True or false? “The Mormon church has a policy that mandates the excommunication of any member of the church who enters into a same-sex marriage.”
The church’s policy requires that members of the church who enter into same-sex marriages meet with their ecclesiastical leaders to discuss their standing in the church (a conversation known, unfortunately, as a “disciplinary council”). As Elder D. Todd Christofferson clarified, the policy “means the discipline is mandatory — [it] doesn’t dictate outcomes but it dictates that discipline is needed in those cases.” The only mandatory requirement is a conversation.
Some ecclesiastical leaders may be under the false impression that decisions about the outcomes of these mandatory councils have been made for them, when in fact they have not. Outcomes have been left intentionally undecided. Excommunication is not mandatory. Disfellowship is not mandatory. Nothing is mandatory, except the conversation.
One effect of this is to make decisions about outcomes local. Here the word “local” has at least two meanings: (1) the decisions are made by people living in close proximity to the affected parties, and (2) the decisions only have effect within the immediate context in which they are made. By crafting the policy in this way, church leaders acknowledge that these decisions are best made by those who know the members best. This is an important point. Even the global revelation to which the apostles claim access does not trump the local revelation of personal acquaintance.
Leaders should necessarily feel tension as the two forms of revelation (local vs. global) come into conflict. If they were always in agreement, both would not be necessary. If a local leader does not feel torn between guidance from the top and real life at the bottom, they are ignoring one or the other. These leaders should expect experience with real people to challenge their assumptions and even change their mind. They should expect the best decision to often be something they would never have considered. They should feel uncomfortable at times, wondering if they are showing too much mercy or being guided too much by sympathy and not enough by responsibility.
George Handley gave a remarkable address on November 11, 2015, about his journey as a scholar of faith. During the Q&A afterward, he made a comment related to the church’s then-recent policy changes and the importance of local leadership:
It’s important, for me in my experience, to be patient with large organizational structures, because I think it’s easy for those structures to do unintended damage. And usually that unintended damage happens because people aren’t on the ground, knowing the individuals like they should. That’s one thing I’ve always appreciated about the way the Church teaches and trains leaders. It’s how I was taught and trained as a missionary. It’s how I’ve been taught and trained all my life in the Church—that I need to know the individuals, I need to know the individual circumstances, and I need to use my best judgment, and I need to go to the Lord. I have full confidence in that process.
The protective power of “knowing the individuals” works only to the extent that local leaders act differently than they would have if they had not known the individuals. The benefits of personal acquaintance are lost if we get to know people and then treat them as if we didn’t. Following the prophet does not mean making the decision the prophet would make. It means making a better decision than the prophet is able to make, because you are “on the ground.” That is what the prophet has requested of you implicitly by asking you to make the decisions instead of him.
My impression from hearing stories from all over is that there is some misunderstanding in this regard. Many leaders seem to believe that excommunication has been mandated by the policy. Others suggest that it is at least the only acceptable option and appear unwilling to consider other options. Whether this is the result of ignorance, institutional fear, and/or willful misrepresentation of church policy, it is inappropriate. Excommunication should never be considered a default outcome, especially in the case of this policy, which has been specifically designed to delegate such decisions to local leaders.
Some leaders, however, have done a remarkable job of balancing the messages they receive from the top and the conditions they see on the ground. They are taking the time to know and understand people and to hear their stories. They are making great efforts to reconsider their own perspectives. In some cases, there are excommunications, which is always unfortunate. But in many cases there are not. Most importantly, these local leaders are taking very seriously their duty to act in the way that is best for each individual, regardless of the opinions of those on the outside or even their own prior assumptions. And that is a wonderful thing.