Excommunication and Listening to Silenced Voices
When I was a teenager my dad was excommunicated. He’d always held a less orthodox view of the church and as a long-time seminary and gospel doctrine teacher, he moved beyond Sunday school answers to challenge members to think deeply about the gospel.
In our home, he taught of an expansive God, who loved all their children and didn’t place conditions on that love. I remember that when then Elder Russell M. Nelson wrote an article for the Ensign titled Divine Love where Nelson explained why God’s love is conditional, my dad not only talked about it with family and friends, but wrote to Nelson and the Ensign explaining why that rhetoric is harmful and wrong.
As a youth I wasn’t always thrilled to sit through one of my dad’s “discussions” (which to teenage me felt like a gospel lecture), but once he was excommunicated there was an added layer of mistrust. Like, “What do you know about the gospel? You can’t even keep the commandments!” It took time for me to turn to him as a gospel guide and embrace the wisdom he had to offer. It took me years to begin to see the complexities of his actions and not equate his mistakes with heresy.
I have only spoken to a handful of people personally about their experience of being excommunicated. Often it was very painful. I can speak of the anxiety I feel to imagine being excommunicated, giving me pause before I choose to speak up about issues important to me or choosing to worship in a way that feels right to me, but may not be in line with traditional, orthodox practices. While I believe that my relationship with God is eternal and that I don’t need earthly authority to share my beliefs, there is part of me that fears how my temporal relationships will be affected.
In the General Handbook of Church Instruction, the church lays out three purposes for membership restriction or withdrawal (this is new terminology from 2020 replacing disfellowship and excommunication). They are: to help protect others, to help a person access the redeeming power of Jesus Christ through repentance, and to protect the integrity of the church. I have certainly heard stories of people for whom the excommunication and re-baptism process was truly helpful, and I feel there are instances where excommunication might actually be needed to help protect others such as in cases of child abuse and sexual predatory behavior. But I think it’s important to highlight how heart-wrenching excommunication can be for an individual and their family.
One story in particular that haunts me is that of Lavina Fielding Anderson. She is one of the September Six, who were excommunicated in 1993. After 25 years of faithful church attendance where she was not allowed to partake of the sacrament, her bishop approached her about the possibility of re-baptism. Sadly her case was denied by the First Presidency.
This week I reread Anderson’s Dialogue journal article, a chronology of ecclesiastical abuse that lead to her discipline. This line in particular stood out to me: “I am less interested in the various positions defended and attacked about, say, the New Mormon History than I am about how such attacks and defenses are conducted, what they do to our community, and the human costs in pain, mistrust, and violations of agency.”
Janice Allred, who was excommunicated in 1995, vividly describes how painful the process is:
A few weeks after my excommunication, my name disappeared from the Relief Society roll. I was not prepared for the emotions I felt. One week, after I passed the roll on without looking at it, the woman next to me put her hand on my lap. I squeezed it, and she smiled at me. Little acts of kindness such as this mean a lot to me, but I continue to be troubled by the lack of public discourse about my situation and problems in general.
Friendliness is good, but it is not enough to create a feeling of love and acceptance. I was violently wrenched from the body of Christ. If a ward member walked into church covered with blood and people smiled and said, “Hello, it’s nice to see you,” there would be something inappropriate about that. But that’s how they treat me and my family. Our wounds, our suffering, the violence inflicted on all of us go unmentioned, undiscussed, and unattended to.1
John Gustav-Wrathall was a young adult when he was excommunicated. He had confessed his homosexuality to God, and felt God’s love declare his gayness was a good, inherent part of him. He then followed a prompting to ask to have his name be removed from the records of the church. He had committed no offense worthy of excommunication, but his bishop started the process anyway.
“When I was excommunicated, there WAS definitely a painful period of adjustment,” John writes. “My whole social network was in the Church, and my whole social network basically vanished over night — including lifelong friendships… It was heart-wrenching for my family. I refused to attend my church court, so my dad went in my stead, and it’s not possible to describe in words the level of pain he experienced. He might as well have attended my funeral. There was a period of approximately 3 years when I had little to no contact with my family at all.”2
When the church changed the language from excommunication to withdrawal of church membership, the reason shared was, “the feeling of the First Presidency and the Twelve [apostles] and members who we did research with felt that [excommunication] was a particularly harsh term.”3
But changing the term doesn’t change the reality of the excruciating process.
“There’s something vicious about niceness that struck me in this,” says Margaret Toscano, who shared her experience of being excommunicated in an interview with PBS American Experience in 2006. “That the niceness covered over the violence of what was being done, because, in fact, excommunication is a violent action. And yet you had this veneer of niceness that covers it over. That was horrifying to me. Afterward it almost made me shudder, that incongruity between the violence of that excommunication and the niceness of the discourse that went on.”4
Margaret’s husband, Paul, was one of the September 6 and shortly afterward, the Toscano family stopped attending church. Margaret described the surprise of receiving a summons for a church disciplinary council seven years later. “What they were hoping to do is to make sure that nobody then would believe anything that I said,” she shared. “That came out several times.”
There are other, smaller ways voices are silenced, such as described in a recent post from wheatandtares.org about a Stake President who outlawed informal discussion groups within his stake unless those groups were sanctioned by the stake. From my own ward, I received an email this week that, “posts submitted to our ward RS Facebook page should contain content directly sponsored by the Church, one of its units, or the missionaries.”
I love these words from Lavina Fielding Anderson,
At one point in my life, I would have likely discredited anything an excommunicated member said about the gospel. Now I cherish the lessons my dad taught me. In my quest to strengthen my relationship with Heavenly Mother, it is words from excommunicated women, such as Margaret Toscano and Janice Allred that have helped me on my journey.
Who has been a source of inspiration for you that the church may have discredited or counts as an “unauthorized” source?
- White Bird Flying: My Struggle for a More Loving, Tolerant, Egalitarian Church by Janice Allred
- John Gustav-Wrathall’s story, quote from this comment section
- General authority Seventy Anthony D. Perkins quoted in LDS Church publishes new handbook with changes to discipline, transgender policy by Peggy Fletcher Stack and David Noyce
- Interview: Margaret Toscano
- The LDS Intellectual Community and Church Leadership: A Contemporary Chronology by Lavina Fielding Anderson