This week I’ve been in Independence, Missouri, observing the history-making 2010 World Conference of the Community of Christ. As I mentioned in a previous post, World Conference is made up of delegates elected to represent the church’s Mission Centers (roughly equivalent to LDS Stakes or Regions), meeting together to discuss and vote on the business of the church. This year, two topics have been in the forefront of the agenda: (1) the role of gay members within the church, and (2) conditions of baptism.
Prior to World Conference, various Mission Centers across the church had passed resolutions calling on the church to embrace its stated values of “all are called” and “unity in diversity” by unambiguously allowing gay members to be ordained to the priesthood (without negative qualifiers or provisos) and to end discrimination in marriage on the basis of sexual orientation. These resolutions then come before the sessions of the World Conference and are considered according to parliamentary procedures. (These are conducted according Robert’s Rules with motions, seconding, discussion, questions of privilege, calling the question, and the like.)
Prior to considering any resolutions, the first business that came before the conference was whether or not to approve a new revelation brought to the church by President Stephen M. Veazey, the church’s 8th prophet. The approval of the World Conference means that the document (initially referred to as “prophetic counsel”) is added to the Community of Christ’s Doctrine and Covenants. Like the resolutions referred to the conference by the Mission Centers, the prophetic counsel addressed the issues facing GLBT members of the church and it also addressed the question of conditions of baptism. (On the latter issue, all Christian baptisms, including LDS baptisms, will be recognized as valid by the Community of Christ; rebaptism is now optional and membership in the Community of Christ will be conferred through confirmation.)
The process has been remarkable to witness. In the first two days, the prophetic counsel was referred to the various quorums, councils, caucuses, and mass meetings of the delegates. Each of these groups went through it section by section, discussed the sections, and voted on them. They then sent reports to the conference as a whole, meeting in parliamentary sessions beginning Tuesday.
As the counsel was deliberated, President Veazey left the chamber and Presidents David D. Schaal and Becky L. Savage were left to preside. The first order of business was to hear the reports, beginning with the Quorum of the First Presidency which urged approval of the document. The Council of Twelve likewise unanimously bore witness that the prophetic counsel was “the word of God to the church.” The Presidents of the Seventy reported that all seven quorums had approved the counsel section by section, but that two quorums of Seventy had nonetheless expressed concerns about certain verses. The Order of Bishops likewise approved, as did the Youth & Children’s Caucus, the French Language Caucus, and the Spanish Language Caucus. The secretary of the Tahitian Language Caucus noted that their approval had been unanimous. Full approval was then urged by the Delegate Caucus, the Elder’s Mass Meeting, the Aaronic Mass Meeting, the Quorum of High Priests, and finally the Order of Evangelists (patriarchs).
The World Conference then proceeded to consider the document, discussing and voting on each section before discussing and voting on the whole. Because the entire conference is translated into the many languages of the delegates, everyone was continuously reminded of the need to speak more slowly to give the translators adequate time. Before each discussion, President Savage read each preamble and verse at a speed that often seemed excruciatingly slow.
After each section was read, delegates would register to speak for or against or to make motions. Generally for each section three to five persons made statements in favor and the same number made statements against, before a motion was received to “call the question” to the vote. These were periodically interrupted by “questions of privilege” which all related to delegates being unable to hear, translations being too fast, etc. The votes to call the question (that is, to cut off further debate) always passed near unanimously. Because the rules called for alternating between affirmative and negative speeches, the debate section made the question appear contested. However, when each section came up to the vote, it always passed overwhelmingly. Generally, the votes were 20-30 against, 5-15 abstaining, and nearly all of the remainder in favor (there is a total of 2,800 delegates).
Many of the speeches were emotional and included moving, personal tributes. Some delegates used scriptures to make their cases. (I should note that some of those speaking in favor of approval cited the Book of Mormon and the Inspired Version or Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.) Despite different viewpoints and the general volatility that often prevents dialogue on the subject of human sexuality, all the speakers remained respectful and thoughtful in their comments. Most of the opponents, while they could not agree with the majority, did register their appreciation for the process. One delegate noted that while he could not reconcile the document with his personal beliefs, he nevertheless “felt a reconciling spirit” in the conference.
Over the course of three parliamentary sessions (Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday morning, and Wednesday afternoon), each verse was accepted by overwhelming majorities. The document as a whole was then presented for discussion and was, in turn, approved — it will now be canonized as Section 164 of the Doctrine and Covenants. This brought nearly all the delegates, observers and leaders to their feet for a series of standing ovations. President Veazey then returned to the conference chamber, which rose and sang the traditional “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,” albeit with newly adapted lyrics, and he too received a standing ovation.
Yesterday was truly history making, because this revelation does for gay members what the 1984 revelation (D&C 156) did for straight women. The Community of Christ will now be able to unambiguously allow full participation for gay members (without discriminatory provisos). However, the new scripture pragmatically compromises by stating that policies will be implemented on a nation by nation basis. In a way, this is like throwing a troublesome Federal issues back to the states. The only difference is that in this case one of the states is the whole U.S. And the U.S. is just as relatively dominant in the Community of Christ as it is in the LDS Church.
Given that the Community of Christ’s leadership is fully in support of ending discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the revelation means that unambiguous policies regarding priesthood ordination and marriage equality will follow soon in the church in the developed world (US, Canada, Europe, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, etc.) Probably much of Latin America and possibly the South Pacific are also on the relatively fast list. However, the revelation allows the church in the developing world (Haiti, Africa, India, SE Asia, China, etc.) to move more slowly as the members become more familiar with the issues involved.
Obviously, nothing’s ever done — total gender equality hasn’t been achieved even twenty-five years after the revelation that extended priesthood to women in the Community of Christ, just as gender equality hasn’t been achieved nationally nearly a century after women achieved the vote in the U.S. So nothing is ever done because history rolls ever onward, but it is clear that the Community of Christ has now crossed an incredible threshold.
I interviewed several delegates who reported a marvelous spirit that they felt filled the chamber when the final vote had been taken. One delegate said that after everything that has happened, this is why she’s a member of this church.
My friend Ron Romig told me that 40 years ago when the revolution began which led the RLDS Church to abandon close-minded provincialism to become an enlightened, inclusive church, his prayers were that he would live long enough to see it achieved. He felt yesterday that he had now done just that.