International Series: England
We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.
Today’s post comes from Jessica F. She is currently a Masters student in the study of religion at Kings College. Her research centers on the intersection of technology and religion. She graduated from BYU in 2003 with a BS in Marriage, Family, and Human Development. She and her husband Tom have four daughters ages 6-11 years old.
I feel slightly self- conscious writing this blog post since I have only lived in the UK for the last 2 years, but I love to over-analyze everything sociological so here are my thoughts. I should also mention that I study religion so a lot of the people I interact with are probably atypical, and for the most part seem fascinated by mormonism. I have been asked “so you are a real Mormon, like a real one?” I think it is particularly interesting to people given the popularity of the Book of Mormon musical in London. Most people here tend to not discuss religion; even without a separation of church and state there is very little discussion of religion (ironically unlike the US, which is actually when I talk about religion the most: when English people like to comment on this irony). The UK education system also includes general religious studies across multiple years, so most people are at least familiar with various world religions, much more than those in the US, so when religion does come, good intelligent conversation normally arises.
Before moving to England, I lived in Utah for 12 years and I have found being a member much easier here than in the Utah. I think however a lot of the conflict and cognitive dissonance of being a member comes during adolescence, and early adulthood. I thankfully am done with that period of my life, and my kids are still young enough that it has not been a direct issue, but the stories of ward members definitely reflect the tension that comes especially from trying to socialize in a drinking culture. The Mormon population is small in the UK, but larger than other European countries. I have heard the UK referred to as “the Utah of Europe.” Which theoretically does provide more possible cohort friendships, but most members tend to be the only Mormon in their school.
Compared to the US, the church is apolitical: we just do not discuss politics. We did not discuss when the UK legalized gay marriage and we did not discuss Mitt Romney and Obama. Every once and a while someone from the US will be in the ward and say something and it’s very awkward while we try to ignore it and move on. I have to say the absence of political discussion is lovely, but makes American church leader’s political statements in general conference all the more confusing and feels increasingly disconnected from my lived church experience. It is much easier here to be in favor of gun control, income redistribution, health care, birth control, and many other taboo subjects in the US.
I think the most harmful church policies revolve around the lack of understanding of the educational system in the UK, which is radically different than the US. I think the lowering of the mission age back to 18 was a great policy shift for the young men, but needs to be the same for the young women. Unlike the US, where mission deferral is possible even at non-church schools, it is almost impossible in the UK, or at least highly risky. The education system is based heavily on cohorts and social networking, and exams. While some students take a ‘gap year’ the length of a mission seems to me at least a difficult obstacle to overcome especially at competitive universities. I think that LDS Church leaders would do well to really understand how the differences in the education system impact the future success of church members, and examine the underlying biases in policy making.
The church could also support members by understanding the transportation situations that impact various areas. For example, in Cambridge, students are generally not permitted to have cars (for obvious issues once you have seen the city center). But the church building is rather far out of town and not near the majority of student housing, making travel costly and time consuming, especially for those on limited incomes. Even if one has a car, gasoline is so expensive that attending stake meetings or functions is often cost-prohibitive.
I think this is a common issue, but the church could take the time to make church materials less American-centric, maybe even use British spellings, or cultural references. It is difficult to teach many Sunday School lessons because they are very American. For example, maybe English people are not that into the 4th of July, or the divine design of the American Constitution. Or we could incorporate many of the beautiful English hymns into our hymn books.
I will end on women’s issues in the church in England. I will start by staying sexism is alive and well in the UK, but it looks different than the sexism I have experienced in the US, I will not go into too much detail. One major issue that I have seen stems from the traditional single sex education system in the UK, for example my kids’ school did not go co-ed until the mid 1990s, so many male leaders were educated with only men. The combination of educational sex segregation and the cultural ‘old boys club’ (they are literally clubs here) and the intersection with LDS gender policies does not make room for a lot of progress.
I have enjoyed living as a member in the UK. I think as a whole the LDS Church needs to put forth a lot of effort to understand cultural variations, and allow for more freedom for local traditions and culture. Of all the foreign countries England has a lot of overlap to the US, but it is not the same culture at all, I think that needs to fundamentally acknowledged on multiple levels.