Whether its NBA player Jason Collins coming out as gay, or another politician explaining his “evolving” views on sexuality, recent news headlines seem to reveal Americans’ rapidly changing attitudes toward sexual orientation.
Here in Kansas City, the Community of Christ church recently added its voice to the chorus of those in favor of equal treatment for gays and lesbians. Two weeks ago, delegates from across the country came to the church’s world headquarters in Independence and voted to allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay and lesbians ministers in its US churches.
In 1844, the group now known as Community of Christ began to diverge from the majority of the Latter day Saints followers. Since that time, the Community of Christ group has shifted dramatically in policy from the larger Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon church. Until 2001, Community of Christ was known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Both Latter-day Saints churches hold the book of Mormon as a sacred text, and recognize Joseph Smith Jr. as a prophet, but over the decades, Community of Christ policies have shifted to allow ordination of women and open communion, among other changes.
While Smith and the leaders who followed him are recognized as prophets, the church’s concept of prophets has changed over the years. Today, democracy is an important part of the church’s policy-making process.
“Our understanding of our prophetic role has expanded,” explains Linda Booth, who is one of the church's 12 apostles. “And we now understand that we’re not just a people with a prophet who brings to us divine counsel, but we’re also a people that are called to be vulnerable to the Holy Spirit and to one another and allow ourselves to be prophetic as well.”
Linda Booth sits in a meeting room inside the church’s towering silver-spiral Temple in Independence. She describes how the democratic process lead the church to what may be its biggest-ever policy change.
Traditionally, Community of Christ, which has more than 250,000 members in 61 countries, has not allowed same-sex marriage and required gay and lesbian clergy to be celibate. But at the 2010 world conference, the leadership of several countries, Australia and Canada, in particular, wanted to reconsider that policy. But not every country was ready for the discussion.
“This issue having to do with same gender is very controversial and very harmful to talk about for people who live in, for example, in some of the nations we have Community of Christ in Africa, as well, quite honestly, in Central and South America and Haiti and several countries like that. And so the decision by the body was made that it was best handled culturally in different nations, rather than bringing it to the full body to make a decision.”
After the world conference, the US church decided to start what it called a journey of faith to determine what its own policy should be. At churches throughout the country, leaders spoke with congregations about the issues. And during the recent weekend of April 19th through 21st, the representatives returned to Independence to debate and vote on a new policy.
“The body of those delegates determined that it was time for us to extend the sacrament of marriage to people in same-gender relationships in states where it’s legal,” says Booth. “To provide a covenant marriage-type ceremony or a covenant ceremony in places where marriage is not legal in states. As well as to provide opportunities for ordination of a person in a long-term – such as marriage or covenant – relationship to be ordained.”
The policy change will make Community of Christ the first major Latter-day Saints church to allow same-sex marriage and gay or lesbian clergy.
Several of the church’s doctrinal changes have led to members leaving the church. Since 1980, at least seven groups have left Community of Christ to form their own churches. The renewed possibility of this kind of fractioning has been a concern during the new policy discussion.
“We have developed what we call ‘faithful disagreement,’” says Booth.
She says they recognize there will always be issues that they do not agree on and have put together resources to help people through the change.
"Even though we might disagree on something, our love for one another and our love for the church should be greater than those disagreements," Booth says. "So we’re providing very loving support and space for people who are struggling with this issue.”
She explains that Community of Christ clergy members will be allowed to decide for themselves whether they will administer same-sex wedding ceremonies. However, this concession hasn’t been enough for some members.
Linda Booth says a few congregants and clergy members have already left the church following the decision. The vote brought tears of sadness from some, but many more have been celebrating what she calls a new understanding within the church.
“We, as Community of Christ,” Linda Booth says, “Are becoming what our name really means: a community that is very welcoming, that all people are welcome around the table.”
The Community of Christ will spend the next year determining the details of the new policy. After that, the policy will be tested for a year before becoming official.