Beyond white shirts, facial hair and Coke — the Bloggernacle’s equivalent of the Holy Trinity — nothing gets Mormon bloggers’ collective knickers in a twist quite like the perception that they are forced into silence during the Sunday meeting block. On an almost daily basis, I run across posts and comments in which members bemoan the fact that, during their worship service, they feel unable to share with others (i) some nugget of non-correlated history, (ii) their left-of-center view on a theological point, or (iii) their discomfort with a cultural practice that has been adopted by the rest of the ward as a founding principle of the Gospel. I personally know folks (and you probably do, too) who have reduced their activity level because they do not agree with lessons being taught. For example, a buddy of mine has bowed out of Gospel Doctrine altogether because he cannot get behind the idea of a literal flood in the Bible account of Noah.
As a bearded Mormon history nerd with a head full of non-traditional opinions, I empathize with these feelings. I, too, have stifled comments in Elders’ Quorum for fear of rocking the boat or derailing an otherwise by-the-book lesson. Just like you, I have simmered quietly while others expressed opinions that I found offensive. But, at the risk of biting the digital hand that feeds me, I’m here to say, I’ve grown weary of the complaints. Enough is enough, already. It’s time for us all to put up or shut up!
I have come the conclusion that it is time for we bloggers to quit whining about members and teachers who we believe force us to keep our more controversial, liberal, non-traditional, etc. views to ourselves, and to take action. Here’s why:
First, by keeping quiet, we perpetuate, and become co-conspirators in, the same “unwritten order of things” that is driving us crazy in the first place. Thomas Jefferson once said, “all tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” Certainly no tyranny is afoot, but the same principle applies to our ward meetings. If we keep our mouths shut, we are actively contributing to the problem.
Let me give you a very recent example. My best pal is currently serving in our Bishopric (and doing a fantastic job, by the way). At dinner on Saturday night, his wife raised the issue of women being the concluding speaker in Sacrament meeting. She noted that, for as long as she could remember, the last talk had always been given by a man. To be honest, I am usually juggling books, crayons and Cheerios all meeting, so I had not noticed this particular trend. My much more observant wife, on the other hand, had. My pal confirmed that, in fact, the standing rule in our ward is that the concluding speaker must be a Priesthood holder. As a result, for all of the High Council Sundays we endure, we will never have a ladies-only program. As you might imagine, the wives pressed him for the reasoning behind this practice. The answer was simple: that’s the way the Bishop (who is, by all accounts, a great Bishop) wants it because that’s the way it has always been in our ward, period. My friend had never thought to raise the issue with the Bishop or to use his own discretion in scheduling a woman as the final speaker on a week for which he is responsible. And until he (or someone else in a position of power) says something, nothing will change.
Second, if we don’t put our best selves forward in Church, we unilaterally restrict the depth and range of the discussion and, as a result, we potentially stunt our own spiritual growth, as well as the spiritual development of our brothers and sisters. Christ warned against hiding our candles under a bushel, and instead commanded us to “let your light so shine before men.” This mandate applies not only to our dealings with outsiders (i.e., missionary work), but also to the way we interact with one another inside the Church. I am not so narcissistic to believe any of my random Sunday comments are going to change the world. But the ‘Nacle is full of accounts describing everyday members desperately seeking someone, anyone with whom to discuss their thoughts, concerns and questions. As John Nilsson’s excellent “People Who Helped Me Stay Mormon” posts make clear, sometimes the difference between activity and inactivity is finding such a relationship or, at a minimum, knowing that you are not alone in your congregation. We often hide behind the pretense of not wanting to offend. But I believe that well-intentioned comments and interjections are at least as likely to have a profoundly positive effect on listeners. Isn’t it worth the risk?
And as for our own spiritual development, separating ourselves from our community by any degree is bound to be unhealthy. Take my friend with the Noah issue. Staying in the foyer during Sunday School is a short-term fix to his problem: he avoids the cognitive dissonance he feels when attending class. The long-term effects of that decision, however, may be quite negative. As anyone who has ever gone through a spate of inactivity knows, once you start skipping one hour, it’s much easier to find reasons to avoid the other two hours as well.
Third, I personally find the rationale behind this “keep quiet” approach to be as offensive as any “Democrats are of the devil” comment I’ve heard from teachers. No matter how it is couched, this philosophy boils down to the belief that other ward members are (i) too spiritually fragile, (ii) too close-minded, or (iii) too ignorant to comprehend the wisdom that we more-enlightened Mormons possess, but judiciously choose to keep under our hats. Furthermore, such thinking drives (and exacerbates already existing) artificial wedges between us: liberal Mormons vs. conservative Mormons, Iron Rod Mormons vs. Liahona Mormons, etc. Even worse, this attitude is wholly un-Christlike. He taught, “when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” I doubt that assuming the worst about our brethren, and then stifling discussion with them based on that prejudice, meets this lofty standard of conduct.
Furthermore, I have come to believe that most (or at least many) Mormons with whom we share the pews on Sunday are open to, if not eager for, the meatier Gospel discussion from which we abstain. Put another way, not only are our prejudices unholy, they are unwarranted. Two recent examples brought this point home to me very clearly:
- In December of last year, I was asked to give an EQ lesson on a recent Conference talk. I spoke with the EQ President and told him that, in light of the fact that we were closing out a year of discussing Spencer W. Kimball, I would rather teach a lesson about the 1978 Priesthood revelation. Being overly cautious, I offered to give him an advance copy of the lesson outline. He agreed, but laughed off the idea of “pre-screening” the lesson. In the preceding days, I was quite nervous about how the Elders would react to what I had to say. Would they shout me down as a liberal? Would they stand on thier own pre-conceived notions about curses and fence-sitting? The lesson was nothing spectacular – in fact, I cribbed most of it from Darius Gray’s Mormon Stories presentation. But I made clear that the justifications concocted to justify the Priesthood ban were not doctrinal and should not be passed on as such. To my great satisfaction, the class was engaged, attentive and involved. Not one of them fought me — we had a fulfilling, informed discussion of the issue. Afterwards, a couple of them took a moment to tell me how much the enjoyed the class. I don’t tell this story to toot my own horn. Far from it. Looking back, I am ashamed to admit that I assumed the worst about my fellow Priesthood holders. Assuming myself to be better informed, I had pre-judged them all as racists, or something close to it. Given the subject matter of my lesson, the irony of such prejudice was especially bitter.
- A few weeks ago, I sent an e-mail to my Bishopric buddy, asking whether anyone would be speaking in Sacrament meeting on 6/8 about the 30th anniversary of the 1978 revelation. I let him know about the Genesis Group’s planned fireside that night in the SLC Tabernacle. I (a lowly Sunday School teacher) then humbly suggested that a few words on this subject would be appropriate and appreciated. He called my bluff, bumped a youth speaker and gave me a 10-12 minute slot on the program. Not quite what I had in mind, but I’ll admit to being impressed with his willingness (i) to take suggestions from the congregation, and (ii) to allow a speaker to address this subject from the pulpit. In my 35 years of Church attendance, I can’t remember ever hearing such a talk so, needless to say, I’m a bit nervous (looks like it’s time for a refresher visit to Mormon Stories — thanks again, John D.).
So, for these reasons, I say it is high time for us to all quit whining about how we can’t speak up in Church. Let’s take charge of our Sunday worship and became active, engaged participants in the discussion. How? Make it a practice to comment in class. Even if your input does not contain some pearl of great intellectual price, get in the habit of conversing with the instructor and the class. That way, you will build up a trust, such that your more potentially controversial or out-of-the-box contributions won’t be viewed as purposefully provocative. If your quorum or RS lessons are boring, volunteer to teach a week or two. In doing so, however, we should heed Armand Mauss’s warning against becoming “intellectual adolescents,” those who “are searching less for understanding than for cheap shots at traditional shibboleths, or for juicy and scandalous tidbits about Church leaders past and present.” I’d be interested to hear approaches folks have taken in this regard.
On the other hand, if you choose to keep your wisdom to yourself, I beg that you quit taking up valuable blog real estate with complaints about how no understands or appreciates you. The choice to get involved is yours alone, my friends: either put up or shut up. If you take the latter option, you have only yourself to blame.