Chatham House rules and the church

A few of the attributes I appreciate most among public speakers in religious settings are honesty, openness, and vulnerability. One example, might be Elder Jensen’s remarks in San Francisco Oakland a few years ago which were subsequently widely shared.

This unfortunate episode – the sharing and not what Elder Jensen said – demonstrates that it has (potentially) become increasingly costly for visiting authorities to demonstrate these qualities because of the availability of social media and also the tendency among the membership to hang on even throw-away comments. To some extent, the church have begun to embrace these changes and have attempted to harness them. Not only are General Conference addresses made publicly available but so are sermons and discussions from other settings and in various parts of the world.  Embracing these changes in a church which is very concerned with PR has had some unfortunate side effects.  For example, presentations can be so carefully worded that they become staid and uninspiring.

However, these dynamics are not unique to Mormonism. Many academic conferences are, laudably, recording and distributing presentations that are given as part of the proceedings. And yet, there has been another trend – at least one I have noticed over my admittedly recent involvement in the world of academia – that has tried to combat the reproducibility of any flippant comment. In response to this problem, a number of conferences are using Chatham House Rules.

When the rules are activated participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed. These rules allow and even encourage the type of vulnerability, openness, and honesty that I described earlier.

In fairness, the church has tried to encourage this type of activity in the past. In the CHI, we find this:

Church members should not record the talks or addresses that General Authorities and Area Seventies give at stake conferences, missionary meetings, or other meetings. (CHI, Book 2)

But this is not an explicit part of our culture and I think it does not go far enough. When sharing with others what we may have heard at a Stake conference we need to refrain from identifying the speakers by name or even by calling.  One could argue that if the words are pertinent they will be meaningful in their own right regardless of who said them.  I would like to see this become a more tangible part of our culture because I think it would allow those leaders who are visiting us to invoke these rules and speak with a different register than if they know (or at least expect) they are being recorded, for example.

Certainly there are costs with adopting this. Sadly, it would mean that I would probably never have heard about Elder Jensen’s remarks. Even if I did I would never have know whether they came from him or even whether it was a GA. It may mean that there will be some parts of the world that will potentially hear less from our leaders. However, in practice, I think this rule would make very little difference to issues of availability.  A more serious concern however, it that there is also the possibility that radical or unusual views might be expressed with greater frequency by our visiting authorities.  While recognising these costs, I would still rather have our leaders express themselves to us in a manner that refuses the concerns and constraints of the PR department.

Explicitly adopting Chatham House rules for local meetings would, I hope, unburden visiting authorities and allow them to speak to us with greater candor and also greater vulnerability.


  1. Roger Nolter says:

    Imagine if God or Jesus invoked these rules. The words are important and who they come from is important also. We need to have courage in our convictions and let the chips fall where they may.

  2. Roger, I would not have an issue with that if they did – although that is an hypothetical. Plus, there are two problems here: 1) certain pressures on visiting leaders mean that they are not able to simply speak according to their convictions and 2) this is not just about convictions, but rather it concerns speaking personally to a small group. The difference is that when they have in their mind that they are potentially speaking to the whole church, as opposed to a small group, the dynamics are somewhat different.

  3. Ardis E. Parshall says:

    But in the Church setting, words are often pertinent precisely *because* of who says them. If I say “The world is ending Saturday” or “Build an ark,” it means one thing; if Pres. Packer says it, it potentially means something very different. Same with the source of “Come follow me” or anything Jesus said that is counterintuitive. An anonymous testimony doesn’t carry much weight, either.

    Or maybe I don’t understand you.

  4. Ardis, I would hope that if either of those hypothetical commandments needed to be said that they would be spoken to more than just one Stake conference in Toledo. I am not trying to destroy the prophetic voice but rather I want to recognise when it might be local.

    Here are two situations which I hope will clarify what I mean:
    1. I go to Stake conference on a Saturday evening. The Prophet tells us that we need to start reading the scriptures in the mornings before school in order to protect our children spiritually.
    2. I go to GC and hear the RS President ask all members of the church everywhere to read the scriptures in the morning before school…

    For me, the first should be under Chatham House rules. It is a local message that applies to the people who heard it. Certainly it can be discussed outside of the meeting – under the rules described above – but just because it is the Prophet does not mean that in this instance he was speaking to the whole church. In the second example, the message should have more weight in the lives of everyone who is a member of the church because it is quite clearly spoken to that group. Here, of course, Chatham House rules do not apply as they are not and will not ever be enacted. The message is not local and we are invited to share it with others.

    My comments about Chatham House rules will only ever apply to the first situation and never to second.

  5. The problem seems to be, not the speakers, but the habit of members to treat any bon mot falling from the lips of any member of the regional leadership as newly inspired doctrine. So many members don’t want to differentiate between the personal convictions of the speaker and the position of the church,

    A visiting seventy once came to our stake conference and discussed “striving to live to a higher personal standard,” which included a discussion of personal grooming and sunday dress, among other things. Our bishop interpreted this as a commandment specifically for our ward, instructing all the men to shave off their facial hair and stop coming to church in their shirtsleves. When my husband refused to shave his beard or wear a coat to sunday meetings (he said he just couldn’t stand to be sweaty for three hours, Florida – go figure), the bishop released him from his callings and told ME if my husband had a problem following the commandments, he wasn’t righteous enough to hold a calling where he might influence anyone. (He steadfastly refused to tell my husband this to his face.) We eventually wrote a letter to the general authorities and got a verbal cease and desist order, but the damage was done and we were shunned for the rest of our stay in that ward.

    It was a very testimony shaking experience for my family, luckily our next bishop had more sense – and compassion. I think your idea will only work once we find a way – as a culture of believers – to address the fact that our leaders are people who have individual ideas and preferences that are not necessarily delivered to them on stone tablets from the mountaintop.

  6. I agree with Lisa O. that the problem isn’t the dissemination of what an authority says, but our tendency to see whatever the authority says as coming directly from God. We need to recognize that church authorities are human, subject to mistakes (or even personal viewpoints) just like the rest of us. Because of their callings, we have an obligation to prayerfully consider what authorities have to tell us — and if we do our part, maybe the authorities would feel freer to present us with challenging ideas.

  7. Lisa O., that must have been a difficult time for the family. It is possible that by using this approach that we would gradually begin to see more diversity among our leaders.

  8. Also, Eric and Lisa O., firstly, in this post I am not so much worried about that dynamic, although it is important, but rather I am concerned with the way our leaders speak to us.

    However, with that caveat, let me say that I am reluctant, as I said earlier, to erode too much the trust placed in the words of our leaders. Taking seriously – this is not the same as blindly following – the words of our leaders is an important part of what it means to sustain them. Chatham House rules would allow us to take seriously and also allow visiting authorities to speak to us in the register I describe above.

  9. Last Lemming says:

    I’m more with Aaron on this, although I think he could have used a better first example in #4. Consider instead the alleged talk given by Boyd K Packer at a Salt Lake ward in 2008. In it, he was quoted as saying that it is too dangerous to let your children play outside. Set aside for the moment the question of whether the quote is accurate. This is the kind of counsel that a GA could legitimately give at the local level that has little or no application in other locations. They need to be able to give that counsel without worrying that it will spread to areas in which it does not apply and there be unwisely implemented.

  10. Last Lemming, that is a much better example. Thank you.

  11. Any person in a high office will say things differently to a small group than to a large group, and that because of the likelihood of audience misunderstanding.

    I agree with 6 (Lisa O.) and 7 (Eric) and 9 (Last Lemming).

    Chatham House rules won’t work in the Church. In academic settings, there is a self-discipline among the conference attendees and a desire by all to be seen by others as honoring the rule and the spirit of honest inquiry. That self-discipline doesn’t exist among the membership of the Church. We can’t even follow the very simply rules already in the handbook regarding recording talks at less-formal meetings. But we shouldn’t need Chatham House rules for public addresses — that’s the difference, you see — Chatham House rules are for conferences with specially-invited persons, not public addresses open to all who will come.

    I think the problem exists at two levels–
    Members and mid-level Church officers (listeners) who respond as described in 6, 7, and 9 — because of these members, Church officers MUST be very careful about what they say; or being interpreted, they say less than they would in a smaller setting with people they trust. And members must stop yearning, desperately seeking, new doctrine or reminders of old folk belief. Members must listen for what the speaker and the Holy Ghost say to them for their own use in their own lives, rather than looking for quotations they can impose on their neighbors.
    Church officers (speakers) must teach the basics of the Gospel — they must come as servants rather than as leaders, using the Savior’s example as one who served others notwithstanding his own high calling. No doubt the Savior shared different thought in small groups than he did in large groups, but surely also there is no doubt that he was ever tempted to offer juicy morsels of strange doctrine just to titillate his listeners.

  12. Let’s consider a different example because while they’re getting better at it we still have situations where General Authorities, even the Prophet, personalizes a particular issue noticed in a specific region, say the Wasatch Front, and makes a blanket statement to all members. President Kimball had a bee in his bonnet about keeping yards clean and went so far as to directly address it three times from the pulpit in his opening address in 1974, 1975, and 1976 Conferences.

    From his April 1975 Friday morning talk:

    We are concerned when we see numerous front and side and back yards that have gone to weeds, where ditch banks are cluttered and trash and refuse accumulate. It grieves us when we see broken fences, falling barns, leaning and unpainted sheds, hanging gates, and unpainted property. And we ask our people again to take stock of their own dwellings and properties.

    My poor mother-in-law who lived in British Columbia on what can only be considered one of the most orderly and beautiful pieces of land that ever existed took this admonition completely to heart almost to the point of neuroses. If the Prophet says it more than once then your soul must really be in danger if you don’t comply. Then later in her life she moved down to Utah County and after driving through the back roads she immediately recognized the source of all this consternation about maintaining clean yards.

    It was a good principle, but honestly the Prophet was going after a very local issue from a very global pulpit.

  13. It is certainly easier to discuss this issue using examples of specific counsel or guidance given over the pulpit but in exploring this question I was rather hoping that this focus might be on how we can encourage to visiting authorities to be less-scripted when they speak to us. I am guilty of distracting from that purpose but I would like to attempt to get back to it.

    ji, I see no reason why a culture change could not invest meaning to the adherence of these types of rules. Because we draw ambiguous lines between what can and cannot be recorded and by whom we inevitably get into trouble regarding when and where this happens. At the same time if this were discussed more it would be become self-policing among members. And, of course, they must be careful. I would hope they take a lot of care in preparing their remarks, but care is not antithetical to the open, honest, and vulnerable kind of discourse I am hoping to experience from visiting authorities.

  14. Would it help if the general leader prefaced remarks by saying something like, ‘I feel impressed to say something specifically for you in this area’? Then it’s clear who the audience is and that it is not pertinent for everyone. I would love it if all talks were prefaced with ji’s comment, “Members must listen for what the speaker and the Holy Ghost say to them for their own use in their own lives, rather than looking for quotations they can impose on their neighbors.”

  15. An interesting proposal, Aaron. And one that I might be able to get on board with, precisely for the reasons you outline. As many have noted, this is difficult, but localized counsel/conversation appears to be something the church is interested, is very important, and yet very difficult o convey.

  16. Elder’s Jensen’s remarks were given in Oakland, not in San Francisco.

  17. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I desperately WANT General Authorities to be contrained in their speaking. I’m terrified of allowing many of them to say what they are really thinking. There would be dozens of 47%-like comments made each Sunday. While that would expose a lot of wrong-headed thought, it would also overwhealm the PR dept. and a lot of those thoughts would stick. I think the LDS blogoshpere would explode.

  18. For someone from England, that is like saying ‘Elder Nitpicker’s remarks were given in Romford not London’. Apologies for the error, I will correct it now.

  19. I love the sentiment, but i don’t think it would work. The problem with talking in absolutes all the time (which isn’t being done in church as much anymore, i don’t think), is that it affects our ability to listen with charity, or by the Spirit. We, of all people, should know how to see beyond the words people say to try to understand the meaning they’re trying to convey. That’s “listening by the Spirit”. It’s impossible to make words represent exact meaning — all they can do is circle around it, and that’s true with the scriptures as well. I think we need to work a lot harder to teach our people to learn to listen, and resist the soundbite culture as much as any other evil influence. But we don’t. We’re just as liable to get hung up on poor word choice (eg., “legitimate rape”, “Ann Romney never worked a day in her life”, etc.) as anybody else, and probably even more so when it comes to authority figures.

    I think GA’s are going to have to continue to be circumspect and still take measured risks in being vulnerable. I don’t think it’s possible to cast a pearl without it also coming before swine, so there’s a price to be paid with every pearl cast. But CHR would take the shine off the pearls and simply give even more license to faith-promoting rumors. Or faith-destroying rumors, for that matter.

  20. Martin, BCC specialises in unworkable solutions.

  21. Martin, to respond with more seriousness, I fail to see why, from your comment at least, this is would not work. I agree that there is more we can do to teach people to listen carefully but the issue at stake here is not only about how we listen. It is as much about relationships of trust between the speaker and the listener. When speakers are constantly trying to guard against saying the wrong thing they inhibit the potential for communion between themselves and their listeners. What is lost is not so much content but a connection. I hope that these rules will foster that type of connection.

  22. Aaron, you’re exactly right that the issue is a matter of trust. But it seems just as easy/difficult to teach congregants to listen charitably as to obey CHR. Some will, some won’t. A charitable paraphrase can filter out unfortunate word choice, but removing the source from the material devalues the material dramatically. It becomes unsubstantiated rumor. Take the Elder Jensen example. You might have heard about it, but you would have had no solid handle with which to search and get a better idea of what was actually said, or what the context was. And, since everybody knows nobody names names, rumours would be even less likely to be dismissed and harder to verify than they are today.

  23. This is interesting in light of how Protestant speech circulated in early national America. All preaching was local by definition. Preachers often went to the press to circulate their (undoubtedly modified) oral expression as widely as possible. At the same time, they saw those remarks as inferior to canon. Our problem is the nature of Mormon canon. The (colloquial) rules are fuzzy and the variables are many.

  24. There is an easy solution that we don’t ever use anymore. In the early days of the Church, leaders spoke freely and widely (and in retrospect, were sometimes wrong). But “prophetic” statements or actual revelations to our Church leaders could be, and were, canonized in our scriptures. Reimplementing that process today would be freeing to our leaders as they speak in various capacities throughout the world. It would be understood that what they said in areas around the globe were NOT official revelation nor binding on the Church. Things that actually WERE revelation binding on the Church could be added to our canon. Unfortunately, as the decades go by, it seems more and more like we have a closed canon.

  25. Aaron R (no. 13) — A person can only have the “open, honest, and vulnerable kind of discourse I am hoping to experience from visiting authorities” in an atmosphere of trust — a person can only be vulnerable with someone he or she trusts, and can only be vulnerable to the extent of that trust. You’re asking the visiting authorities to be more open and vulnerable, but we must first ask the listeners to respect the trust. This is a great discussion, by the way. I understand both your desire for more open discussions, but I also appreciate Mack (no. 17)’s concern — honestly, I don’t want all of our visiting authorities to preach their own pet folk beliefs, either. This is a tremendous balancing act.

    With regard to visiting authorities giving counsel for saints in a local area, well, if that local area has a stake presidency and a high council, well, shouldn’t they be receiving the inspiration and giving the counsel? Isn’t that the purpose of a stake presidency and high council? We sometimes want visiting authorities to treat us like we’re in the mission field, I suppose, and we often de-value the local priesthood leadership. This is a wholly different point, the hero worship we apply to our visiting authorities.

  26. Thanks all for the additional comments.

    WVS, thank you for that additional perspective. I think your comment draws out one of the radical changes in the way preaching is now performed and which the church is still wrestling with.

    ji, exactly. Chatham House rules asks members to respect that trust. I think we are in agreement, plus I too fear the pet folk belief problem.

    Mike S, that may solve some of the doctrinal issue but that is only half the issue.

  27. Apparently Jesus has followed this pattern in the scriptures. When he visited the Nephites, there was much he spoke and taught, but Mormon was commanded not to write them on the plates. The purpose of this is to “try our faith”, after which, by the power of the Holy Ghost, greater things can be manifest to us.
    3Ne 26: 8-11

  28. Roger Nolter says:

    In regards to entry #9 and the talk by brother Packer in 2008 I would like to point out an Church Public Affairs statement regarding it:
    1. He was there (referring to Brother Packer)
    2. No official transcript of his talk was made and that the one circulating by email was typed after the talk was given and should not be considered to be authoritative.

    13 May 2004 Statement by the Church-
    “From time to time statements are circulated among members which are inaccurately attributed to the leaders of the Church. Many such statements distort current Church teachings and are often based on rumors and innuendos. They are never transmitted officially, but by word of mouth, e-mail, or other informal means.

    We encourage members of the Church to never teach or pass on such statements without verifying that they are from approved Church sources, such as official statements, communications, and publications. Any notes made when General Authorities, Area Authority Seventies, or other general Church officers speak at regional and stake conferences or other meetings should not be distributed without the consent of the speaker. Personal notes are for individual use only.
    True spiritual growth is based on studying the scriptures, the teachings of the Brethren, and Church publications.”

    If we heed the counsel in the statement “… should not be distributed without the consent of the speaker” we would be helping the speakers speak their mind.

  29. Roger, I agree. In fact I would like to see more made of things like this with frequent reminders at the beginning of Stake Conference. Thanks for reminding me of that statement.

  30. These posts seem relevant. From the Dilbert guy about how easy it is to generate controversy by removing context from words or actions. I think this issue will be with us for a long time, and it has worked to make much of public life bland and closely controlled.

  31. Our elder daughter living up north told my wife that while speaking at a stake conference President Eyering said something to the effect that the Second Coming was far closer than ever. Our eldest took that to mean it was real real SOON…. I reminded my wife the Saints of the Primitive Church thought the Second Coming was in their lifetime(s), the early Saints of the Restored Church likewise thought it. We agreed the Second Coming could come as early as tomorrow when I get in my car and while on the freeway, am involved in a fatality accident, my own…..
    GAs surely could say I personally believe…. so that members could stop treating every word as though it was scripture.

    And Lisa O. (comment #5), having lived in the panhandle of Florida some years ago, my wife and I had a similar experience with our Bishop. Our particular situation went so “south” that my wife’s visiting teachers told her friends they would take care of our last dinner before we moved to Northern Virginia and then, never showed up that evening.

  32. I’m reminded of something similar from when I lived in Provo. A co-worker came in on Monday and called me to repentance – his stake president had made the announcement the day before that no Latter-day Saint in good standing should read the Harry Potter series, nor should they allow their children to do so. I got chewed out later on when said Stake President was made a GA, and since the Lord wouldn’t have called a GA who wasn’t inspired, my family was in a state of advanced apostasy. Didn’t matter that I wasn’t in Peter Priesthood’s stake, or that the remarks hadn’t been added to the canon of scripture, or that we hadn’t had the same admonishment in General Conference. I finally got fed up and told Peter Priesthood that he needed to repent for having met his wife on his mission, and hadn’t read “Lock Your Heart” as diligently as he should have….

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