By Common Consent has invited David Howlett, a believer in the Restoration and a religious scholar, to be a guest blogger. We have started with a question and answer format to help our readers understand how the CofC and LDS communities are similar and how they are different. Please welcome David to BCC.
David Howlett is a PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Iowa. He studies American religious history under Dwight Bozeman and is currently reading for his comprehensive finals. David’s current research interests include millennialism in America, the human body and religious discourse and praxis, and the anthropology of pilgrimage. He has published articles in the Journal of Mormon History, the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, Communal Societies, Fides et Historia, and has a forthcoming article in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. In the summer, David teaches early Mormon history courses through Graceland University to the Community of Christ guides in Nauvoo, Illinois, and Kirtland, Ohio. As a native of Independence, Missouri, David was baptized into the RLDS Church at age eight, raised in the Restoration Branches movement (fundamentalist RLDS), and reactivated his membership in the Community of Christ as a young adult. Currently, David attends Coralville Community of Christ in Coralville, Iowa, where he serves in the office of member.
How is the Community of Christ organized? Are there equivalents to the LDS wards and stakes? How autonomous are the local congregations? Is tithing money retained and used locally, or is it sent to headquarters which allocates budgets according to need?
Until the late 1990s, the Community of Christ was organized by branches (or congregations), districts (several congregations), and stakes (several districts). Since then, we have been organized in mission centers–the rough equivalent of stakes, except that they cover larger geographical areas and have a larger number of people per unit. A mission center president may work full-time for the church or she may be a volunteer; financial officers (bishop’s agents) also may be full-time or part time. The mission center secretary is usually a stipend position. In my mission center, we have a volunteer mission center president, a volunteer mission center financial officer (who works three days a week for us), and a full-time secretary.
In comparison to LDS wards, CofC congregations are relatively autonomous. We have our own congregational budget that we approve every year in an agonizingly long budget meeting. A small percentage of our budget supports our mission center’s ministries based on a per capita member assessment. Our congregation’s budget comes from voluntary contributions. Individual members choose how much tithing money to contribute to their local congregation, the Community of Christ’s denominational budget, and charities of an individual’s choice (all three areas are seen as valid for tithing money). Currently, the Community of Christ’s presiding bishopric suggests that members give fifty percent to local ministries/charities and fifty percent to denominational ministries. And, yes, in a budget-strapped church that recently went through employee cuts, we definitely encourage tithing. In the past, priesthood members needed to be tithing paying members before ordination (in addition to observing non-use of tobacco and alcohol). To my knowledge, this is still officially encouraged, but flexibly applied.
At the congregational level, we elect our own pastor or presiding elder (the equivalent of an LDS bishop but with less power). In my congregation in Coralville, Iowa, we have a three-person volunteer pastorate; they keep the congregation going and manage our expenses. A few congregations in the Community of Christ, like our inner-city Baltimore congregation, employ a full-time pastor who functions much more like a Methodist presiding elder (pastor). However, most CofC pastors are coordinators rather than the main minister in a congregation. We have a lay priesthood and ten percent of Community of Christ members serve in the priesthood. Any member may be ordained to any office at any point in their life. Priesthood is not connected to exaltation in the afterlife.
How is the Book of Mormon used and thought of in the CofC?
I am asked this question a lot by LDS people. Inevitably, they say, “I have heard that the CofC no longer uses the Book of Mormon.” Yes and no. Some no longer use it as frequently as they did in past decades; a North American congregation may or may not use the Book of Mormon in worship services on any given Sunday. Tens of thousands of CofC members have never used the Book of Mormon, such as members in Haiti or most in Africa. These people joined our community for other reasons (the worth of persons as an ideal, lay ministry, respect for indigenous expressions of the gospel, peace and justice advocacy, or
belief in spiritual gifts, etc.) but not for the Book of Mormon. However, the Community of Christ officially recognizes the Book of Mormon as an additional Scriptural witness that supports the Bible’s testimony of Jesus Christ. The Community of Christ lectionary includes Book of Mormon references along with Bible and Doctrine and Covenants references. Use of the Book of Mormon varies by region, congregation, and individual.
Members think of the Book of Mormon in various ways. No one is required to believe in the Book of Mormon to be a member of the Community of Christ; only Jesus is seen as worthy of “belief in,” as one of my CofC theologian friends reminds me constantly. In addition, the CofC First Presidency does not require that members hold a certain belief about the Book of Mormon’s historicity. We officially take positions on doctrine, but not on historical issues (well…sort of). Some members see the Book of Mormon as a history of ancient American peoples. A few see it as an ancient record phrased in the idioms of nineteenth-century America. Others see it as a nineteenth-century Scriptural parable that offers inspired counsel to those with ears to hear. Still others see it as not very important at all–but not as something evil. While there is no poll out, I personally think that most Community of Christ leaders fall into the last three categories. How does the Book of Mormon impact the Community of Christ today? Almost everyone embraces the Book of Mormon’s doctrines of believer’s baptism, emphasis on personal agency in salvation, emphasis on personal sanctification, and communion (sacrament) prayers–whether or not they directly use the Book of Mormon. In addition, the fact that we still officially use the Book of Mormon opens us to constant criticism from evangelicals and orthodox Christians that we meet in our ecumenical activities. This is not going to be overcome anytime soon, too. Personally, I love the Book of Mormon and have read it cover to cover seven times. I am convinced that it is Scripture that arose from Joseph Smith’s creative interaction with nineteenth-century evangelical America; I can respect other viewpoints, too. In my congregation and family, there are divergent beliefs about the Book of Mormon.
So…use of the Book of Mormon is very, very complicated in the Community of Christ.
I take it that the CofC has de-emphasized, or perhaps rejected, what LDS people would call the work for the dead. Is that true? What does the CofC think about ordinances, especially temple ordinances?
Early RLDS members embraced the principle of baptism for the dead; Alexander H. Smith’s personal conversion experience was based on the possibility that his deceased brother Frederick (d. 1862) could be saved through this ordinance at a future date. (Alexander was a son of JS, Jr., and the first RLDS Presiding Patriarch.) While embracing the principle of baptism for the dead, nothing was done to actually practice it beyond discussions about it in church General Conferences. However, by the mid-twentieth century, even conservative RLDS members questioned the theology behind vicarious ordinance work. The most conservative RLDS prophet of the twentieth century, Israel A. Smith (1946-1958), was profoundly disturbed by baptism for the dead–primarily due to his understanding that baptism does nothing for infants who die or for adults who die “without the law.” In short, Israel A. Smith did not know how to reconcile Joseph Smith’s baptism for the dead revelations with the doctrinal content of the Book of Mormon. He left this for another generation to tackle. Through 1970 World Conference legislation, Joseph Smith’s baptism for the dead revelations were moved to an “historical appendix” in our Doctrine and Covenants, and then removed altogether in 1990 conference action–an action called an “appendectomy” by the then church historian Dick Howard (my personal hero). All theology in some way is a reaction to something before it–whether we see it as a restoration, a correction, or a new emphasis. The Community of Christ’s temple theology in part reacts to LDS temple theology–even if it is simply a caricature of LDS temple theology. (After all, most critiques of any religious group are caricatures.) Community of Christ Prophet W. Wallace Smith (1959-1978) stated in a 1968 canonized revelation that “there is no provision for secret ordinances now or ever, although there will be provision for instructional activities [in the Independence Temple] . . .” (D&C 149A:6). I realize how offensive this verse sounds to LDS members; I’m simply trying to answer honestly, though.
So what happens in the Community of Christ Temple in Independence? In some ways, our theology is based on the uses of the Kirtland Temple–a place for public worship, education, and church administration. Due to the emphasis on peace and justice theology in the last thirty years, the Independence Temple is seen as a place for healing, for reconciliation, and for finding peace between groups and individuals. Yearly peace colloquys draw members and non-members far and wide (typically six hundred registered participants with a thousand attending opening addresses). A daily prayer for peace is held in the temple sanctuary at 12:30 p.m. CST; each day, a different nation or region is upheld in prayer. The intentional openness found in these temple rituals and meetings should not simply be seen as a reaction against (misperceived) LDS rituals. It’s actually also a transformed millennialism. The gigantic bronze doors of the Independence Temple bear witness to this with the Community of Christ seal–a lion, a lamb, a little child, and the words “Peace” under them. The temple, then, is a place that imperfectly tries to realize God’s gracious intention for all of creation–wholeness, restoration, and peace. The theme of the last chapter of Revelation is inscribed on the geographical, theological, and linguistic center of our movement.
To what extent is ritual important to you? Do you bless babies in church, anoint the sick with oil, etc?
Ritual is an increasingly important topic of theological reflection in the Community of Christ. There is a big contemporary emphasis among CofC seminary students, theologians, and leaders to embrace the power of the church’s (small “c”) sacraments. The Community of Christ has eight sacraments (we formerly used the Baptist-influenced term “ordinance” to describe “sacraments” due to our nineteenth-century origins). These eight sacraments are blessing of children, baptism by immersion, confirmation, marriage (for time only), ordination, “administration” or the laying on of hands to heal the sick (with oil), evangelist blessings (formerly called patriarchal blessings), and communion or the eucharist (what LDS frequently call “the sacrament”).
While we do not claim these eight sacraments are universal practices necessary for the entire Church (the two billion Christians that inhabit the globe), we testify that God’s grace is manifest to us through these ritual practices. Nearly everyone I know can relate a healing experience of themselves or a loved one through administration. My evangelist’s blessing, done while I was still in the fundamentalist, separatist wing of the CofC, was a singularly amazing outpouring of grace in my life. I was shocked by its affirmations and content; it deeply spoke to my spiritual needs at the time. I have experienced deeply meaningful administrations for spiritual healing, too, by CofC elders.
What are some positive things you see in the way that the CofC and LDS church interact? What could be done to improve the relationship?
Perhaps the most positive (and potentially the most explosive) interactions between LDS and CofC happen at historic sites common to both of our traditions. Relations between staff, guides, pilgrims, and guests have greatly improved over the past thirty years. Religious contestation still happens at these sites, but it is much more covert rather than overt. As a former guide and now as a summer instructor of Community of Christ guides in Kirtland and Nauvoo, I know that CofC guides make a special effort to use accessible, non-offensive language for our LDS pilgrims and curious guests. However, accessible language may not be what all guests want, and some are offended that we do not testify in the same way that LDS interpreters often do. We are not just LDS with a differently colored name-tag; we are genuinely different. Still, CofC sites no longer exist “to ruin LDS visitor’s vacations” as they once undoubtedly did. Cooperation between our two groups really now does exist. For instance, in Kirtland, LDS missionaries and CofC staff often cooperate in efforts such as yearly picnics and hymn festivals.
Relationships between scholars, too, have generated far more understanding than ever existed in the past. The Mormon History Association and the John Whitmer Historical Association have been the primary sites for building these bridges (along with healthy academic sparring). Since the 1970s, LDS and CofC frequently cooperate in the exchange of historical documents, preservation of several manuscripts, exchange of micro-film of holdings, and access to otherwise inaccessible materials.
I’m excited that LDS scholars interested in peace and justice issues are beginning to emerge. Certainly, common social justice issues could at least draw individuals together.
How could we improve relations? For the future, we could continue cultivating respect for each other with two related strategies–both already in use. First, some LDS members already see the CofC as blessed guardians of sacred sites rather than as simply apostates.
This is a conservative strategy, but shows genuine charity and works within a realistic framework for the average LDS member. Second, some CofC members approach their LDS friends as they would approach their Buddhist neighbors–with a spirit of trying to understand the “other” without defaming them. Understanding does not mean assimilation, either. (Yes, I know this is a complicated hermeneutical issue.) This second approach applies an existing Community of Christ ecumenical framework toward our LDS cousins. It could easily be applied by liberally-minded LDS to CofC, too.