There’s recently been a conversation about excommunication in light of Sam Young being called to a disciplinary council. I’m not aware enough of the intricacies of the situation to really comment on it specifically, but I am interested in talking about excommunication more generally. A conversation about excommunication, I think, must be broken into at least two larger sections. The first about excommunication itself, that is the process, the outcome (desired and actual), the purpose, the secrecy and publicity, etc. The second about opposition and consent and how those play into excommunication itself.
I have never participated in a disciplinary council, but have read transcripts of them and accounts of them from those being disciplined and also spoken with leaders that have participated in them. I am agnostic about the efficacy and morality of disciplinary councils and in particular excommunication, especially for ideological reasons. Some of this agnosticism is definitely due to the public and largely ideologically motivated excommunications, as well as the origin of Church discipline as relating at least partially to the relationship between or attitude towards Church leadership.
All that aside, let’s talk about some of the difficulties with a conversation about excommunication. The Church does not comment on disciplinary proceedings, with rare exceptions, besides a standard statement about disciplinary councils being a local matter. This means that access to the proceedings will be limited to the perspective of the individual called to the disciplinary council. We will not have the other perspective. Now, this doesn’t mean that the information provided by any of these individuals is wrong or misleading, just that we do not have all the information.
In addition to this, we have no official data on excommunications. My sense is that the vast majority of excommunications are for non-ideological reasons. That is for adultery or other sexual transgressions or for actions relating to LGBTQ+ identity. I could be wrong, but that’s my guess. This lack of data means that our perspective is limited to those cases that are public, that capture media attention, and that include an individual disclosing that they have been called to a disciplinary council or excommunicated. Because of this, there is an inherent bias in the information available to us. Those that have undergone discipline for non-public transgressions have little to no motivation to disclose such discipline. Especially if they are planning on returning to full-membership (another piece of information that we don’t have access to—how many excommunicated members are rebaptized? What is the average timeline for that? How do those numbers filter out concerning the varied reasons for excommunication (ie are those ex’d for adultery more likely to be rebaptized than those that are ex’d for apostasy?)?).
This seems to be a piece of the liberal bias in excommunications, meaning that it seems that more liberal members are excommunicated at higher rates than conservative members. Some of this is absolutely due to the conservative leanings of the institutional Church, but I think another factor is that public conservative radicals have little to no incentive, generally, to make their discipline public. Their authority and position generally depend on being a part of the institution (figures like A Purposeful Wife on twitter or Joseph Bishop, both of whom are rumored to have faced Church discipline and to no longer be members of record). Liberal radicals (like Dehlin, Kate Kelly, Sam Young, etc.) have something to gain by being ex’d—they achieve martyr status and cement many of their criticisms of the institution. These individuals also face a terrible cost—being cut off from an institution that they believe in and find value in—I’m not trying to diminish the pain and suffering of being excommunicated, just highlighting that these individuals’ appeal generally is such that disclosing disciplinary council proceedings will increase their credibility and not damage it.
The gender imbalance of disciplinary councils should be noted. Those attending the council will be almost exclusively men (exceptions being if a woman is facing discipline or the individual facing discipline has asked for their wife or another woman to be present with them). This is tied to the institutional inequality in the hierarchy of the Church and I think should be addressed. A concern is the privacy of the proceedings (doubling the current number of participants by adding the necessary women to achieve gender parity seems unwise). Gender parity in disciplinary councils seems like a good goal (though the final decision is made by either the Bishop or Stake President, which would mean that unless there are significant changes the final word will still always come from a man).
Opposition & Consent
Excommunication for apostasy may not make up a majority of excommunications, but is part of the larger conversation about advocacy in the Church and therefore worthy of more examination. It seems that these excommunications come back to in some degree or another the idea of sustaining and making decisions by common consent and what, if any, role opposition plays in that process.
The idea of voting to sustain and support something inherently includes the possibility of voting in opposition. Yet, if this vote is disciplined, how much of a possibility is there? It strikes me that the general dilution of the sustaining process has created false and dangerous notions of apostasy. It seems to me that if you have a rule for common consent being the basis of decision making, that there must be room for those decisions to be made and for opposition to be voiced. It cannot be a top-down, authoritarian structure, or the common consent is empty. If everything and everyone is always unanimously sustained, then why bother? (There’s a great scene or two in The Death of Stalin that illustrates this point I think.)
However, it is worth noting that the rule of “by common consent” was established when the Church was much smaller and more tight knit than it currently is and those characteristics suggest a difference in implementation. I don’t know what a worldwide, multimillion-member organization that fully practices decision making by common consent would look like.
By always unanimously sustaining everything and everyone, the implication is that any refusal to sustain, any vote of opposition is tantamount to looking God in the face and denying Him/Her/Them. After all, sustaining seems generally interpreted as recognizing that God has selected this individual to accomplish said task and a refusal to sustain, a vote in opposition, would be saying otherwise. And, if the entire congregation, the entire Church, feels that God has chosen them, who are you to tell God and all these witnesses that that is not the case?
Questions for Solutions
I don’t have clear solutions, but I do have some questions that I think should be considered as we move toward solutions:
What is the purpose of excommunication? (It seems to me there are two, somewhat conflicting purposes—repentance and boundary maintenance.)
Is it efficacious?
Are those purposes equally important?
What would Jesus do?
Should we restructure disciplinary councils to include gender parity?
If so, what would that look like?
How can we best use disciplinary councils to help others come unto Christ?
How can we reinterpret decision making by common consent for the modern Church?
How can we incorporate an ethic of dissent or opposition into Mormonism?
Will such an ethic demand the inclusion of excommunication?
Is refusing to excommunicate anyone a possibility?
Would such failure to excommunicate result in implicitly endorsing behaviors, beliefs, actions, practices, teachings, etc. that should not be endorsed?
If so, is this more damaging than any current implicit endorsement?
Should the Church centralize disciplinary proceedings?
Would centralization increase or decrease injustices in the system?
Should the Church be more public about disciplinary councils? (Once upon a time, the Church publicly announced excommunications over the pulpit in Sacrament Meeting.)
What are the pros and cons of increased transparency surrounding disciplinary councils generally and excommunications specifically?
How can this transparency be achieved without violating any Priest-penitent privilege or similar legal protections?
Should excommunications continue?