Should Women’s Meeting be part of General Conference?

womens meetingThere was quite the kerfuffle over Women’s Meeting a couple weeks ago. Prior to the meeting, Ordain Women supporters pointed out that “the General Women’s Meetings are not considered part of general conference. They are auxiliary meetings and, as such, represent women’s secondary status in the LDS Church.”

But during General Women’s Meeting, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said that “we open another general conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” and referred to the five sessions of General Conference to follow as the “remaining sessions of our worldwide general conference” as  if Women’s Meeting were the first.  The Salt Lake Tribune reported that “for the first time, the charismatic German leader described the meeting as the opening session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 184th Semiannual General Conference. Until now, General Conference has referred only to the two-day gatherings held during the first weekends of April and October, with the women’s meeting seen as a separate event.” Some feminists rejoiced because women’s status was improving in the Church and some anti-feminists gloated that General Women’s Meeting had always been a session of General Conference and Ordain Women simply didn’t have their facts straight.

However, the following Saturday morning,

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Coercion within a Church that Values Agency

Hester-marchingMormons believe that agency (free will) is fundamental to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our scriptures teach that agency is God’s gift and plan for us:

Moses 4:3

Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him…I caused that he should be cast down.

Yet, several institutional policies and practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, Mormon) authorize or require local leaders to coerce members of their congregations. To coerce is “to make someone do something by using force or threats.” Reference A

Temple Recommends as Leverage

Article of Faith 11

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

A local, lay priesthood leader may threaten to confiscate temple recommends from their parishioners, which prevents them from attending any ordinance, including weddings, in any Mormon temple anywhere in the world. Essentially, local lay clergy have the authority to tell a member of their congregation, “Do what I say or I will not allow you to attend your son’s/daughter’s/sibling’s/best friend’s wedding.”

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Introducing Informed Consent to Bishop’s Interviews

Introducing Informed Consent to Bishop’s Interviews

First do no harm.Ethically sound research interviews must have informed consent, maintain confidentiality and undergo an Internal Review Board process to verify that psychological, social and other risks to participants are limited. Research interviews and ecclesiastical interviews differ in purpose, but with some adaptation, many of the ethical guidelines used by researchers could be applied to ecclesiastical interviews performed by local LDS church leaders. Such safeguards could help ensure that our ecclesiastical rituals do not have any unintended, harmful side effects.

The basic elements of the informed consent process include:

  • full disclosure of the nature of the [interview] and the participant’s involvement,
  • adequate comprehension on the part of the potential participant, and
  • the participant’s voluntary choice to participate. Reference A

There are three major kinds of LDS Stake Presidency or Bishopric interviews described in church handbooks: temple recommend, worthiness and youth interviews. Here are some policy change suggestions inspired by the ethical standards of human subject research that could be incorporated into these ecclesiastical interviews:

1)    Begin with a brief, written or verbal statement like this,  “You may stop the interview at any time and skip any questions that you do not want to answer.” Adding such a statement would not lengthen the interview by much, but would do a great deal to eliminate the expectation that church members must disclose personal information against their will just because a priesthood leader asks.

2)    Confession should be voluntary, not compelled by the priesthood leader on the basis of rumors, tattling or hunches. In most cases, it would make sense to let the transgressor confess when they are ready to do so of their own free will.

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Five More LDS Church Discipline Policies That Affect Women Unequally

Five More LDS Church Discipline Policies That Affect Women Unequally

lady justiceThe fact that Mormon women are subject to a disciplinary system in which only men may call disciplinary councils, staff the councils, and judge their outcomes is more than enough to raise suspicion about the justice of this system for women.  (See this post for more about that: Church Discipline: Women Disciplined by Men.)  However, here are five other church disciplinary policies that have concerning implications for women.

1. A bishop may not excommunicate a man but he may excommunicate a woman.* If a man is summoned to a disciplinary council at the bishop’s level, he may be reassured that excommunication will not be on the table.  A woman has no such reassurance.

2. It takes 15 individuals to excommunicate a man, while only four are required to excommunicate a woman.* There may be advantages for women who are excommunicated in Bishopric councils as opposed to Stake councils. Testifying before four men who are members of your own ward may be less intimidating than testifying before 15 men, at least some of whom are strangers, and the risk of confidentiality breach naturally increases with the number of people involved in the process. However, smaller groups have their own risks. Personal biases are less likely to be balanced among small numbers and deviations from protocol have fewer witnesses. In either case, the final decision is made by one person alone instead of by consensus, but the stake president’s decision is informed by a larger number of opinions than a bishop’s.

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Church Discipline: Women Disciplined by Men

Church Discipline: Women Disciplined by Men
Gentlemen of the Jury by John Morgan, 1861

Gentlemen of the Jury by John Morgan, 1861

LDS Church policy dictates that only men may call a disciplinary council, staff the council, and judge the outcome. However, both male and female members may be brought before these all-male councils at the discretion of their local, male leaders. Theoretically, the rationale for holding a council is not punitive:

Priesthood courts of the Church are not courts of retribution. They are courts of love. Reference 1

When a man requires a woman to submit to an interrogation by a group of men about sensitive personal issues such as her sex life, does she feel love or shame? Does this process meet the criteria set forth in the Thirteenth Article of Faith: “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy”? Consider this case:

I have a friend who had a one-time fling after years of celibacy. Our bishop called a church court on her and told her that all of the sins she had repented of in the past were no longer forgiven because she had messed up again. He forced her to recount, in front of him, his counselors, and the ward clerk, every sexual experience she had ever had or be excommunicated. He wanted to know all the lurid details—sexual positions, whether it was oral, anal, or vaginal, whether she had orgasms, etc. Needless to say, she felt coerced and abused by this process.

Simply telling men who staff disciplinary councils to stop asking for sordid details is not enough to address the trauma a woman may experience when brought before an all-male council. Consider another case, where the amount of disclosure erred in the opposite direction:

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Requests To Meet With Local Leaders

Requests To Meet With Local Leaders

Ordain Women supporters walk to the priesthood sessionDuring the weeks preceding and following the recent Ordain Women action,  several Mormon feminists, including me, were contacted by our stake presidents or bishops. These local leaders requested meetings with us to discuss our concerns about male-only priesthood.  To my knowledge, most of these meetings resulted in good conversations.  I hope this is an indication that the Church intends to honor the statement its spokesperson made at the event, “These are our sisters and we want them among us.”

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