Guest Post: “It Bends”
When I was 24, I was called to be Primary President in my small, rural Australian ward. It was the preamble to four years of torture.
Don’t get me wrong – I quite enjoyed the role itself. Sure, we struggled to find teachers some weeks; but I was always prepared with a spare lesson and a spare Sharing Time. My mother would send me resources from Deseret Books, so that I had a year’s worth of bulletin boards and Sharing Times all ready to go. There weren’t many kids; but I liked them. I wanted them to feel loved; I wanted them to want to be in Primary.
My battles were with the leadership. From the very beginning, the Stake Primary Presidency seemed to want to undermine me. She badgered me with countless small jabs about my age and my acreer career, possibly ecause we did not; have children at the time. If the Stake had a real cause for concern, I might have cared – If I was teaching incorrect Gospel principles, or abusing the kids, or in some other way failing the children in my charge, I might have cared. But the sheer pettiness of their complaints, coupled with the relentlessness of them, made me simply disconnect from the Stake leadership.
To my knowledge, the biggest complaint against me (or at least the biggest complaint the Bishop passed on to me) was that I let the kids choose their own birthday song. The first counselor of the Stake Primary President – who also happened to be a woman I had visit-taught for several years by that point – complained to the Bishop that, one week, I even let the children sing “Happy Birthday to You” when this wasn’t in the Primary songbook, and thus, was clearly wrong. Flabbergasted, I pointed out that the child whose birthday it was that week was the son of an investigator – this was his third week in Primary and no other children had had birthdays in those weeks. How was he supposed to choose a song he didn’t even know existed?
My bishop replied, “Quimby, I have always hated “Happy Happy Birthday Children Dear.” If I never hear that song again, I’ll be happy. You let them choose whatever songs they want. I simply don’t care.”
It was nice, in retrospect, that even when the Stake leadership was finding petty little accusations, at least the Bishop was supportive. Still, it was an odd complaint for the bishop to choose to pass on to me, making me think that the other complains were similarly obtuse in nature.
Another time, stake leadership visited while we were rehearsing for the ward Primary program. Our music leader – a very busy mother of three, who was working full-time, studying part-time, and playing the organ in Sacrament Meeting, along with serving as Primary music leader – had come up with a truly wonderful way to help the children remember the words to the song, “I love to see the temple.” Over a series of weeks the children had devised a series of hand symbols that were reverent and flowed well and, most importantly (to me), made them really love the song. We rehearsed this for the stake leadership, excited that they could see all of our hard work. Less than half-way into the first verse, the Stake Primary President cut us off. “You can’t do that,” she said. “It’s in the handbook. Unless it’s actual, recognised sign language, you can’t use hand symbols.
Shortly after that time I remember having the missionaries over for dinner. They were two young American men – I can’t remember where they were from – but in frustration I told them that people seemed to be elevating the Handbook over the Gospel. So what if a kid wanted to sing Happy Birthday to You? Wasn’t it more important that the child felt included? So what if we made up our own hand symbols for a song? They were reverent, and meaningful, and wasn’t it more important that the children learned to love the songs?
One missionary laughed as he agreed with me. “Sister,” he said to me, “I have this discussion all the time. And whenever I run up against it, I like to pull out the little handbook they give to us” – and he pulled it out of his pocket – “and say to them, “See? It bends!”‘
My parents live in downtown Salt Lake City. Several mornings a week, rain or shine or blizzard, my dad walks from their apartment to the Salt Lake Temple to volunteer as a temple worker. He also serves in the Bishopric of his ward. When it comes to TBMs, my parents are about as TBM as it gets. They’re also liberal Democrats who believe humans are largely responsible for climate change. They’ve served a humanitarian mission for the church, working closely with the homeless population in Salt Lake, and are the sort of people who don’t think twice about pulling out $5 and handing it to a bum on the street. They are generous with their time, talent, and money in building up the Kingdom of God.
In their ward, it is not at all unusual for music leader to change hymns, replacing the odd pronoun to make a song more relevant. I’ve never know this to cause concerned for their bishop. They are blessed to have a number of artists in their ward, including an opera singer and several professional classical musicians, who will sometimes share their talents in Sacrament Meeting. Even though the songs they share are not to be found in the Hymnal, they add to the spirit of the meeting. Before they lived in downtown Salt Lake, they lived in Davis County, Utah. There, too, the bishop would use the handbook as a guide, but not a weapon, taking what was needed and leaving behind what he felt was not edifying to the ward.
Still, in Australia, every time I voiced a complaint, the local leaders would say to me, “That’s not how it’s done in Salt Lake.” When I would give them hard, concrete examples from my parents’ wards, or from the wards of my sisters, who also live in Salt Lake, they would recoil in horror and suggest that my family’s wards had clearly lost their way. Their fluffy-touchy-feely version of what they thought happened in Salt Lake was more important and honest to them than my actual real-life examples. If it wasn’t in the Handbook, it was wrong. It was as if the mythology of the perfection of every person, ward and family who lived in “Salt Lake” was more important for them to preserve than it was for them to realistically apply local, and Christlike, intuition into the running of the local, non-American ward.
There’s a phenomenon in the sociology of groups that the further away geographically that you move from the centre of a group, the more rigid and inflexible the rules become. Surely this is my experience with wards in Australia. Here, it is so bad that a few years ago they even created a list of approved songs for youth dances – any song not on the list was not allowed to be played. (To which I wanted to reply, “Where in the Handbook does it say that you can do that?”)
Rather than setting a broad scope of rules, and then trusting the membership, as individuals to interpret those rules in a manner that suits the local membership of that ward, the leadership in my non-American area is all too often too quick to set hard and fast rules. It is as though they fear personal revelation and prayer, lest it contradict the CHI. Very few things in the administration of the auxiliaries global church are hard and fast, and certainly none would apply in a manner that would condemn the singing of “Happy Birthday” to a non-member child. And yet…. I was in a ward where the Stake Presidency was teaching that the handbook knew better than anyone in any kind of authority, Indeed, even the CHI has a section devoted to adapting to local needs, but that was never discussed, as though adherence to the handbook would bring as many blessings as adherence to any covenant made in the temple.
At its worst this becomes a form of idolatry, elevating the Handbook or a series of man-made rules to equal footing with the Scriptures. At its best – and far more common iteration – this stunts the growth of members, leading to a membership that is immature and afraid or unwilling to make its own decisions. Neither one progresses the Gospel.
I am not advocating that we disregard the Handbook altogether. Nor am I advocating that we embrace Cafeteria Mormonism, where we are all to pick and choose those doctrines we want to embrace. What I am advocating is a more mature approach to the Gospel: We are all members of this big, beautiful Church. We have all, at some point, received for ourselves a testimony of the divinity of Christ and of the prophecy of Joseph Smith. Surely we can be trusted to reach our own decisions through prayer, fast, and personal revelation. Surely, if we are given the freedom to sing “Happy Birthday to You” in Primary, or to use appropriate hand signals in the Primary Program, we won’t be falling into apostasy, but using our own gifts and talents to become fuller and fully participating members of a global church.
“It bends.” As members and local congregations that gives us the freedom to embrace a gospel which asks more of us, intellectually and spiritually. What can be wrong with that?