In another month I will experience General Convention at a distance of 2,000 miles. Convention will nonetheless keep me busy, as I edit daily reports by The Living Church’s reporting team at the Salt Palace Convention Center.
This year’s meeting marks the first time in 24 years — since the 70th General Convention met in Phoenix — that I have not been present for at least half of the schedule. This change is mostly welcome, because Convention has always overwhelmed me. If you know the feeling of fearing that something more important is happening in another building, another room, or even one table over as you dine, you know what I experience through most hours of any General Convention.
I will not miss crowded pathways, Westboro Baptist Church’s cookie-cutter protests, hysterical responses to Westboro Baptist Church’s protests, noisy wine-and-cheese receptions, scorching heat, sore feet, and the never-ending struggle to stave off dehydration.
I will miss other moments, though. My introvert’s soul is refreshed by shared meals with fellow journalists, longtime friends, or people I’ve wanted to meet for years. One of my fondest memories of Convention in 2012 was an extended interview with attorney Michael Rehill, who was every bit the storyteller and principled fighter I expected he would be, especially in light of his persisting questions about Title IV.
Here’s a sentence I spent most of my life thinking I would never write: I will miss the chance to see Salt Lake City, other than from its utilitarian airport or from an airliner’s small window. My life has intersected with Mormon culture a few times:
- A close childhood friend converted to Mormon faith for a few decades.
- I interviewed two filmmakers on their efforts to make mainstream films that are sympathetic to Mormons.
- I toured the restored temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, in researching a never-fulfilled essay about Masonic influences on Mormon architecture.
- I talked with two Mormon couples for a chapter that did not make the final cut for my book Tithing: Test Me in This. (The short version: The LDS is not as legalistic about tithing as it once was, but tithing remains a consideration for a “temple recommend,” which assures access to crucial ordinances and sacraments, such as proxy baptism and eternal marriage.)
With all this in mind, I was disappointed to read that the Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations “has no plan to recommend beginning formal bilateral dialogue with the LDS Church” (from the commission’s Blue Book report). The commission supports interacting with Jews and Muslims in “dialogue on topics of common interest, including religious matters, shared worship occasions, and participation in local and regional interfaith councils.”
What stops it at the Mormon threshold? Christology is not the sole issue.
I know what factors would be problematic for me, as a cradle Episcopalian who recites the Nicene Creed through an evangelical understanding. I want to know what restrains a commission of the Episcopal Church from commending good-faith discussion with Mormons.
The commission made its decision in response to an enabling resolution (2012-D081), which the 77th General Convention sent along for further discussion. It urged bilaterial talks between the Episcopal Church and the LDS Church. The enabling resolution did not require treating the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a Christian body, but urged dialogue for “interreligious purposes of friendship, good will, [and] mutual understanding.”
At the heart of my disappointment is a thought that I have weighed since Executive Council and the House of Bishops began holding periodic meetings in Salt Lake City: in practice, the Episcopal Church and LDS have one crucial point of theology in common, and it is called continuing revelation. Experienced observers of General Convention will have heard that phrase, or derivations of it, such as “The Holy Spirit is doing this new thing among us,” “The Holy Spirit is guiding us into new truth,” or “My bishop speaks prophetically about marriage equality.”
The Episcopal Church put it this way in 2005, in its response to the Windsor Report:
Holy Scripture, historical and contemporary understandings of human sexuality, and liturgical developments have been integral to discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit. The consequent testing and discerning of the Holy Spirit has led to fuller understandings of God’s action and grace towards us, including hearing anew older voices from the tradition. (To Set Our Hope on Christ, p. 27, emphasis added)
Continuing revelation is not exclusive to the LDS and the Episcopal Church. The United Church of Christ endorsed it through this marketing slogan: “God is still speaking: Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”
But the LDS has the distinction of relying on continuing revelation in making two massive changes in its historic theology: repudiating plural marriage (1890) and opening its voluntary priesthood to all members, regardless of race (1978).
Even if General Convention never authorizes dialogue with Mormons, our churches both affirm continuing revelation, with varying degrees of candor. Theologians in both churches ought to wonder how far that revelation extends and on what basis the Episcopal Church sets any limits on it.
And yes, I know: be careful what you wish for.
The featured image of the Salt Palace Convention Center was uploaded to Flickr by jnshaumeyer. It is licensed under Creative Commons.