Owing to the recent death of church president Gordon B. Hinckley, supreme ecclesiastical authority in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is currently held by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The president of the quorum is Thomas S. Monson, who will soon be sustained by the quorum as the 16th President of the Church. He will then organise a new First Presidency, the Mormon church’s highest council.
As J. Stapley has recently reminded us, “prophet” is not a priesthood office in the church. It is true that we have come to sustain the apostles as “prophets, seers, and revelators,” but the office of the president is one of presidency: he is the presiding high priest (after the order of Melchizedek) in the church and all priesthood “keys” in the church (Mormon speak for rights-of-presiding-office) flow from the president, ex cathedra.
As such, President Monson will be the quintessential priest-king, a priest because he directs the religion’s cultic life, and king because he heads its bureaucracy. It is an essential role, but it is not prophetic in the way one would typically define the term.
I see “prophet” as something else. We will call President Monson “the Prophet” because he is the “President”; but he will be a “prophet” for reasons which derive not only from his ecclesiastical office, but also from his own wisdom, his personality, and his attention to the Holy Spirit. The prophet Monson we already know is a man who preaches Christian service and duty. One can only wonder what future gifts of prophecy (a testimony of Jesus that inspires us to a better life) Thomas Spencer Monson will bring to the church.
As we continue to remember the life of Gordon B. Hinckley, I wonder how we see his own prophetic legacy. Some of his achievements seem more obviously those of a president, such as the temple-building boom and his public relations emphasis. One can, of course, speak of the prophetic vision behind such policies, but they rely on massive bureaucratic energy for their implementation (no bad thing, incidentally).
There is another type of prophethood, viz., the personal and noetic touch of God through a man called to prophesy, the type you feel during a General Conference address, or in a book, or during an encounter with the Lord’s anointed. The prophet who recently passed is remembered in my heart as a man who called the Latter-day Saints to escape from their sectarian shell, embrace optimism, live Christian lives, avoid clannishness, and fully engage with the world. I do hope we can remember President Hinckley for more than bricks, mortar, numbers, and the impish wielding of his cane, important and endearing though these things were.
1. Except there are currently 14…
2. Outside of Mormonism one cannot really describe apostles as part of a priesthood. As I’ve said before, Joseph Smith placed new wine in old bottles. Un-systematic theology ensues.
3. In the Old Testament, prophets (spiritual messengers) and priests (cultic civil servants) are separate people, sometimes even in opposition. The church has combined the two roles, a fact true also of the Roman Catholic church, where the Pope is both Pope (father, tutor) and Bishop of Rome (priest).