On Saturday, Nov. 14, a crowd of hundreds of people filled a park in Salt Lake City to formally resign their membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
They were responding to news that the church had issued a new set of guidelines regarding gay and lesbian members and their families. The new policy, published in a document called the Handbook of Instruction, says that Mormons in same-sex relationships — cohabiting or married — may face excommunication. Perhaps more important, children living in a household headed by a same-sex couple will not be permitted to join the church until they are 18 and then only if they disavow their parents’ marriage as apostate.
While Mormons are not alone in their resistance to same-sex marriage, their history with the issue is especially contentious — most infamously in 2008, when the church advocated successfully for the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which placed a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. However, in recent years Mormon leaders have appeared to soften their stance: The church fought housing and employment discrimination against gay people; a prominent leader and apostle named Dallin H. Oaks spoke out against Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples; and the church released a public statement and launched a website saying that homosexual attraction is not a choice. That statement seemed to allow more room for gay and lesbian members to participate in Mormon congregations. In light of these moves, the Handbook of Instruction change appears to be such an about-face that some members, both gay and straight, feel forced to resign.
The Mormon General Handbook of Instruction, used by bishops and other lay leaders around the world, is not considered scripture. But over the years, it has become a sort of ad hoc canon law, defining how most Latter-day Saints see and practice their faith. It’s regularly updated, and successive versions have recorded policy shifts on birth control (acceptable, with caveats), divorce (complicated), dietary codes (still strict) and homosexuality (see above). The Handbook of Instruction is a good bellwether for church attitudes, and it powerfully affects how local authorities treat the members in their charge. A change to policy in it is, in other words, a very big deal.
What has caused the most pain is the inclusion in the policy of the children of same-sex couples. They are ineligible for a naming blessing, which holds special emotional and spiritual significance for Mormon families. Baptism into the church at the age of 8 (considered the age of accountability by Latter-day Saints) is also forbidden. Both events are community celebrations, with an entire congregation often taking part. Barring children with gay parents from these rituals looks especially draconian and may mean that children who would otherwise be welcomed into Mormon life will be raised entirely outside the church.
One way to interpret this change is as part of a great retrenching on the part of the LDS Church that has been going on for some time. Mormons have always considered themselves a people apart, the only holders of the true priesthood of Jesus Christ’s restored gospel, as well as long-ago refugees from religious intolerance and violence. Mormon life emphasizes community and family connection. Resistance to secularization, no matter the issue in question, can be seen as a strengthening of the identity that holds Mormons together.
Of course, borders to keep people in necessarily keep others out. Melissa Inouye, a co-director of the Mormon chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, writes that the reason so many members of the church are frustrated or disappointed by the change is that “they perceive a conflict between Christ’s charismatic pattern of ignoring religious rules to bless social and spiritual outcasts and the organizational boundary keeping set out in the policy.”
Moreover, Mormon doctrine heavily emphasizes the value of an eternal family, bound together spiritually by the priesthood. In the vision of heaven articulated by Mormons, all members of the church and, potentially, the entire human family progress in these families and networks sealed by God for eternity. The generosity of the idea is boundless; anyone who chooses can be joined into this enormous, salvific web, and relationships with loved ones continue forever.
Yet because that doctrine currently requires families to be built around heterosexual pairings, there are at least a few places where the thread breaks, which vexes members who must choose between their faith and their family.
The other way to see the change is as a reinforcement of a different, deeply held belief, only marginally related to homosexuality. In an interview released soon after the news of the policy change leaked, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, one of the church’s 12 apostles and highest leaders, said that the church regards same-sex marriage as “a particularly grievous or significant kind of sin.” The difference between same-sex attraction and same-sex partnership is important: The difference between wanting to be in a gay relationship and actually being in one is, in Mormon teaching, the difference between obstacle and sin.
Ultimately, this policy could not exist if the leaders did not believe deeply that a member who joins the church independently as an adult has made the exact same choice as one who is baptized at 8. The extensive proselytizing by Mormon missionaries around the world — including to those engaged in various unsanctioned activities, from drinking alcohol to serious crimes — is evidence that church leaders believe it’s not necessary to be raised in the church to reach salvation. In their minds, an 18-year-old child of gay parents is making exactly the same choice as a new convert, with the same degree of agency, to embrace the doctrines and blessings of the church and disavow any past experience that isn’t compatible.
This implicit insistence is both infuriating and awe inspiring. On the one hand, the idea that all experiences are equal — that rejecting your mothers’ marriage is in the same category as giving up a glass of wine with dinner — boggles the mind.
On the other, there is no exclusion to anyone’s path toward Christ. Grace is available to anyone anywhere who chooses it. This is perhaps the most fundamental tenet of Mormonism, that we elect ourselves to salvation. Even grievous, significant sins are eligible for atonement and redemption.
I suspect that’s the reason that a group of polite, ministerial grandfathers are articulating a policy that seems so cruel. They believe it may be painful but not necessarily unfair.
Yet contradictions persist. For instance, as author Jana Reiss notes, the children of murderers and rapists are eligible for the blessings denied the children of same-sex partners, implying that the latter creates some sort of inheritable and greater moral offense without explaining why.
Another: Mormons don’t believe in original sin. We are — or are supposed to be — blameless of Adam’s and Eve’s transgressions and, by extension, those of our parents and neighbors.
In codifying this change, church leaders considered two core values — the creation of families that can be sealed together according to the church's specific definition of marriage and the ultimate agency of individuals — and leaned toward the former. It’s an irrevocable change to the way members, gay or straight, will think of themselves and one another in the future.
Faithful, gay church members already had to choose between a life of full participation in Mormonism and a loving relationship and family. Now, for better or worse, they will be choosing for their children too.