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,

“If we silence ourselves or allow others to silence us, we will deny the validity of our experience, undermine the foundations of authenticity in our personal spirituality, and impoverish our collective life as a faith community… Reducing the diversity of voices in a community to a single, official voice erases us.”5

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?

  1. White Bird Flying: My Struggle for a More Loving, Tolerant, Egalitarian Church by Janice Allred
  2. John Gustav-Wrathall’s story, quote from this comment section
  3. 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
  4. Interview: Margaret Toscano
  5. The LDS Intellectual Community and Church Leadership: A Contemporary Chronology by Lavina Fielding Anderson

Tirza

Tirza lives in New England with her husband and four kids. She spends as much time as possible reading, sleeping, and playing outside.

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17 Responses

  1. Scott Hale says:

    This is beautifully written. Thank you.

  2. Anna says:

    Sometimes, excommunicating people backfires on the church and actually amplifies the person’s voice rather than silencing them. For example, I had always been too busy with my children and moving around with my husband’s military career (20 moves in 20 years) to pay much attention to the controversies in the church. But when the September 6 were excommunicated, I looked up what they were saying that got them in trouble. One by one, I realized that I agreed with them. Especially Lavinia Fielding Anderson. I had experienced spiritual abuse because an untrained bishop could not accept that his personal prejudice was not God’s word. It just felt so wrong to punish her for pointing out a real problem. I was not really interested in the problems with the historical record, but felt that historians should be able to publish the actual history and not be forced to censor the truth. Then when Margaret Toscano was excommunicated, I went out and bought her books. I may not totally agree with all her theories, but she had some valid points, with good research to back them up. Then Michael Quinn, and I ran out to get his books before they were gone because by then I was pretty sure that the church excommunicates people who dare speak truth to power. Studying who and why the church excommunicated people was actually what confirmed to me that my own feelings and doubts were correct and the church was arrogantly wrong about things that bothered me. Only liars get upset when contradicted. People with truth on their side know that the truth holds up to criticism.

    • Elisa says:

      Such a good last two lines about liars and truth tellers Anna!

    • Tirza says:

      Anna I love how you sought out books and information from people the church was excommunicating. And I think you hit the nail on the head with this line: “I was pretty sure that the church excommunicates people who dare speak truth to power”

  3. Anonymous (for obvious reasons) says:

    I was excommunicated when my ex made false accusations about me for the purposes of a child custody dispute — in the disciplinary council and before it was apparent that their primary concern was not me but rather was ensuring that my children continued to be raised in the Church. It is hard to say, of course, but I have always thought that my excommunication was wrong.

    But, having experienced excommunication personally, something that stands out (at least in the quotes that you cite) is that the only discussion of excommunication is on the social effects. These are real, of course, but they were very minor in the grand scheme of things in my excommunication. The more profound effect is in the termination of the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost.

    Somehow, some way, the actions of the disciplinary council (which I do not believe was correctly handled) was ratified by God sufficiently to change my relationship with the Spirit in tangible ways that persisted until my subsequent rebaptism and restoration of temple blessings. I came out of my excommunication knowing two things fully and completely — first, that priesthood leaders are flawed men who can make wildly painful decisions with lasting repercussions, and second, that the priesthood actually is what it says that it is. That has been a challenge to reconcile at times but just because I struggle to understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

    • Tirza says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience. As you say, priesthood leaders are flawed men and sometimes can handle these situations wrong. Despite this imperfect process, I have heard of other people for whom excommunication was a positive experience. My focus in this post was on the way excommunication affects relationships and the community, there is of course much more that can be written about its other effects.
      I don’t believe there is anything man can do to come between God and an individual. I respect that it was your experience to feel a withdrawal and subsequent return of the spirit, but I don’t feel that is the case for everyone. Speaking just to my dad’s situation – he remained a very spiritual person after his excommunication, but his church status was a point of conflict in his relationship with his mom. She would ask him almost every time they spoke when he was going to come back to church, and he would always reply, “when God tells me to.” Some might argue that he was being deceived by Satan or whatever, but I knew him well and saw the work and fruits of his relationship with God and the spirit.

  4. Katie Rich says:

    The niceness covering violence really is something. Thank you for this post.

    I’m reading Sonia Johnson’s From Housewife to Heretic right now. There are so many paragraphs of startling clarity about the violence of patriarchy in the Church and the many mechanisms of silencing and discrediting women and individuals who believe/speak against Church teachings. I wish that it wasn’t as relevant forty years later, but so little has changed in that time.

    • Elisa says:

      I read Mormon Feminism (the anthology) quite a few years ago when it came out and then again recently. And it was pretty discouraging to see how relevant ideas from the 70’s and 80’s still are because there’s been no change.

    • Tirza says:

      Very true! The mechanisms to silence women and truth-speakers are still here and this topic is as relevant today as 40 years ago. The current case against Natasha Helfer Parker is a perfect example.

  5. di says:

    In England back in the early 80s my sister had a baby out of wedlock. The overzealous bishop at the time excommunicated her. I am quite a bit older than my sister and had been living in a different country but if my husband and I had known about this process I’m sure we would have intervened. It was totally a case of inexperienced leadership as my sister was a teenager and hadn’t been endowed. I only found out much later and how this was very painful for both her and my mother. Many years later this bishop told my mom that he’d erred – particularly when he experienced wayward behaviour within his own family.

    • Katie Rich says:

      Heartbreaking.

    • Tirza says:

      This is so heartbreaking. While my article focused on more public cases and the church isn’t releasing any statistics on excommunication, I wonder how many members are affected by situations like your sister’s. There is so little training for bishops and so little advocacy for women facing discipline. Thank you for sharing your story.

  6. Caroline says:

    This is such a great post. Amen about the violence of the excommunication process. I think it was Margaret Toscano who said it was like being gang raped by care bears. I feel a large amount of gratitude toward women like Toscano and Allred. Their work has been formative for me, and it’s terrible their leaders saw them as expendable because they voiced important questions and proposed exciting alternative theologies. I want Mormonism to be better than that, more robust, more inclusive. It just makes itself small, narrow, and limited when it excommunicates women for their theological ideas.

  7. Mindy says:

    In reading your powerful words about silencing and discrediting people through excommunication, it struck me how this process is happening to many members unofficially. You use up your social credits in the church by speaking out and slowly are moved to callings where you have little influence, you are no longer asked to speak, and ward members learn to be wary of you. You are not officially ousted, but gradually silenced.

  8. When I first heard the the term “excommunication” was replaced with “withdrawal of membership” I was hopeful that this meant that the Church was trying a less harsh approach, and more importantly, a more defensible approach from a theological standpoint; not claiming that local priesthood leaders had authority for bar people from heaven by voiding their ordinances. However, Church spokespeople immediately clarified that nothing had changed but the name. I can see how in extreme circumstances, it may be necessary for lay leaders to disallow someone from membership in their congregation. I cannot see why it is necessary or even feasible for a human to bar someone else from heaven. God can take care of that on His/Her own when judgement time comes.

    • di says:

      So ironic that the church now calls it ‘withdrawal of membership’ – they obviously see how violent ‘excommunication’ sounds but nothing is changed! It’s cruel and painful and I believe it should only be used for the worst kinds of crimes against people – not against the church institution.

  9. EmilyCC says:

    Thank you for outlining the effects of excommunication, Tirza. I am so angry and sad that Church leadership thinks this is ever an answer to those who are pursuing truth with sincere hearts.

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