, mercy, compassion, patience and long-suffering—leader and laymember alike. The latter approach, on the other hand, seems to ignore those vertical lines of stewardship by treating the Church like a personal heirloom that, by virtue of our birth, heritage, or tradition, is ours to claim. It doesn’t acknowledge that, while the Church is, in so many ways, meant to be a product of our own hands—and thus, reliant on us to shape and improve—there is also a nonconstructed element that is not ours to claim. That part is divine will, which may direct the Church at a pace we don’t enjoy, through channels we don’t like, or by means we don’t understand. (Deciding which is which isn’t something I’ll tackle in this blog post!)
And when it all just gets too exhausting or hard, I start all over again with that simple question: “Will ye also go away?”
And I remember that we’re all still in this because somehow, in some form, we came to the same answer.
“Lord, to whom shall we go?”
And it helps.