Who Calls Apostasy? Picking up the Pieces When Local Leaders Fail

Kate Kelly is not my favorite Mormon feminist, and Ordain Women is a movement I’ve never agreed with. In fact, I’ve gone out of my way to make it clear that I’m in a different feminist camp.

But the news that the Ordain Women founder Kate Kelly would soon face a disciplinary council for apostasy and possibly be excommunicated – all in absentia since she moved across the country before receiving the news – struck a chord with me. It reawakened that bubble of fear that lives in a tiny, nearly invisible place in the back of my mind. It’s a fear many Mormon feminists hold, though most of us rarely think about it, never mind talk about it. It’s the fear that we too will be called apostate, that we’ll be told we’re not welcome as we are, that we can only return to the Gospel and the religious family we know and love if we change our fundamental way of viewing the world.

As I watched the bloggernacle light up with panicked reactions to the news, I still couldn’t exactly get behind that panic. The assumption seems to be that her council and John Dehlin’s are connected and have been orchestrated by Church Headquarters in Salt Lake City. If that assumption is true, then Dehlin and Kelly don’t stand a chance of returning to the church through anything short of rebaptism. But if the decision is coming from Salt Lake, the Church PR department (and by extension the First Presidency) lied when they released a statement emphasizing that these decisions belong to local leaders. But I don’t believe that Church PR was lying, and – ironically – that is what scares me.

My own experience with local leaders has by and large been positive. I’ve never been through the kind of faith interrogation an anonymous writer at feminist Mormon housewives describes, but I know what it feels like to have my personal convictions and the answer I received through personal revelation dismissed by a Bishop. When I was 24, I came to the conclusion that it was time for me to go to the temple and receive my endowment. I had wanted to receive my endowment from the time I was eighteen, but as an unmarried woman who had not served a mission, it was more difficult to receive approval from local leaders.

I had a friend who received her endowment at nineteen because the Spirit directed her to, and both her bishop and stake president were receptive to that answer. When I prayed, the answer was a consistent “not just yet,” and so I waited. Every year I fasted and prayed, carefully contemplating the question of whether it was time for me to receive my endowment. Each year, the answer remained the same. Until one summer. I was 24, and an unshakable impression came to me that it was time to receive my endowment. So I went to my bishop, expecting to have a thoughtful discussion and open to whatever council he offered. What happened instead shocked me.

The bishop didn’t think about it. He didn’t pray. He didn’t consider. He didn’t stop to take a breath – he just said no. He said I had to wait 6 months, until I turned 25 before the stake president would even consider it, and sent me on my way. For weeks afterwards, I felt haunted by the impression that I needed to receive my endowment now, that I was not to wait. Perhaps a stronger, braver person would have gone back and spoken to the bishop again. Instead I prayed for the impression to leave me. I told God that if I walked back into that office and had the bishop once again dismiss my personal revelation so cavalierly, it would break me. And, probably as a tender mercy, the prompting ceased.

Six months later I received my endowment, and I later spoke to a friend who said comfortingly, “Are you glad now that you had that extra time to prepare?” I told her no, that being forced to wait had been the greatest trial of my faith. A greater trial than growing up with an abusive father. A greater trial than going to multiple church leaders about that abusive parent, only to have them tell me how sorry they were but that they couldn’t help me. Never before had I encountered a leader who simply dismissed my access to personal revelation.

At the time, I saw one bishop who wasn’t listening. Looking back, I see a more disturbing pattern of leaders who refused to take responsibility for their decisions. The bishop passed it off as the stake president’s decision, and the stake president claimed he was only following the advice included in a letter from the First Presidency, which discouraged bishops from allowing single members to receive their endowment before their mid-twenties. The letter never said what age counted as “mid-twenties,” and it acknowledged exceptions to the rule, but both the bishop and stake president declined the responsibility of determining those exceptions. Instead, they stuck to a hard and fast rule based on their interpretation of a letter.

Most local leaders are good people who are doing the best they can. But we have a problem here: in a church that values personal revelation, when is a local leader justified to step in and tell someone that the answer they received through personal revelation is outweighed by the answer a bishop or stake president received? Kate Kelly and John Dehlin are acting on the convictions they feel they’ve received through personal revelation, when they write statements that their leaders perceive as apostate.

And if Salt Lake washes its hands of the matter and leaves it to bishops and stake presidents, where does that leave the transient Mormon?

That question is paramount to what Kate Kelly faces. She received notice that she was no longer a member in good standing while in limbo between two locations. While living in Utah, she more recently received notice that a disciplinary council will be held in Virginia. When my husband and I moved to Maryland a couple weeks ago, we filled out a form that included listing where we had last attended church, so that our new leaders could have our membership records transferred. But when Kate Kelly tried to have her records transferred to the Utah ward whose boundaries she now lives in, the Church refused – it’s unclear who made the call not to transfer the records, just that the call was made.

If a council were being held for her in Salt Lake, the former Virginia resident would stand a better chance of attending. So no, I’m not afraid that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are targeting feminists and intellectuals. I’m not afraid that we have another September 6 on our hands, or that there will be a church-wide purge of those who refuse to express orthodox thoughts. But Kate Kelly’s situation reminds all of us unorthodox members that each of us could some day encounter the rare bishop or stake president who abuses his power. That orthopraxy (same actions) may not be enough in the eyes of a future local leader, and that our own answers to the questions in the temple recommend interview won’t be good enough if we do encounter that leader. And if that does happen to one of us, where in the church hierarchy will we turn?

I don’t know, and that is what scares me. Because the Church structure doesn’t allow us to leave that one bad leader behind. We can attend a different ward, but our records won’t be transferred if we don’t live in the boundaries of the new ward. And the new bishop is working with the same records that the last bishop influenced. In a global church, local matters don’t remain local.

 

 


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