Reformed Mormonism

Not a term you hear too often. The idea of “reform” of the Church is utterly alien to the orthodox LDS perspective, as if a “restored” church couldn’t possibly ever be in need of reform. I just finished The Catholic Church: A Short History (Modern Library, 2001), by Hans Kung, the noted Catholic theologian. I’m surprised at the extent to which “reform” as a theme dominates modern Catholic history: it ignored 16th-century Reformers and lost half of Europe, then adopted some reforms in the Counter-Reformation, then successfully opposed accommodation to modernism in the 19th and half of the 20th century, then finally made some major reforms following the decrees of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Catholicism has the institutional resources to accomplish reform: a tradition that recognizes Councils as an independent source of authority to the episcopal hierarchy and church bureaucrats (the Curia); and independent Bishops, Archbishops, and Cardinals who are capable (some of them, in their better moments, on some issues) of recognizing when reform is required and pressing for it.

Mormonism lacks these institutional resources: the tradition offers no countervailing source of authority to the GA hierarchy, whether concilar or otherwise, and the none of the local leaders, regional leaders, or GA quorums possess any real independence of outlook or authority from the senior leaders in the hierarchy. Anyone who attempts a serious dialogue attempting to identify doctrines or practices needing (in their opinion) reform is quickly marginalized and possibly expelled. So the Church is effectively insulated from any threat of reform. You may see that as a potential problem, a non-issue, or a blessing.

I won’t make a list of potential reforms–that’s not the point. Maybe the point relates to Nate’s fine post about a centralized institutional structure, this being a consequence of such a structure. Or maybe it’s a more general question of whether the Church is truly immune to earthly flaws and thus beyond any possible need of reform? If not, where institutionally does recognition of and motivation for reforming change come from?


  1. “Could a Sunstone or Dialogue-type forum exist that included faithful “input” but excluded the dissidents?”

    Doctrinally, at least, I see FAIR this way. On the one hand, they are ostentatiously pro-Church. They want people to remain active and believing. I think that’s vital. On the other hand, they don’t shy away from things- for example, there’s the article explicitly covering Joseph Smith’s polyandrous marriages, Armand Maus’s presentation on the priesthood ban, etc.

    So what’s the response? They have multiple thousands on their monthly email list, and have received unofficial pats on the back from the COB and BYU professors :)

    If you check out their conference list of speakers, it’s an interesting mix.

  2. Allow me to repeat a comment I made at the tired-out end of another thread. Formulating the issue as “reform” implies institutional resistance to needed change. However, the issue can be stated more neutrally. I see the broader issue is how do rank-and-file members put input into the Church governance system? And by input I mean sincere constructive information from the front lines, not doubts or bitter negativity. I don’t think that anyone would argue that getting info to the decision-makers in any way reduces the concept of a revelation-led church. We’re supposed “study it out in our minds” “seek learning out of the best books, etc.” I don’t think it is any deep dark secret that the GAs seek out information. They do surveys, consult experts, and otherwise what are all those reports for? l think even hard core Iron Rodders will acknowledge the usefulness of input from the field.

    The issue is how can members on the front-line volunteer such input. One method is interpersonal input. This was quite possible up until a couple of decades ago when the Church was small and geographically compact. Most Church members were at most only two degrees of separation by family or friendship connections to a high level GA. However, in the modern Church these informal channels of communication do not exist for the large majority of Church members.

    Another disadvantage of relying on private informal lines of communication is that it eliminates the interchange and development of ideas between people on the same low level of the organization.

    So what methods exist beyond the interpersonal? I think FARMS provides a model about how this could be accomplished. Remember FARMS started as an independent entirely private group of Nibley acolytes trying to carry on his work. And even if you disagree with some of their specific views, they have accomplished a significant good in guiding the Church to accept a more open and sophisticated view of the Book of Mormon. I think that the Church can tolerate independent voices as long as they are loyal, which FARMS always was. Sunstone and Dialogue were at least tolerated for many years until it began to appear that they were becoming primarily platforms for dissidents (which neither one intended — as Peggy Fletcher always complained it is easier to get angry people with an agenda to meet writing deadlines than happy people with a helpful suggestion).

    I know that many question whether the Church can cope with a public forum where faithful constructive discussion occurs that impacts on Church policy. To be influential it would need to be more formal and available than the bloggernacle although the Internet is a good medium because it can incorporate international participation.

    Could a Sunstone or Dialogue-type forum exist that included faithful “input” but excluded the dissidents?


  3. Attitudes within the general membership of the whole influence the senior leadership. I once brought this point up with a religion professor at BYU who agreed with me and told me the scholarly name used to describe the phenomenon–which I promptly forgot. I’m assuming that the reforms you are writing about are the kind driven by smaller groups whose views are often more progressive but have yet to gain widespread support–women and the priesthood springs to mind.

    I don’t know how anyone can seriously argue that the church as an institution is devoid of earthly flaws. On the other hand, when reforms are undertaken by small groups of elites (I dislike the phrase but it seems accurate here) they tend to alienate large portions of the membership. Churches that have embraced progressive agendas have found their vitality sapped, their membership roles shrinking and their congregants faith dwindling. President Hinckley has alluded to this when he spoke of people liking a church that demands sacrifices from them.

    I see parallels between the balancing act undertaken by our modern church leaders and the Supreme Court. Get too far out in front of public opinion and you throw open the question of your legitimacy. I am well aware that this argument cuts both ways–I guess that’s why they call it a balancing act. Some people will object to the idea that the body of the church can influence the direction of the church at all–preferring to see it exclusively as a top down structure. If that were truly the case then I would agree that there is no avenue for reform within the church–but I don’t think that is what happens in practice. In practice, in the contemporary church, recognition and motivation for reforming change comes from changes in the views of the membership which almost always occur at a glacial pace. The good news is that as a result we avoid a lot of failed theological experiments. The bad news for would-be reformers is they are perennially frustrated.

  4. Kristine says:

    But, Tom, do you think there are meaningful private avenues of dialogue? Do you remember Elder Packer’s talk when he said that leaders should take direction from the top down to the members and *NEVER* see themselves as representing members to the leadership? I’m not convinced that Stake Presidents or even Area Authorities get a lot of chances to suggest change.

    Tangentially, I think this is one of the reasons that Mormon Studies fora (sounds stupid, but so does “forums”) get stuck going ’round and ’round the same issues–when there’s no meaningful way to discuss those issues with the people who could effect change, people end up talking to whomever will listen. And all they can do is talk (or blog :))

  5. dave: they could ‘bury’ it. yet…if you really believe the LDS leadership of such an act…

    that answers your question about the likelihood of any better feedback mechanisms.

  6. Dave: While I think that you make some good points about institutional structure, I think that you are simply wrong that GAs rely on personal networks to get information about how the Church operates on the ground. To be sure, no doubt such networks exist. However, the Church has a very extensive internal research arm staffed with anthropologists, sociologists, statiticians, etc. They collect a huge amount of data, and not just the stuff in stake and mission reports. They do surveys, conduct case studies, etc. For better or for worse, almost none of this data is available publically. (Some internal data made it into the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, and from time to time a Church employeed social scientist will publish in an academic journal using Church data, but only rarely.)

    Furthermore, the Church bureacracy is currently going through something of an internal reform, although it is not one that most of us see. SLC is being down sized, and more authority and support is slowly being sent out to regional offices. Of course, these are not changes from “the outside” so perhaps they don’t count as refrom. I don’t know…

  7. FARMS and FAIR are good models in the areas of scholarship and doctrine. As long as the discussion is loyal and faithful as well as loud, it seems that it can eventually creep into the consciousness of the decision-makers. An example of the value of this is how the old FARMS rethink of BoM geography saved us when the recent DNA controversy popped up.

    Could forums exist that address most practice and life oriented issues faithfully but pushing the edges where official action has not yet gone? For examples:

    (1) The economic plight of third world LDS. The Perpetual Education Fund is a nice (if way overdue) start, but it far from being a comprehensive solution.

    (2) How does the Gospel look and work for LDS outside of North America? Can there be avenues for expressions of non-North American LDS life as exist in abundance in Utah? I mean anything – where are the Brazilian Jack Weylands?

    (3) Better proselyting — what we’re doing now is clearly plateauing and still generates huge numbers who go inactive right away. For an example of the kind of analysis I am thinking of here, see

    (4) There can never be enough discussion of how our Heavenly Father’s daughters experience His Church.


  8. He’s still workign on it.

  9. I still see a large middle ground that is vacant. On one side is (1) publishing a diatribe through the Signature Book crowed. On the other is being in a situation where you either: (2) have personal access to an influential GA through Utah Mormon social networks or (3) happen to stumble upon the opportunity to participate in a relevant official study, survey, sampling, etc.

    Is there any way other than the 3 listed above that a faithful Church member can input helpful information or perspectives into the hierarchy?

    Catholicism has many independent but fundamentally faithful avenues of doing this (journals like “America” and “Commonweal,” academic institutions like Notre Dame, etc.).

    Or is the desire to contribute in this way sinful, and we should just shut up and mindlessly follow as advocated by Mormon know-nothings like lyle, op. cit.

  10. I think JWL is on to something in noting that a couple of generations back interpersonal feedback might have been sufficient to create some meaningful conduit for “ideas for reform” to reach the senior leaders. The Church has grown too big for that, but has not developed formal mechanisms to replace the now inadequate personal channels.

    I suspect most leaders think their own personal networks are sufficient to keep them informed of what goes on in the Church, but that is probably mistaken, especially since Mormons are inveterate “pleasers” when it comes to interacting with leaders–tell them what they want to hear, which is good news, all programs working and everyone smiling.

    My problem with surveys and polling, etc., is they are under the table and unacknowledged–the general membership is never informed of the results or even of the existence of these mechanisms. If they don’t like what they hear, they can just bury it.

  11. i thought that the point of having an organized religion/the 15, was that God would tell them what they need to know…whether sua sponte, or if they asked. it seems like the hierarchy’s job is how to instruct the individuals on how to be more righteous…not vice versa.

  12. I’d agree but only to a modifed version of one of your statements.

    “Anyone who attempts a serious *public* dialogue attempting to identify doctrines or practices needing (in their opinion) reform is quickly marginalized and possibly expelled. “

    I think the publicity aspect is the one that gets people in trouble, not the attempt at dialogue.

  13. I’d second Nate’s comments. I think the image that somehow the leadership are ignorant and out of touch is extremely erroneous. I do think, however they (and most members) simply don’t trust those preaching reform who don’t seem to buy many basic beliefs. Thus I think Signature, Dialog and all the rest are distrusted.

    I think that fundamentally the problem is that self-proclaimed reformers are just that self-proclaimed and often use a view akin to reform movements in secular society. Fact is that such a move will fundamentally turn off most members and especially most leaders. Heavens, I’ll admit that were I in a leadership position it’d make me less likely to listen – even to those points that might be right.

    As Nate said, the church seems to try out a lot of various programs, does numerous studies, and honestly is seeking things out. Further most general authorities I’ve met have seemed to be quite interested in what others think. To assert that all they encounter are “yes men” and that this is somehow symptomatic of the church seems odd. I think I’ve had too many discussions with people that suggests otherwise.

  14. Is our bureaucracy so set in stone that reform-within-the-system is not possible? I’d like to believe that leaders are open to change and to reform (at least, the ones I know personally). Of course, at the same time I know plenty of people that feel like they’re banging their heads against a stone wall when they deal with SLC.

    I guess this post kind of begs the question for me of what kinds of reform we’re seeking. Are we trying to correct the granting of indulgences or something?

  15. Jim, you mean a forum like this one? :)

    I guess not.

  16. Joel, those are very interesting comments. It’s nice somebody thinks we’re reforming. It is, of course, difficult to get a sense of slow-but-steady reform that happens over decades when we live in day-to-day mode.

    Nate, I suppose that survey or statistical data, if acted upon, can be a rough substitute for independent reform movements as sometimes seen in other denominations. I just wish there were a source other than Nate Oman to find out about this stuff. What’s wrong with publishing some of this information in the Ensign and letting us know what’s really going on in the Church?

  17. Joel: The answer to your question is complicated in large part because the role of the Pope and the role of the Mormon Prophet developed quite differently, and despite superficial similarities the ecclesiology is quite different. (Note: I claim no special insight into cannon law and Catholic ecclesiology and am simply going off of stuff I have read in compartive law articles, etc.)

    First, realize that a Mormon bishop is much more analogous to a parish priest than to a Catholic Bishop, which is more analogous to a Mormon Stake President or an Area Authority Seventy. That said, I think that you are right that Catholic bishops enjoy much greater autonomy than do Mormon stake presidents.

    However, I do think that the move to decentralization is quite intentional. However, it is not manifested necessarily in terms of institutional autonomy. Rather, you see it in things like greater administrative control at the regional level (think Arch-diocese) with less administrative decisions going through Salt Lake.

  18. Looking from the outside (I’m Catholic), it looks to me like the LDS Church IS reforming, albeit without a formal plan to do so. A lot depends onthe definition of “reform.” If reformation is a fundamental change in doctrine, then neither the LDS nor the Catholic Church is reforming. (Contrary to popular belief, the second Vatican Council in the 60s didn’t change any actual doctrines. It changed practices and clarified doctrines that were being misinterpreted.) But if a reform is a change in attitude, or in focus, or in the ways in which a faith is acted out, then the LDS Church appears to me to be gradually doing just that.

    Take, for example, the trend that I see in the Church to downplay the uniquely Mormon traits and emphasize those things that are shared with the rest of Christendom. Twenty years ago, the Mormons I knew seemed to be a more or less closed system, living separate from the Gentile world. (This wasn’t in Utah, BTW, but in an area where Mormons were the minority.) The last several years, by contrast, the LDS Church has co-sponsored Christmas concerts with other churches in the area (churches that would never allow them to darken the doors of the local ministerial association), and a year or two ago, sent volunteers to the Catholic World Youth Day in Toronto to help with the logistics of caring for thousands of youths who were traveling to the rally.

    Missionaries are much more respectful of the religion of the people they’re visiting than they used to be. I notice a tendency to quote from the Bible, and leave the other scriptures out of the discussion. Little things like that seem indicative of an informal reform as the Church has grown into a major player on the Christian stage.

  19. Lyle — Sometimes increases in members’ personal righteousness are not a sufficient solution. If individual righteousness was all that was needed, why bother with having a hierarchy at all? That is the attitude of people who don’t believe in organized religion. We are concerned that the Church leadership have the best input possible from the field because we care so much about the Restored Church and its mission. Yes, we need to worry about our personal righteousness but that comes from care and outreach to others as well as counting compliance with a commandment checklist.

  20. Aaron Brown says:

    Lyle said:
    “aka still workign on a, b & d.”

    So, I take it you’ve mastered “c”?

    Aaron B

  21. lyle, by saying “such an act” implies I think it’s some kind of terrible moral transgression, when in fact burying unfavorable information is just how corporations and bureaucracies operate. It’s an institutional problem, one of developing mechanisms where honest information travels north, not a moral one of bad acts by bad people.

  22. Nate, is the decentralization process an intentional one, or is it just a matter of the leadership’s attitudes shifting a little at a time? It looks to me like your power structure is much more centralized than ours; I had the impression that your bishops don’t have any authority to disregard the GAs and/or the President at all. (Whereas ours seem to ignore the Pope unless he sends them a direct order, which he does VERY seldom.) Just as an example, if John Kerry were a Mormon who was in conflict with the Church, I doubt the local bishops would be in a position to decide whether or not he was a member in good standing. Once the GAs made a ruling, that would be it, wouldn’t it? (Forgive my ignorance; I know about as much about LDS politics as a cow knows of calculus.)

    So I wonder: Is the leadership in SLC purposely devolving more autonomy onto the local bishops? And if they are, have they decided to what extent it will devolve or is it a “wait and see” situation?

    Dave, if your hierarchy is anything at all like the Catholic one, I suspect it’s not being published in the Ensign and the like simply because the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing. A lot of changes can take place unofficially, and simply become the norm from habit.

  23. SMPT is an attempt to create such a fora/um.

    however, i think the ground up/widespread theory is probably more accurate…when you factor in the “righteousness” of the people.

    I have 0 doubt that the priesthood would have been accorded to all much sooner if the membership hadn’t had such trenchant discriminatory views on the subject.

    So…you want change? the solution is the same as for those that want more scripture/revelation.

    Live what you got…and more will be added unto you. Until then…whining about “x” is wrong when you can’t live a,b & c isn’t convincing.

    aka still workign on a, b & d.

  24. so, what if the sealed portion of the gold plates answer all or some of the ‘problems’ folks are listing here?

  25. So…is the Church’s creation of administrative arch-diocese a vindication of Federalism? Or more evidence that it is an “american” church?

  26. what!? Lyle, don’t be silly.

  27. why? silly is fun. :)

    also, it lowers the tension level. :)

    i’m just suggesting, per Nate’s recent post on Tension in Mormonism (some fancy word), that the solution is on an individual, not a communal level. why does anyone need a forum when increases in individual righteousness will solve the problems/challenges complained of?