A Bridge to Somewhere: Wrestling With the Policy, One Year Out

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.

Comments

  1. Yes: Christ is in the struggle.

  2. “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.”

    Wow. Very powerfully said. Thank you. It is so true. No bureaucratic church policy is going to stop gay people from being born to straight couples, or straight people from being born to gay people who though currently in a straight marriage eventually can’t live a lie any longer and end up in a gay relationship.

    It was the part of the new policy that denied baby blessings and saving ordinances, including the all important (as we had always been taught) post-baptism Gift of the Holy Ghost, to the innocent children of a custodial gay parent who was living in a committed gay relationship, even if that parent consented to such rituals for his or her child, that really hit like a nuclear bomb among even the most faithful, never-blog-reading Mormons, in my opinion.

    The part of the policy that defined people living in a gay marriage ex ante as apostates without any investigation of whether they actually were apostates according to their beliefs could have been inferred from the general teachings against homosexuality and the Church’s political opposition to gay marriage in civil society even for people who don’t share the Church’s religious beliefs. But it was the policy against the children of those gay members that was entirely new and unexpected, and really broke a lot of people who previously had never doubted the good intentions and inspiration of General Authorities, especially apostles.

    The point that children not only had to wait until age 18 to get baptized but in addition had to denounce their parents’ sins by publicly disavowing their marriage in a baptismal interview before they could receive the saving ordinance of baptism meant to cleanse them of their own sins, not their parents’ transgressions, landed like a nuclear bomb among the most faithful of Latter-Day Saints.

    Of course many rushed to defend this move too. Touching on your point in the original post about how this played out in wards, that Sunday in my high priests group, the man teaching the lesson (an octogenarian retired BYU professor) took a long time at the beginning to defend the new policy against any and all detractors “out there,” not even appearing to consider there might be members scorched by this nuclear bomb sitting right there in front of him. He said he was convinced it was the right move and here’s why, he said: because if anyone is gay in the Church they will now have to think extra carefully about entering into a gay relationship or else they will be causing their kids to suffer by not receiving the sacred ordinances.

    Think about that — only a few days after the policy was issued and already this man was defending it explicitly for its manipulative purpose and effect. The manipulation, the holding of children hostage to “force” a gay custodial parent never to enter into a gay relationship, was highlighted as a feature, not a bug of the new policy. Many in that group of forty or fifty high priests in attendance were sagely nodding their heads in agreement. But I suspect there were at least a few who were devastated both at the substance of the new policy and at the method of its issuance — effecting what amounts to monumental change to fundamental doctrine concerning the innocence of children and their lack of accountability for their parents’ sins through quietly inserting a new provision into a policy handbook that is not available to general church membership.

  3. john f.: I almost wish you hadn’t commented. The policy breaks my heart. The apologists drive me away. These days my religious practice is focused on local worship and community, and the apologists are threatening what’s left of my sense of community.

  4. I should add, this policy is a *literal* example of throwing the baby (children of a gay custodial parent in a committed marriage-like relationship or marriage) out with the bathwater (the gay member in a committed marriage-like relationship or a gay marriage, people the policy defines ex ante as apostates).

  5. Oh, sorry CK, that wasn’t my intention. I hope you find the strength to keep the faith.

  6. john f. — I’d never shoot the messenger!
    In November last year I wrote a piece (“Anger, Marriage, and the Mormon Church”) in which I tried to say “I understand and I am angry.” In response, a very conservative friend said “I understand and accept.” So I upped the ante, saying “I understand [the policy] and hate it. Are you saying that you understand and like it?” I thought that was a completely rhetorical question (to which the obvious answer is “no, nobody actually ‘likes’ it”) and it probably was rhetorical in that particular conversation. I have since learned that some people would answer “yes, I understand and agree and like it.” That response hurts. If possible, that response damages my feeling of community more than anything else that has happened around the policy.

  7. I hear that, Chris.

  8. Erika, thank you for your post and for your willingness to stay and “work from inside the circle to make a place for these kids at church.” I wish I had your humility and strength. For me, Proposition 8 in California was the beginning of my questioning the 15 and their ability to communicate with God, and The Policy last year was nail in the coffin. Despite being an active (albeit progressive) member the week before, last November I withdrew my name from the records of the church. I could no longer sit quietly, I had to separate myself from the institution. I had suffered through hundreds of homophobic rants at church, but people are imperfect I thought. But last November I realized that homophobia and bigotry had been formally institutionalized in the church I loved and had spent 50 years in. I have not regretted my decision to resign for one minute. Christ may be in the struggle, but he isn’t in the church anymore.

  9. Erika, Mormons Building Bridges means a lot to me. I marched for the first time this summer and it was a healing moment in this terrible year. Thank you for spreading love and inclusion. I also really appreciate this post, thank you.

  10. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

  11. Erika,
    Your post reminds me how difficult it often is to stay inside the “tent” when the flaps are down. I have always thought there has to be room to bring the best from the outside in to make room for us all. Thank you for you thoughtfulness and strength.

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