At the end of President McKay’s life, two men in Church hierarchy had the same idea. Though intellectually sharp, McKay’s health had been up and down for at least a decade and was definitely failing him then (he died when he was 96). These two men, Ernest Wilkinson and Hugh Brown, talked about changing the policy of lifetime calling to be apostle or prophet. There were a few versions of their idea, because as you may know, they weren’t best friends and did not entertain this idea together. One was that once an apostle reached a certain age, he would be moved into emeritus status and not considered for prophet/president position if the time came. Another was that if incapacitated, he would be moved into emeritus status so the Church could be led by the next in line.
Heber J. Grant and George Albert Smith both had failing health at the end of their presidencies and first counselor J. Rueben Clark became (though unofficially) the acting president of the Church. When McKay’s health started steadily going down hill, people wondered if an incapacitated president-prophet would be the future of the Church. Mormons are healthy people and, with medical and technological advances, men were getting older and older when then started their presidency, let alone ending it. Joseph Fielding Smith was in horrible health at the end of McKay’s presidency and as the longest serving apostle he was slated to be (and became as you all know) the next Prophet and President.
It was argued that presidential succession was policy, not revelation. After Brigham Young and John Taylor, there was apostolic rule before the president-prophet was named. With those two, the precedent was established that the apostle with the longest tenure would become the next Prophet. During the first century of the Church, no prophet lived to be unable to fulfill their presidential duties and I doubt they would have foreseen how common a problem it would become.
Lee hated the idea and McKay died before this was taken very seriously, Joseph Fielding Smith died a couple years after he became prophet and the young and healthy Harold B. Lee unexpectedly died a year and a half after taking office. Spencer W. Kimball and Ezra Taft Benson both had prolonged periods of failing health and President Hinckley had to pick up the reins. But this was very problematic (more for Hinckley than for Clark) because there were many things that only the prophet was supposed to decide, both in legal and ecclesiastical matters. Hinckley has said that those times were very lonely. He said that, “I tried to be very, very careful…and I resisted efforts to move on some things where I was urged at times to do so. I did not want to get ahead of the president” (Prince 399).
President Hinckley, though not young, is still mostly healthy and doing an excellent job as President, but it’s got to be wearing him out, and while I’m not for removing Hinckley, I think there is something to this idea of allowing age and incapacitation to move an apostle or prophet into an emeritus status. If they are still capable of input and inspiration, there is no reason not to use them as a resource but let the position be moved to someone able to do it. As an apostle, you are set apart as a prophet, seer and revelator, you have all the Priesthood keys, it is just the Prophet who has full use of all of those keys.
I am of the opinion that failing health should move a person to emeritus status because as in Hinckley’s case he’s done a lot of fantastic things in his old age. I also believe that God does not try and teach His Church something by having a Prophet who is too old and sick to function in his calling. How do you feel about this? Does it matter to you? Does it feel heretical to suggest this change? Why?
For what it’s worth, it seems that Wilkinson believed in this idea because he could no longer easily do his work or pursue his agendas without a healthy prophet. That has got to be paralyzing. Brown suggested that at 85 an apostle be moved into emeritus status. He was right on the precipice so maybe he was just tired. He also really believed in the new leadership coming into the hierarchy and felt safe to move on.