Last week, I reported here at RD that copies of the new LDS Church Handbook of Instructions, a two-volume, 400-page tome detailing Church doctrines, policies, and procedures (call it a Mormon Talmud) previously reserved only for local and regional Church leaders had been leaked on the Internet days before its official release at a special Saturday meeting satellite-broadcast from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City.
Before last week, in a whole lifetime of Mormonism, I can only remember seeing the CHI once, when I was a teenager, in the home where I grew up. Because my dad had served a few terms as a bishop—a lay minister in charge of a Mormon congregation—we had a copy in the house. The memory is fuzzy, but I believe it was my mom who brought it out so we could check out the juicy parts: church policy on birth control. Not that my mom needed a refresher course in Church policy. My mom knows these things by heart; she’s a professional Mormon.
The inaccessibility of the CHI to regular members only heightened its power and significance, so much so that anyone who could quote authoritatively from the CHI during a Sunday School lesson, for example, held a special sort of status in the community. (In Mormonism, the demands of lay ministerial service do convey certain privileges as well.)
So imagine how LDS web crawlers felt last week when we found ourselves staring at a blog published by a self-described Mormon “Martin Luther” who had scanned the entire CHI into two giant PDF files and put them on the internet. For just anyone. For free. A few hours later, a fully-searchable edition of the CHI started to make the digital rounds. And by Friday, much to our astonishment, the LDS Church published the entire second volume on its own website. (The first volume remains officially restricted to lay clerical leaders.)
The buzz among bloggers and web-journalists quickly converged around changes to the section of the Handbook dealing with homosexuality. One Utah television station even ran a nightly news segment suggesting a link between the changes, Proposition 8, and the protests following Elder Boyd K. Packer’s controversial conference talk on homosexuality.
Yesterday, the Church newsroom went on the defensive with a blog post decrying the poor journalism of the local television news crew (shocking), especially its narrative linking of recent protests to the CHI changes, pointing out that the revision process “began in 2007 and copies were printed months ago.”
True enough. Those of us who watch closely have seen the changes coming. And of course the Church rejects the idea that non-Mormon activism drives Mormon doctrinal change.
But I suspect that the Church newsroom is reacting less to sensationalistic journalism (a time-honored problem for LDS people) than to the difficulty of controlling informational narratives in the digital era.
Yes, it’s a brave and sometimes uncomfortable digital new world for an institutional LDS Church built around centralized hierarchy, a strong chain-of-command, and highly-disciplined top-down messaging. We’re a people for whom insider-outsider message control (and double-speak) has served as a form of cultural survival since the 19th century US crusade against polygamy, as the anthropologist Daymon Smith has observed. During the mid 20th century, Mormon leaders initiated an administrative process called “correlation” to try to systematize and simplify Church doctrine in the service of worldwide proselytizing and coordination.
Top-down correlation may have met its match in the world of the Internet, where information flows horizontally.
Just since September, we’ve seen a significant amount of movement in the official discourse of the LDS Church on LGBT issues. From the controversy surrounding Elder Boyd Packer’s Conference talk to the changes in the CHI, every single step of it—indeed, every phrase, every bit of punctuation—has been tracked on the Internet, minute-by-minute, by communities of LDS people and those who report on Mormon experience and issues. I’ve never seen anything like it before.
Folks in some on-line LDS communities winkingly call it “Kremlinology.” (Not that the LDS Church is, well, the Soviet regime.) But a Church that prizes the opacity of its inner workings is experiencing an unusual level of uninvited transparency.
And there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.
Information wants to be free. Stories want to travel. And our Mormon faith teaches us that over time, at the intersection of multiple processes human and divine, new truth is revealed.
As long as that new truth makes the Church a more welcoming place for my LGBT Mormon brothers and sisters, I don’t care how it gets here.
I only want it to hurry.