Whither Mormonism? Look to Quorums and Councils

By Federalreserve (02559) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mormonism’s Pope Francis moment didn’t happen this weekend. Its pre-Francis moment, that is, in which an ecclesiastical leader from the global south ascends to the highest ranks of an historically northern tradition, in line to assume the faith’s supreme office.

Either way, it didn’t happen this weekend. The three new apostles are, on paper, demographically identical: married, lifelong, multi-generational Mormon men from Utah in their early 60s. As individuals, of course, they bring diverse personal and administrative contributions to the table, including long stints in Asian and African nations and unique family experiences. But the hopes of Mormon progressives, perhaps nurtured by Pope Francis’s much-lauded US visit, for an apostle to represent the Church’s global membership and — just maybe — bring a touch of the Holy Father’s popular populism have been disappointed.

I’m agnostic on this issue. I’ve never been very good at discerning the individual proclivities of the Quorum of the Twelve, and I’m probably less attentive than I should be to particular General Conference addresses. I’m not interested in either criticizing or defending yesterday’s move. But I’m very interested in the general notion of a quorum, the meaning and organizational psychology of this uniquely Mormon social form. I think the meaning of the priesthood quorum will fundamentally govern the way the Church develops not only on questions of international growth but also, crucially, on issues of gender.

For the sake of argument, let me suggest two models of governance that may, despite my sketchy and schematic discussion, shed light on the internal workings of the priesthood quorum. The first I’ll call the fraternal or bonding model, in that it relies on the family-like intimacy of its members to come to decisions. In this model, trust is the paramount value, since cooperative consensus is the primary method. Because the relationships must be deep for the model to function, the time frame must be long. Furthermore, the relationships themselves are as central to the body’s raison d’etre as the actual decisions reached. Diverse views can be accommodated, but that accommodation draws from the well of personal goodwill for its resolution and thus is costly over the long term.

The second model of governance we might call the representative or bridging model, in that it relies on individuals to advocate for particular constituencies and bridge those differences. In this model, diversity is the paramount value, and thus trust recedes in importance.  Procedure, fairness, and access are primary, whereas enduring personal relationships are nice but largely irrelevant to the body’s purpose. Representatives cycle in and out — what matters is the identity group, not the individual —  and thus the time horizon is much shorter, allowing agile adjustment and quick action. Diverse views are accommodated with little cost to the group; indeed, members understand their role as representing distinct, discrete identities rather than creating a common identity.

Crude as these sketches are, perhaps they bring into focus something useful about the psychology of groups. Both forms of governance are at work at different sites in the institutional church. The bonding or para-familial model reigns in the priesthood quorum (and its substantially similar female sibling, the Relief Society). And its supreme realization is in the Quorum of the Twelve.

The notion of a quorum as a high ecclesiastical body seems to be uniquely Mormon. While the word is commonly used to denote the minimum number of present members necessary to conduct business, the sense of quorum as a group in general — a priesthood group in particular — appears to have been Joseph Smith’s inspired innovation. The first canonized discussion of quorums occurs in D&C 107, from 1835:

27 And every decision made by [Melchizedek or Aaronic priesthood] quorums must be by the unanimous voice of the same; that is, every member in each quorum must be agreed to its decisions, in order to make their decisions of the same power or validity one with the other—…

29 Unless this is the case, their decisions are not entitled to the same blessings which the decisions of a quorum of three presidents were anciently, who were ordained after the order of Melchizedek, and were righteous and holy men.

30 The decisions of these quorums, or either of them, are to be made in all righteousness, in holiness, and lowliness of heart, meekness and long-suffering, and in faith, and virtue, and knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness and charity;

There’s a lot going on these verses. What emerges is the sense of the quorum as an ancient social form imbued with the gravitas of a mythic origin and charged with the highest expression of unity and righteousness. The quorum is kind of earthly echo of the Godhead.

The ethos of the quorum is thus deeply tied to a bonding or fraternal model of governance. Its solemn scriptural injunction to unity leaves little room for the identity advocacy of the bridging model. And the lifetime nature of the calling means senior leaders cannot afford to introduce entrenched differences that, while easily bridged in other settings, could make costly withdrawals on the personal bonds that sustain the quorum’s vitality. This does not mean, of course, that non-North American white men will never serve on the Quorum. But it means that it will probably not happen until it grows naturally out of the Church’s organic development — not out of our best-intentioned hopes for the Church’s future development.

But progressives should not despair. There is a role for bridging representative governance in the Church, a place to project our inclusive values and to grant access to diverse voices. That site is the council. The past decade or so has seen the rapid ascendancy of the council as a dynamic and powerful social form in Mormon governance. Beginning with the elevation of the Ward Council vis-a-vis the priesthood executive committee, and continuing now at the general level with the admission of women into several of the top executive councils, I believe that the development of the council as a site for representative identity bridging within Mormonism is just beginning.

There will be those who object that councils will never possess the prestige of quorums within Mormonism, and thus that representation on a council is a poor reward for exclusion from a quorum. I believe that is wrong. The council is just as deeply rooted in Mormon myth and scripture as the quorum. Indeed, I believe that the notion of the council is theologically richer than the notion of the quorum: the mythos of the Grand Council in Heaven imbues the council with vast creative power and underwrites the expansive Mormon social ontology. The meaning of the council has yet to be theologically unpacked, and its administrative function has yet to be fully explored, but the potential is there.

Now, my analysis of bonding and bridging and quorums and councils is too neat by half, I realize. Things rarely develop in a perfectly schematic way, and there are plenty of exceptions to the rule I’ve tried to explore here. The 3rd Quorum of the Seventy, for instance, is a site of local and international diversity, and is organized as a quorum.  But I think we can hazard a few predictions. We will eventually see racial and global diversity within the highest quorums. I do not believe that we will ever see gender diversity within priesthood quorums. Nevertheless, I believe that Mormons who long to see greater identity diversity in Mormon governance — racial, gender, whatever — should look with great optimism to councils.

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