LDS General Conference from the Inside

Twice a year, on the first weekend in April and the first weekend in October, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds a General Conference. LDS General Conference isn't like the conferences of other denominations: no one is elected to national or international office; no committees meet to recommend procedures and policies that will then be decided by the body of the conference. Instead, Mormons come to Salt Lake City from all over the world and, if they cannot come, they watch on televisions and computers all over the world to hear the leaders of the Church preach for two days.

General Conference is sometimes a target for Mormon intellectuals and cynics (nouns that need not go together, but sometimes do). The odd cadences used by many LDS authorities when they speak; women speakers who use the voice they would use for small children; the repetition of Utah and Southeastern Idaho farming or ranching stories, most from the early 20th century; well-worn stories about Mormon pioneers, particularly the Willie and Martin handcart companies; the ties of the male speakers; the pearls of the female speakers; the white shirts everywhere; the choir singing more and more children's songs rather than hymns; the recitation of bad poetry; the bland religious art illustrations—all of these are targets (relatively easy ones), sometimes laughed at in gentle self-mockery, sometimes in bitterness or cynicism.

I'm a believer: as odd as it may seem in the early 21st century, I believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that Thomas S. Monson is now God's prophet on the earth. I'm a Mormon through and through. However being a believer hasn't prevented me from laughing at or occasionally being irritated by some of these things. I understand the intellectuals and the cynics because I'm sometimes one of them.

But I like Conference anyway.

If I don't stand back, setting myself apart from those taking part, things look different. For a good portion of my life I didn't care for organ music. Then one day, standing in the middle of a baroque church in Budapest, suddenly the organist began to play a Bach prelude. I could feel the building and my body vibrate with the chords and the music coming from every direction, loud but not blaring, penetrating my being. I realized that I'd never heard organ music before. I'd heard its imitation from a distance, through the speaker of a stereo. I'd never been in it, so I'd heard something else. I am sure that even had the music not been Bach I would have heard organ music differently after that experience. Conference is like that.

All worship with others is something like that; being part of it rather than an observer changes what we see and hear and know. Outside the temple, Mormons don't have a very high liturgy. Most Mormons probably don't know what the word liturgy means and if told would say that we don't have one at all. But we do.

Liturgy is a rule-governed activity, like religious ritual, in which God reveals himself in our speech and acts. Laurence Paul Hemming has said of the Catholic liturgy that it "is not something made by man, but is the very making—the completion of the creation—of man" ("Preface," in László Dobszay's The Restoration and Organic Development of the Roman Rite, xix). Hemming is speaking of the Eucharist, but what he says applies also to the still rule-governed but less formal liturgy of Latter-day Saints: to the Sacrament (the Eucharist) first of all, but also to the ways in which we greet one another waiting for services to begin, to the formulae we use in our prayers, to the ways we bear testimony, to the pattern of discussion in Sunday School, Relief Society, and Priesthood classes, to the expectations of missionary service, to our attempts at home and visiting teaching—and, of course, to all of the things we tease or complain about in General Conference.