Just about every day in the bloggernacle, church correlation gets a black eye and a fat lip. Whenever the conversation turns to church manuals, CES, the role of women, insipid gospel doctrine lessons, or snore-inducing talks in sacrament meeting, correlation gets put on the ropes where it receives yet another beating. If this were a heavyweight fight, the referee would have stopped it long ago on humanitarian grounds. I come not to bury correlation, but to praise it. Tempting though it may be to chafe under the heavy, oppressive hand of Big Brother from Salt Lake City, I think there are at least two good reasons to look on the bright side.
First, the process of simplifying and streamlining that we call correlation enabled the church to grow more rapidly than it otherwise would have. The church finally realized that it was not going to be able to replicate the Salt Lake City 148th ward everywhere in the world, so it had to identify what is essential and what could be dropped. Once the church program was finally whittled down to a manageable size, it was agile enough to move quickly and sufficiently simply that brand new members could take responsibility for their own wards and branches, with only minimal training. This is how Kathleen Flake expressed it, in her interview for The Mormons:
“I got a master’s in liturgical studies from Catholic University, and as I studied 2,000 years of Catholicism’s missionary efforts from the point of view of their liturgy, it was only then that I realized how lightly Mormonism travels, how little it takes to create a Mormon congregation and sustain it, because remember, it’s lay leadership. Lay leadership is one of the untold stories of this church. If you want to know how it travels and how it roots to indigenous cultures, you have to look at the extent to which indigenous peoples are given control of local worship.
So all this talk about hierarchy and control and power and making people do things misses this point that leadership in Mongolia is Mongolian. And yes, Salt Lake City will say: “Tithings are 10 percent. You can’t charge 5 percent; you can’t charge 20 percent.” But the other story of 20th-century Mormonism that doesn’t get told is the extent to which they do not feel in control. They’re perceived to be this juggernaut of organization, but internally, my guess is they have all their fingers in the dike…..”
I think she is right. Mormonism will always have a strong and centralized hierarchy, given our belief in prophets and authority from God. But it also appears anxious to devolve power away from the Church Office Building.
My second argument has to do with group cohesion and community building. I have attended LDS services in four different countries, and I have always felt at home. There was an instant sense of familiarity that I think has real value. Many of us here might wish that church teachers had a somewhat freer hand, but we would do well to consider that when we all learn from the same manual, we have a sense of solidarity with our brothers and sisters everywhere in the world.
Yi-Fu Tuan is an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin. He has spent his career studying why groups succeed and fail. In his book Escapism, he wrote:
“If a small vocabulary and the frequent use of clichÃ©s promote understanding and communal solidarity, the achievement of verbal-intellectual sophistication can have the opposite effect. The more people know and the more subtle they are at expressing what they know, the fewer listeners there will be and the more isolated individuals will feel, not only at large but also among colleagues and co-workers.”
In Virginia Postrel’s review of the book, she remarked:
“Although Tuan is talking about scholarly communities, the same phenomenon can be found in…religious groups. There are strong communal rewards for sticking to relatively simple, widely shared language (and the simple, widely shared beliefs it implies).”
I find that argument entirely persuasive, and I think it behooves us to sometimes hold our own needs and desires in abeyance for the sake of Zion building. Which brings me to my own difficulty with correlation, and it does not stem from standardized lesson manuals or the loss of independent auxiliaries. As a deacon, my testimony took shape as I worked side by side with adults on the church welfare farm. It was wonderful – several hundred men and women, saints and ain’ts, assembled at 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning to labor together in a glorious riot of untrained, cooperative effort, crawling on our hands and knees for hours, picking green beans on behalf of people we didn’t know. What could be more Mormon? Those experiences engendered a sense of kinship that endures to this day, and those people will always be my people. The welfare farms were a casualty of correlation. Sure, I understand that agricultural land is prohibitively expensive, and the farms were inefficient, and they sometimes caused us to run afoul of local tax regulations. I say, so what – what is money? Mere lucre, in exchange for a piece of my soul.