The 2018 semi-annual general conference of the LDS Church is summed up for me in the address of David A Bednar. In a fallacious rewriting of history (a popular pass-time in many quarters these days) he painted a picture of church leadership stretching back to the days of Spencer W Kimball’s presidency (1973-1985), his aim to show God’s hand leading his church unerringly to the breathtaking news that Sunday meetings will be reduced from 3 hours to 2 hours. It was in the plan all along it seems, though we didn’t know it at the time.
Unconfined joy was, apparently, the response to this ground-breaking, faith-affirming demonstration of prophetic leadership in this announcement. Mormon leaders queued up in the conference hall to ‘solemnly testify’ to a remarkable confirmation of this incandescence of heavenly revelation in the upper room of the temple. Images came to mind, as I listened, rapt, of Israel shrinking back from the foot of the mountain as God delivered his edicts to Moses. You don’t need to go to the mountain, you can hear Quentin L Cook on catch-up unpack this prophetic word here.
Enough Rope to Hang…
But what of David Bednar? He begins with a gripping account of rope-making, telling how making rope from ordinary, otherwise weak, materials can produce an extraordinary tool of great strength. I wanted to go out and buy a rope there and then. Using this as an illustration, referencing the ‘gathering in of truth,’ he spoke of heeding the admonition of Paul to, ‘gather together in one all things in Christ.’ This is a reference to Paul’s letter to Ephesus in which he writes:
‘In him (Christ) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, for which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’ (Ephesians 1:7-10)
I can see how he might completely misunderstand this text and see Mormonism here. You might call it an occupational hazard. References to ‘all wisdom and knowledge’ suggest a gathering in of truth, allusions to ‘the fullness of time,’ to ‘ a plan,’ suggest Mormonism, restoration, and the ‘plan of salvation.’ Your mindset will make you see what you want to see. To a man with a hammer everything is a nail.
Paul’s words here, however, are not admonitory but expository. He is describing the purpose and work of God, not the duty and work of man. He is inviting us to stand back and be astonished by God’s glorious grace (c.f. Exodus 14:13-14) the love he has lavished on us. He is encouraging awe at the revelation to us of the purpose and mystery of his will, set forth in the incarnation, ministry, sacrifice, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Paul is not saying we are to gather all truth under Christ, but explaining the truth in Christ. He is not setting forth a plan we are to follow. He is saying that God has effected a cosmic reconciliation of all things in Christ. This is a work of God, not of man.
The ‘fullness of time’ here, doesn’t mean the days of Mormonism, any more than ‘the last days’ means the days just before Christ’s return. We have been in ‘the last days’ for some 2,000 years (Acts 2:17; Hebrews 1:2) and ‘the fullness of time’ simply means, ‘when the time was ripe.’ In this instance some 2,000 years ago, when Christ triumphed over sin and death (John 17:1; 2 Corinthians 6:2). Paul is saying, when the time was ripe God, in Christ, effected a reconciliation and a gathering in of all things in Christ.
Paul goes on in the same vein in verse 11 to write of, ‘him, who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be for the praise of his glory.’ Paul is writing about he who works, not we who work. Why for the praise of his glory? Because he has done it (Ephesians 2:8). What is our role in this? That we should also come to hope in him, that we should work out that hope in God’s finished work in Christ, in lives of faithfulness and obedience (Ephesians 2:9; Philippians 2:12) Not bringing all things together under Christ, but being part of all that God brings together under Christ according to his set will and purpose.
A Ropey Argument…
What of this rope illustration that, at a cursory glance, might seem impressive? David Bednar gathers together what are disparate events in Mormon Church history, of which we will examine five, to paint a picture of God’s working towards what he calls a ‘remarkable and revelatory season of the Church of Jesus Christ,’ the announcements in this conference and other recent conferences:
‘Much as the braided strands of a rope produce a powerful and durable tool, all of these interrelated actions are part of a unified effort to better align the focus, resources, and work of the Saviour’s restored church with it’s fundamental mission to assist God in his work to bring to pass the salvation and exaltation of his children. Please do not focus upon the logistical aspects of what has been announced. We must not allow procedural details to obscure the overarching spiritual reasons these changes now are being made.’
As a doctrinal example he uses the LDS fourth article of faith, saying that faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost are four strands that make an unbreakable rope of faith and obedience that help us move forward in God’s plan. It’s a thoughtful and simple picture that will, no doubt, stay with Mormons for years to come. It is an illustration, however, that lends itself well to hindsight, as we will see.
He goes on to say, ‘I now want to show how all church programmes and initiatives are gathered together in one in Christ’
Build Zion Where You Are
‘In 1978 president Spencer W Kimball instructed the saints to build up the strength of Zion throughout the world. H counselled the saints to remain in their native lands and establish strong stakes by gathering together the family of God and teaching them the ways of the Lord…’
The problem with every example he gives is the motive and reason have changed with the benefit of hindsight. In this instance, Spencer W Kimball’s administration saw and had to deal with a significant growth in numbers. In the early days converts moved in their thousands to be near church headquarters. The Church inaugurated the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company in 1849 to help poorer members afford, by means of a rolling loan system, to move to Utah.
This call to ‘gather to Zion,’ became impractical in light of significant growth. It made sense to encourage people to stay and build Zion where they were. No doubt benefits, in strong stakes and local gatherings, accrued in light of this change, but they were not the original motive for the change. This was not prophetic but prosaic.
Consolidated Meeting Schedule
‘In 1980 Sunday meetings were consolidated into a three hour block to re-emphasise personal and family responsibility for learning, living, and teaching the gospel…’
The problem here is that the decision to consolidate the meetings schedule was driven, not by a change of emphasis in church policy, but by the fact the 1970’s had seen serious oil crises. The new schedule reduced the amount of travel required in those areas where church members were scattered. This was not prophetic but prosaic.
The Family Proclamation
‘This emphasis on family and the home was again affirmed in ‘The Family, a Proclamation to the World’ introduced by president Gordon B Hinckley in 1995…’
This proclamation was a reaction to the growing threat to a core Mormon, indeed a core Christian teaching on the vital importance of the traditional family. it provides an official statement of the church on gender and sex. In 1997, the LDS Church included the text of the Proclamation in an amicus brief to petition the Hawaii supreme court to reject same sex marriage. Much as we might agree with it’s sentiments, this proclamation reflected what many people of faith felt about the way the world was going in relation to gender, marriage, and families. It was practical and prosaic not prophetic.
Temples, Temples, Temples
In April of 1998 president Hinckley announced the construction of many more small temples thus bringing the sacred ordinances of the Lord’s house closer to individual Latter-Saint families throughout the world…’
It was in 1998 that the Mormon Church opened one of it’s largest construction developments of the 2oth century outside of Utah, the Preston-England temple. Clearly, projects on that scale could not be sustained, and would only exist because of their strategic significance. As it is, both the Preston-England and the London-England temples have often operated on a part-time basis since 1998, sharing a shrinking number of ‘worthy’ attendees between the two sites.
Smaller temples have been a financial necessity more than anything. There was talk before I left the church in 1986 of mini-temples being built onto ward and stake houses. This hasn’t happened but it is clear that smaller temples are a matter of hard-headed financial sense, practical and prosaic rather than prophetic.
Concentrated Meeting Schedule
Essential principles about making the Sabbath a delight in the home and at church have been emphasised and reinforced, thus preparing us for the Sunday meeting schedule announced in this session of general conference. And six months ago Melchizedek priesthood quorums were aligned more effectively with the auxiliaries to accomplish a higher and holier approach to ministry..’
The reason for this change is purely administrative. ‘The key reason for the change,’ the new president said, ‘is the need for a more effective ministry.’ He also said this idea had been, ‘worked on, reviewed and refined for many months.’ Well, yes, we all remember when Paul heard the call to Macedonia? (Acts 16:9) Doesn’t the text go on to say how Paul and his companions ran a focus group, modelled and tested it, before finally going? Dress it up however you like, this is a decision from human resources rather than heaven. Practical and prosaic rather than prophetic.
The Takeaway and the Truth
What are we intended to take away with us? That decisions and initiatives over the past forty years were not taken in an ad hoc manner. There was always a plan. Indeed, David Bednar says as much, ‘I believe that the timing and sequence of these actions over many decades can help us to see one, united, and comprehensive work, and not just a series of independent and discreet initiatives.’
The trouble with this carefully crafted talk is it draws together strands whose original purposes were disparate not congruous. They did not look ahead prophetically but considered the issues at hand and worked to deal with them. There is nothing wrong with this. The error is in claiming congruity of purpose in a kind of meta-narrative when history shows no such meta-narrative influenced those decisions and policies. This is the classic post hoc fallacy, claiming because one event follows another, the former must have caused the latter.
But this is the advantage of prophetic hindsight. You can clearly see what has happened and, with a little imagination, and some rewriting of history, you can weave a rope to show how it always was leading to what happened today. And if the faithful are told this is, ‘a remarkable and revelatory season of the Church of Jesus Christ,’ they will believe it without question, or reflection. Things simply have a way of working out after all and, if you are prepared to accept the first explanation to come along and confirm your untested preconceptions, management becomes marvellous, admin becomes awesome, the prosaic becomes prophetic.