The Unholy Practice of Excommunication
For the second time, the case of Lavina Fielding Anderson has demonstrated that the church discipline system of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), especially the draconian practice of excommunication, protects men in power from the inconvenience of criticism and harms the vulnerable people those men are supposed to serve.
In 1993, Lavina Fielding Anderson was excommunicated by a male-only church disciplinary council (the only kind that exist in our church) for whistle-blowing about instances of abuse perpetrated by male priesthood leaders. Since then, in spite of the humiliating and ostracizing sanctions placed on her for a quarter century as part of the disciplinary process, she has continued to attend church.
After she was recently widowed, another male priesthood leader at last allowed her to seek re-baptism. The only way back according to church policy would be submitting to another disciplinary council. This time, the men who judged her deemed her worthy to return to church membership.
The basic protocols for church discipline come from scripture: Doctrine and Covenants section 102, to be exact. However, the header of most sections of the Doctrine and Covenants begin with the word “Revelation…” followed by details about how this divine instruction was obtained. Section 102, outlining the church discipline system, makes no such claims. Its header begins with the word “Minutes…” and clearly explains that the LDS church disciplinary council system was established by a group of mortal men who voted on the matter at a male-only meeting in 1834.
The men at that meeting voted for a set of church disciplinary protocols that were fairly standard for their time. Neither religious nor secular justice systems had advanced much since the Salem witch trials demonstrated just how well patriarchy-administered justice serves women. One of their contemporaries, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, described the male-only criminal justice system of their time this way: “[Men] will be judges, jurors, sheriffs; and give woman the right to be hung on the gallows.” It was still 45 years before any state in the United States would admit women onto juries—the first would be Mormon-dominated Utah in 1898—and it wasn’t until 1973 that women could not be barred from juries anywhere in the country. Back then, many faith communities excommunicated activists as a matter of course; Angelina Grimké was excommunicated from her Presbyterian congregation in 1829 for supporting the abolition of slavery. Abolitionist and feminist Lucy Stone was excommunicated by her Congregational church in 1851.
We’ve come a long way in our societies since then, but LDS church discipline policies have not. We treat the meeting minutes in Section 102 with as much respect as we do actual revelation and with much more respect than the vulnerable people in our congregations.
Could inspired policy come from a committee meeting? Sure, but we can only judge it by its fruits. Lavina Fielding Anderson’s case is just one of many in which church disciplinary councils have traumatized, discriminated, and coerced. It is time we stopped pretending mortal men have godlike power to cast people out of heaven. Instead of punishing widows like Anderson, our ecclesiastical leaders could focus on following scriptural directives to honor, comfort and protect them.
I do not fault the 19th century men at that meeting for introducing such a flawed and harmful church discipline system into our church. That was the way things were done back then. They knew no better.
But we do.