Erika Munson is the co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges. She teaches at The Waterford School in Sandy Utah, and serves in the Pinehurst Ward.
November 5, 2015 was a dark mirror of June 8, 1978. The dates, (oddly, both of them were Thursdays), are touchstones for me: I remember where I was each time I heard the news: the disbelief, the need to check in with loved ones, the media coverage. But the similarities end there. To an idealistic teenager, that morning in ‘78 brought joy: the long-promised day had arrived! It was announced with the dignity and solemnity that believers in continuing revelation would expect. The tent was enlarged, the cords lengthened.
But one year ago, this middle-aged, battle-hardened progressive Mormon who thought she’d seen it all, was blindsided by the discovery of an internal plan – all the more chilling in its bureaucratic character — to shut the door. It felt like someone had died.
I honestly thought about leaving. That tortuous, hastily arranged interview with Elder Christofferson spoke volumes. Any semblance of of consensus, of a spiritual process, of wise old men reasoning and praying together for the good of the membership seemed to have fallen away. This policy change was so clumsily rolled out, so incomprehensible, that I was forced (but not for the first time) to think about what was happening behind the curtain at 47 East South Temple. From the outside it looked like a power grab, an attempt by the old guard to take advantage of an ailing prophet and maintain their hold. In my most cynical moments I considered it calculated cruelty: putting a halt to the way gay and straight members had started to gently sidle up to each other, to become comfortable with their differences. It seemed to me a sad example of how new realities are so far from the experience of some of our most revered leaders that those realities are judged as irreconcilable with eternal truths.
But it wasn’t really a faith crisis I was going through. Although the timing and the manner was an unwelcome surprise, I wasn’t shocked to see the human consequences of decisions made by the imperfect people who lead my church. Despite my early brush back in the 70s with prayers for ecclesiastical change being answered in a matter of a few years, I had, from my earliest memories lived in a home where it was safe to love the gospel and at the same time acknowledge that the institutional church can be crazy-making. No, this was more like an energy crisis. Did I have what it took to mitigate the damage? In the days following the news I was so consumed with my own sorrow that I hadn’t been able to reach out to anyone, and there were certainly those whose suffering was so much greater than mine. There were deep, deep wounds here. There were lesbian and gay members who had taken courageous, hopeful steps back to their congregations and now felt slapped in the face. There were faithful members who for the first time in their lives were questioning the Brethren. There were self-righteous Saints who seemed pleased to interpret the policy as a validation of their behavior, happy to consider themselves the wheat among chaff, happy to take on that role as judge, even though the Savior told them not to. Could I keep up this exhausting dual identity — maintaining, as columnist David Brooks puts it, the loyalty of the faithful insider, while retaining the judgment of the critical outsider — without being complicit in some way to the damage the policy inflicted? I didn’t know. I’d sit with it for a while.
In my own ward, not much changed on the surface. We have no openly gay or bisexual members. I gave a tortured testimony in which I rather uncompassionately lectured my fellow congregants: reminding them that policy or no policy, we have one judge in our little corner of Israel, not a ward full of them. I got a couple of awkward hugs afterward. My bishop thanked me. I soldiered on in my Primary calling, wondering if buried in our membership rolls there were children of some long-alienated gay member whose tentative connection to the church was now broken forever. And then came the final punch of Elder Nelson’s unilateral, retroactive declaration of revelation and his characterization of those of us at odds with the policy as servants of satan. Another power play, more division, more bad feelings all around. How long oh Lord how long?
What did I have to bring to this mess?
In an interview on the Out in Zion podcast, journalist Krista Tippett invoked the idea of “bridge people” as a group that can play a vital role as Latter-day Saints struggle with the intersection of sexual orientation and faith. These are folks who, on the surface, have no dog in the fight: they’re straight, their kids are straight, they are steeped in and committed to Mormon religious practice. “These are people,” says Tippett, “who are not going to feel personally attacked by every statement of doctrine, by every position that’s taken, by every discussion that may feel insulting [to a gay mormon] by its very nature.” Bridge people don’t experience these things as an existential threat, yet they see the impulse to separate the pure from the impure, the good from the bad, as something to be wary of — as an obstacle to the communion Christ offers us.
Since by springtime I was still standing, still taking the sacrament, still saying my prayers, still teaching Primary, maybe I was one of these people.
There’s no policy or revelation that will stop gay babies from being born into LDS families. And given the profound sacralization of heterosexual marriage in our theology, any enlargement of the idea of eternal couplehood will take at least a generation. But right now there are kids, some as young as 8, 9, and 10, in conservative Mormon homes who feel different; who, against a societal backdrop of rainbows and acceptance, are listening very closely to what is said around the dinner table about gay rights, and at Family Home Evening about God’s plan for them. This is the conflict that won’t go away with mass membership resignations or (understandably) angry public accusations.
To work from inside the circle to make a place for these kids at church — if only to keep them whole and healthy until adulthood, while at the same time having compassion for their often confused and fearful parents — this is my offering. To outsiders it may seem pitiful, but like the widow’s mite, it’s all I have to give.
The dissonance keeps on coming. Even though the new website, mormonandgay.lds.org, shows real progress, the institutional tone deafness required to release this content so close to the anniversary of the policy and make no mention, offer no help with the conflict that policy created, is, well, baffling.
But is there something underlying this kind of bafflement that might be valuable? The Latter-day Saint cultural narrative of short-term struggle and its cheery reward may be transformed into a deeper understanding of suffering, of loneliness, of vulnerability, and how we are called to witness those experiences in ourselves and others. It could make Mormon Buddhists of us all. We still look forward to the return of Christ triumphant, but maybe He’s waiting a bit for us to get a better grasp of Gethsemane.
I’m not glorifying the misery this policy has caused; it didn’t have to be this way. But I can’t deny that this conflict has been meaningful to me. Are there any more consequential issues than agency, obedience, loyalty, how God speaks to His children? Isn’t exploring how (or if) our sexual orientation defines us one of the great questions of mortality and beyond? This difficult year has demanded that I step up my spiritual practice: pray more, listen more, serve those who have been hurt, those who fell in line, and everybody in between.
The memory of 1978 is precious to me. It arms me not with optimism but with a kind of hope which the Reverend Victoria Safford defines as:
The piece of ground from which you see the world
Both as it is and as it could be
As it will be;
The place from which you glimpse not only struggle,
But the joy of the struggle.
For me, Christ is somewhere in that struggle. That’s what got me through November, and keeps me working to make a place for LGBT Mormons who live that struggle every day, who have so much to teach me about it. Even amidst this up and down and back and forth that so often characterizes the evolution of the church, I’ll take President Uchtdorf at his word: “The Restoration is an ongoing process; we are living in it right now.” Yup. And it hurts.