Community of Christ
Homosexuals in the RLDS Church: A Progress Report
William D. Russell
By William D. Russell (biographical note at end of paper)
Sunstone Symposium, Salt Lake City, July 17, 1999
I have a friend named Kevin, who served in the Navy in the early 1970s. While in the Navy he was impressed with a buddy who spent a lot of his spare time studying the scriptures. When they were out to sea and docked in various ports around the world, Kevin was impressed that his friend Jeff would go sightseeing in the cities rather than joining his friends at the whorehouses that are popular with many of our fine young men in blue.
Kevin began attending church with Jeff in San Diego. He was impressed with how the people in Jeff's congregation cared about each other. Among the people he met were my future mother-in-law and father-in-law, Don and Lucille Beach. Kevin decided to be baptized into the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with headquarters in Independence, Missouri, not to be confused with the church with a very similar name with headquarters in a really tall building here in Salt Lake City!
When Kevin was discharged from the Navy he stayed in San Diego, got married, and was ordained a deacon in the RLDS priesthood. But there was one aspect of his personhood that made marriage and priesthood a very uncomfortable fit. Kevin was gay. The marriage was short-lived. When he and his wife separated, my future in-laws invited him to stay in a mobile home in their back yard. Don and Lucille pretty well knew that Kevin was gay. But that didn't diminish their love for him. Kevin lived there for about a year before leaving San Diego and dropping out of activity in the RLDS church.
Ten years later, in October 1984, Kevin had ended up back in his home town in the eastern part of this great country of ours, and had begun attending the RLDS church there. His home congregationwhich I am going to call "Liberty" to protect the guiltyscheduled a weekend spiritual retreat at the Kirtland Temple.
When they arrived at the temple, the person who opened the door was Kevin's old Navy friend, Jeff. Kevin had not seen or heard from Jeff in ten years. Jeff had taken an unpaid job as a tour guide at the temple, and if the reports of Bill Hartley and Dean Jessee are to be believedand I believe themJeff was a very good tour guide. But Jeff's religious fanaticism would cause him to develop a cult in Kirtland.
Kevin became a member of Jeff's group, which in the beginning was merely a scripture study group, which seemed innocent enough. Jeff gradually attracted more people into the group. The remarkable thing about Kevin is that of the fifteen adults in the grouphe was the only one who left the group when Jeff began to suggest that they would have to kill people.
Kevin literally fled, fearing for his life, with only the clothes on his back and the scriptures which he loved. He called law enforcement authorities. His action and the action of the late Dennis Yarborough, Kirtland's Chief of Police, may have saved the lives of several RLDS families who lived near the temple, including Stake President Dale Luffman, now an apostle in the RLDS church. [The Buffalo News and the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran feature stories about Kevin after Lundgren was arrested in January, 1999.] But a year later Jeff would shoot and kill a family of five who were among his 28 followers. Jeff believed he killed them according to God's will, as revealed in the holy scriptures.
Kevin stayed away from the Liberty Congregation after he fled Kirtland. I met him when we both testified for the defense at Jeff's trial in September 1990. I met with him about three more times over the next five years, and began to detect that he was getting interested in the church again, and especially in the Book of Mormon.
Eventually Kevin began going to church once again in his home congregation. He found the saints very welcoming. Later his house-mate and companion, Ray, began to attend church with him. Ray was accepted by the saints, and it was no secret that Kevin and Ray were more than friends. Kevin began holding Wednesday evening Book of Mormon study meetings at his home, inviting all interested members of the congregation. He still holds these weekly meetings today, three (?) years later. Eventually Ray was baptized, in the fall of 1997.
In April, 1998 Kevin and Ray attended the RLDS World Conference in Independence. They were thrilled with President Grant McMurray's sermon, especially this statement:
We struggle today with the proper way of expressing the sense of calling and giftedness of persons with varying lifestyles and orientations, including those who identify themselves as gay and lesbian. We often do not speak openly of this issue. Tonight I will. Let me make a heartfelt plea with all of you, whatever your views on this difficult issue may be. In a world that cannot come to common ground on any of the medical, psychological, cultural, and social issues that swirl around this topic, the church cannot be expected to have those ready answers. But here is what we can expectthat every person who walks through our doors will be received with open arms. We will listen to the life stories of each person who graces our fellowship and embrace them in love. On this there can be no compromise. (McMurray)
One day during conference Kevin had lunch with Apostle Dale Luffman, whose life he may have saved by his call to law enforcement authorities. During that lunch Dale introduced Kevin to Grant McMurray, who was eating at another table. As they were parting, President McMurray hugged Kevin. Possibly in that moment Kevin felt his worth as a human being affirmed as it had never before been affirmed in his life. Kevin later said: "I am 46 years old, and finally I feel part of a community that loves me." After a lifetime of rejection, he has found his congregation to be loving and accepting, and the hug from the President of the church was icing on the cake.
The official policy of the RLDS Church is that a homosexual can be in the priesthood if she or he is not a practicing homosexual. Well, Kevin and Ray do practice. Yet shortly after the World Conference, Kevin's pastor recommended that Kevin be ordained a priest. According to church policy Kevin should not be in the priesthood. But the pastor recommended him anyway.
Kevin is one of the kindest human beings I have ever known. The people in his congregation view him similarly. Do you think if you were in their shoes you would vote against his ordination simply because it is contrary to church policy? Of course not. No matter what some sentences might say in some thick anthology of ancient writings, and no matter what some administrative policy might say, I suspect you would rise above scripture and rise above church policy and do what you would know in your heart was right, and vote "Yes." That is what the people of Kevin's congregation and district did, and Kevin was ordained a priest last fall.
The RLDS Church has traditionally held the typical American Christian attitudes toward homosexuals. When it became known that a man in the priesthood was gay, the normal practice was that he would be silenced and normally he would cease church activity altogether, often dropping out of sight.
I probably should say a few words about the difference, as I see it, between the RLDS and LDS priesthood. The LDS make it automatic for adolescent boys to be ordained to the various Aaronic offices. By ordaining all active boys who appear on the surface to be "worthy," it seems to me that priesthood status, by itself, is not all that important for those members who possess the physical characteristics we identify as male.
But for the RLDS, priesthood is not automatic, at any age. Even before women were ordained, a man could be a life-long active member, not smoke, drink, hang out with wild women, and in every way seem "worthy," but never be called. The reason for this is that for him to be called to the priesthood, some ecclesiastical officer, usually his pastor, would have to believe that he had received some evidence that God had called this man. And also that he was called to a particular office. This can be the hardest part. "She's called to serve, but in what office?"
I think the RLDS person who does not get called to the priesthood is in a position similar to your "Adult Aaronic." Since the Aaronic offices are automatic for the apparently worthy LDS malesit is the failure to be called to the Melchizedek level that can create a sense of inadequacy in the LDS male similar to that of the RLDS female or male who is not called at all.
It seems to me that this is why the LDS and the RLDS church officials act differently when people do something really naughty, like attend Sunstone, or research and write about the operations of the General Authorities, or pray to our grandmother in heaven, or criticize church officials for heavy-handed administrative actions. The RLDS are more likely to silence the offender from his priesthood office. But for the LDS, the sanction most used is excommunicationremoving the offender from membership. You haven't done much to an Adult Aaronic if you take away his office of priest, which he shares with 300,000 16 year olds.
To illustrate, at Graceland this spring an LDS student, who is likely a priest, stole some paint from the college, painted five homophobic statements in various place on campus, and dumped the remaining paint on a student's car. While I suspect he would be kicked out of school if he did this as a BYU student, I doubt his acts will cost him his priesthood in the Osceola, Iowa ward.
In 1954 a highly respected RLDS apostle, George Mesley, was outed as a homosexual. He was the brother-in-law of a member of the First Presidency, F. Henry Edwards, making him Paul Edwards's "Uncle George." Mesley resigned from the Twelve and from church appointment. He remained a churchgoer but was silenced from the priesthood entirely.
Possibly because of the gay apostle's case, in the 1960s the church's Standing High Council spent a lot of time wrestling with the issue of homosexuality. The high council is often asked by the First Presidency to study difficult moral or ethical issues. On this matter they were asked questions like:
Their conclusion was that homosexuality was an illness and an abomination.
- Should a priesthood member found to be homosexual be silenced from his priesthood calling?
- Should he be allowed to continue as a member? Is homosexuality grounds for divorce?
Certainly a homosexual could not be in the priesthood and their membership might even be in question. There was an assumption that a person might experiment with homosexuality in their youth, so the issue was whether it became a "persistent practice." The council members also seemed to share the common assumption at that time that the persistent homosexual would tend to molest children. There seemed to be no differentiation between homosexuality and pedophilia. (Davis) Their views were consistent with the American culture of the time. Possibly as a result of the high council's policy recommendation, the First Presidency sent a letter to all pastors, in about 1964, telling them that homosexuals should not be ordained. A friend of mine recalls the reaction of Joe Campbell, who was pastor of a small rural congregation near Lamoni. "What if God calls a homosexual?" asked Pastor Campbell, unimpressed with the administrative ultimatum from Independence. (Muir)
In 1971 the church's official magazine, the Saints' Herald, in its "Question Time" column,
reiterated the 1960s policy. But during the 1970s and 1980s, as the issue of homosexuality began to get more public attention, the RLDS Church was also moving toward mainstream Protestantism and away from its sectarian "We are the one true church" mentality. A greater tolerance toward other churches usually accompanies such a sociological shift. It was to be expected that past policies of rejection would come under criticism. The First Presidency had appointed a Task Force on Human Sexuality. Kenneth Robinson drafted the committee report, which took a liberal view. The intention was to present the committee report for discussion at a retreat for High Priests and Seventies which was to be held at Graceland in 1981.
The report viewed homosexuality as a civil rights issue. It stated that sexuality is God given and that responsible sexual relations are holy. It suggested that homosexuals could be leaders in the church, and concluded that homosexuals who abstain could certainly be in the priesthood. They did not support gay marriage, however.
But the First Presidency got cold feet and decided not to push the issue at the High Priests and Seventies Retreat at Graceland. The policy that the Standing High Council finally recommended was essentially the First Presidency's cautious policy. That policy is still the policy today, which is, that a gay person can be in the priesthood only if she or he is celibate.
Homosexual acts were stated to be immoral. There was no distinction between promiscuous and committed, monogamist relationships. Persons who engaged in homosexual acts should not be ordained, and if already ordained they should be silenced from the priesthood. [The policy can be found in galanews, September 1998, pp. 7, 10.]
Just a couple of years ago, the Standing High Council again looked at the policy. They were more liberal than in earlier years, but they were torn between their support for ordination and their non-support for gay marriage. They were troubled by the inconsistency of the two policies, and could not find a consensus. So they reported no policy. (Davis) Probably most people would conclude that their inaction means that the conservative 1982 policy remains the church's policy. Others might argue that the 1990s high council's failure to agree on a policy means that the church at present has no policy. That would be ideal from the liberal perspective on the matter, leaving it to the local jurisdiction to handle the issue as the saints in that area, along with their leaders, see fit.
Maybe we can learn from two models in the recent past. The change in policy on women's ordination came by way of a revelation which was presented at a time when only about 40%at mostof the members favored it. The result? About 1/4 of our active members quit the church in the next five years.
Another major change we have made is to practice open communion rather than our previous official policy of closed communion where only RLDS members could partake of the bread and wine. The official policy changed in 1994 by way of a World Conference resolution. But the practice had already changedover the previous 20 years or more many local congregations had quietly begun serving non-RLDS people, even though that was contrary to policy. I know of no one who left the church over open communion. Possibly the open communion model is a better way to effect change than the women's ordination model. Granted, the fundamentalists who left in the late 1980's were not around to kick up a fuss over open communion in 1994. But the practice of letting local sentiments govern the matter is less divisive and allows for more stable change to occur in an institution.
For those who favor gay and lesbian acceptance, there are some very positive signs, in addition to the positive statements that have been made by President McMurray. I have chosen twelve rays of hope, reflecting the light that radiates from the Twelve Apostles.
1st. For at least 14 years there has existed an RLDS organization of gay and lesbian members and their straight supporters. GALA, or Gay and Lesbian Acceptance, is its name. GALA began in the early 1980s when a group of RLDS gay men in the Independence area began to meet for discussion. Early on, a retreat was planned at Camp Manitou, an RLDS campgrounds in Michigan. At the Manitou Retreat, 18 people gathered and voted to incorporate and form the GALA organization. (Biller) Currently about 500 people receive their quarterly newslettergalanews. (Scherer) GALA holds an annual international retreat and several regional retreats each year. My wife and I attended a GALA retreat in Chicago in April of this year. There were about 50-60 people in attendance. About 2/3 were gays and lesbians and the other 1/3 were heterosexual supporters. Three of the leaders of the retreat were World Church appointee ministers.
2nd. At the 1998 RLDS World Conference their activities were listed in the official program, and they were allowed to have an official booth at the conference, allowing them to discuss their organization with the conference delegates. A memorial service for AIDS victims, held during the conference, packed the Stone Church, the largest congregation in Independence. Retired RLDS Church Historian Dick Howard, and his wife Barbara, a retired Saints' Herald editor, conducted a worship service that was attended by many conference delegates, including President McMurray and his wife, Joyce. (Troyer, galanews, Spring 1998, p.1) On the last full day of the conference, a very positive discussion was held regarding the work of the Human Sexuality Task Force. Most delegates who spoke advocated toleration and acceptance.
3rd. Graceland College has also, by vote of our Faculty Meeting, the Alumni Council, and the Board of Trustees, added "sexual orientation" to its list of categories of people who are assured of non-discriminationrace, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc.
4th. Another encouraging sign is the creation in the last three years of a student group at Gracelanda gay-straight alliance. The organization has become fairly visible and active on campus. Several lesbian couples are "out" on campus, but the same is not true of the gay men.
5th. The recent painting of homophobic statements on campus were treated like hate crimes. Naming a particular studentI will call him "George"the paintings said things like "George is gay", "George is my bitch," and in one the "artist" painted a penis and placed George's name on it. While I regret that the painter of these obscene statements was not expelled from schoolthe vote for expulsion was 3-3one of several penalties imposed on him was to write a letter of apology to the gay-straight alliance on campus. I chair our disciplinary council, and when I explained why we imposed the apology as a requirement, he had a hard time getting it. If these paintings had been merely the typical graffiti about a rival, let's saylike "BYU sucks"I'm sure the penalties would have been much lighter.
6th. Many of the encouraging signs are at the local level. In some localities, Kevin's congregation being one of them, the policy on gay ordination is being ignored. For example, the president of the St. Louis Stake has announced on more than one occasion that he would resign his World Church appointmenta full-time salaried ministerif he were required to enforce the church policy on gays.
7th. The St. Paul, Minnesota, congregation openly declared themselves as an inclusive or welcoming congregation, and announced their decision in the pages of the church's official magazine, the Saints' Herald. They affirm they will not discriminate against gays and lesbians, including in the matter of priesthood.
8th. The congregation that Kevin and Ray attend has grown. Hearing about the acceptance Kevin and Ray have experienced in their congregation, several gay and lesbian people from other denominations have joined their congregation. It has also attracted new heterosexual persons who want to be part of such a congregation. Contrary to fears that accepting gays might drive away the heterosexuals, Kevin's congregation is growing.
9th. Up the road in Boise, Idaho, it was the RLDS church which offered the use of its building to a local gay community church, when other denominations were turning them down. I read about this in the Salt Lake Tribune a few years ago.
10th. Several church jurisdictions in California not only ordain known gays and lesbians but have chosen some to pastor their congregations.
11th. And in a dramatic recent development, the San Francisco Bay Stake has very recently begun a mission to the people in the Castro District, a world renowned gay community within San Francisco. This congregation began holding worship services on June 20, 1999, renting a Lutheran church. The stake plans to build a church in the Castro District, which will be both a coffee house and a place of worship. Interestingly enough, about 15 years ago the stake sold a church building and moved the congregation, it is believed by some to have
been because the congregation was too near the Castro District. Times change. (Watkins)
And finally, that 12th ray of hope: A number of lesbian and gay couples have had their marriages solemnized by RLDS priesthood in unofficial commitment ceremonies. My stake president in Lamoni is very supportive and recently attended a commitment service for a homosexual couple. Although the church has no official recognition of such services, it appears they are becoming more common. One lesbian couple in Indianapolis intended to have a quiet commitment service, inviting only friends they felt sure about. But as the word got out, many members of their congregation asked if they could be invited. The result was a much larger gathering of supporters than they had expected.
I have reflected recently on the importance of commitment ceremonies, probably because my wife and I were married two years ago this month. There were about 175 people attending. Rather than the usual triumphant grand entrance of the bride, Lois and I quietly entered the sanctuary and went through the pews, shaking hands or hugging every person there. (Paul Edwards was extra special so I gave him a kiss!) Each person was a cherished friend or family member of one or both of us. These greetings symbolized our appreciation for the support these people have been to us in the past, and are at present with regard to our decision to commit our lives to each other. It was a wonderful worship service, but the first 15 minutes, where we showed our appreciation to those who have loved us, was the best part.
Here at Sunstone Symposium, about 15 years ago, a presenter asked a question which has crossed my mind many times, especially since my wedding. That is, "If the saints value love and lifetime commitment, like we tell the world, why does the church withhold its blessing simply because the two people happen to be of the same sex?"
It is the same question I asked in the early 1960s of the RLDS people and of the good people of Independence, Missouri, regarding interracial couples. And I think the answer is the same. It saddens me to think how most gay and lesbian couples are denied the opportunity to have the kind of public expression of love and support that Lois and I received. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised at the depth of the feeling of appreciation I have seen in gay and lesbian couples when I have expressed to them my joy at their happiness their relationship is bringing them. I highly recommend that you verbalize your support of your gay and lesbian friends.
To be sure, all the news is not good. There are still priesthood holders being silenced for being gay. One, Randy, was a student of mine. An outstanding student and a wonderful person, Randy represents the very best among Graceland's graduates. The church has been very important in his life. The pain of his silencing has been very hard for Randy and his family and friends to bear. His mother, a dedicated church member, resigned her priesthood in support of Randy, and will resume her priesthood duties only if and when Randy's priesthood is restored. When my wife and I recently stood arm in arm with Randy and his mother, tears flowing down our cheeks because words failed us, I wondered if church administrators have any idea of the pain they inflict on good Christian people when they enforce rules that are based on principles which are contrary to the moral teachings of Jesus Christ, who taught the worth of all people.
The official position of the RLDS Church on priesthood remains: a homosexual can be in the priesthood only if s/he is not a practicing homosexual. But this policy is breaking down as the church in a significant number of jurisdictions is ignoring the policy and ordaining known homosexuals to the priesthood and not silencing from priesthood offices gay and lesbians who reveal their sexual orientation. Although unofficial, commitment ceremonies are becoming more common and have gained a surprising amount of support.
Attitudes are changing and the church appears to be in the middle of a change in practice. But it is difficult to tell at this point whether the battle will be a bloody one, like the ordination of women in the 1980s. But it appears that Grant McMurray is trying to carefully lead the church toward becoming a fellowship of people who provide a safe place for gays to worship and fellowship as respected members of the body of Christ. And when he became President he chose as the new counselor in the First Presidency none other than Ken Robinson, the person who wrote the liberal policy in 1978 that has been filed somewhere in the First Presidency's office ever since.
It is my opinion that a majority of the seriously homophobic members left the church in the 1980s, in the battle over women's ordination, and while this struggle will be difficult, I believe it will be less traumatic, with relatively few membership losses. And the losses might be more than balanced by the gains that result from a policy of toleration.
But in the final analysis, it doesn't matter if the church gains or loses members. If we are to serve the God we worshipa God of love and a God of justicewe will do what is right, without regard to whether it is popular.
Biller, Ray, galanews, October 1996, p. 1.
Davis, Paul, telephone conversation, July 6, 1999. Davis, the Seattle Stake president, was very helpful in providing historical background. He has researched the history of the church's leading councils' treatment of the issue of homosexuality in a paper that I have not read because it has not yet been approved for publication.
McMurray, W. Grant, "The Vision Transforms Us," The Saints'
Herald, June 1998, p. 232.
Muir, Dan, E-mail to the author, May 18, 1999.
Scherer, Aaron, E-mail to the author, July 1, 1999.
Troyer, Sharon, galanews, Spring 1998, p. 1.
Watkins, Kevin, conversation with the author, July 1, 1999.
William D. Russell is a professor of American History and Government,
Graceland College. He is a past president of the Mormon History Association;
former assistant editor of the Saints Herald; author of Treasure
in Earthly Vessels: An Introduction to the New Testament; a founder
of the Independence, Missouri, chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality;
and former chair of the Decatur County Democratic Party. He has competed
in the Boston and Los Angeles marathons and twenty-four others.