News broke on 8 August of the excommunication of a high ranking Mormon Church leader. Read the official statement here. The story was covered by major news outlets, but the most frequently cited reports are from the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News. The Tribune reported:
‘On Tuesday morning James J Hamula was released from his position in the First Quorum of the Seventy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after disciplinary action. LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins provided no details about the removal. But the church did confirm Hamula was no longer a member of the church and that his ouster was not for apostasy or disillusionment.’
What does excommunication mean in the Mormon Church? What does it mean for such a high profile figure? The official statement that his excommunication was not for apostasy or disillusionment means he has done nothing to publicly oppose church leaders, did not ‘persist in teaching as Church doctrine information that is not Church doctrine…,’ nor has he ‘continued to follow the teachings of apostate sects…’ according to the Church Handbook of Instructions Book 1.
Disillusionment is another issue. There was a time when simply being disillusioned and deciding to leave would have triggered a disciplinary council and excommunication. It was said that there was no honourable way out of the Mormon Church, the stigma of excommunication following you into your future life.
This had especial impact in high Mormon population areas, where you would expect to conduct your every day business and life within the Mormon community. A decades-long campaign forced the leadership to revisit this policy and allow the disillusioned to simply walk away. The community impact of simply leaving, however, can still prove costly, closing businesses, withdrawing livelihoods, splitting families.
Today, the policy of the church is, ‘If a member requests name removal and a bishop or stake president has evidence of transgression that warrants convening a disciplinary council, he should not act on the request until Church discipline has been imposed or he has concluded that no disciplinary council will be held. Name removal should not be used as a substitute for or alternative to Church discipline.’
Otherwise, the member’s name is removed from church records, after a drawn out process involving much paperwork, a cooling off period, and dire warnings of eternal consequences, as well as an invitation to come back to the ‘One True Church.’ (Church Handbook 1)
Much further down the pecking order is Kate Kelly who, in 2014, was excommunicated for founding a movement advocating the ordination of women in the all-male Mormon priesthood. In 2015 John Dehlin was excommunicated for raising questions about church history and doctrine. He blogged and made podcasts about his questions and the church’s reluctance to deal with the issues raised.
The last high-ranking leader of the church to be excommunicated was George P Lee, the first native American (Lamanite) to become a General Authority. He was excommunicated in 1989, according to Lee for disagreeing with then Mormon president Ezra Taft Benson over the ending of the Indian Placement Program. He was charged with apostasy and claimed that church leaders had accused him of polygamy, immorality, and teaching false doctrines. Later he admitted that, in 1989, he had sexually abused a neighbour’s 12-year-old daughter.
Prior to that, Mormon apostle Richard Lyman was excommunicated for adultery in 1943. Lyman described his secret relationship with Anna Jacobsen Hegsted as a ‘plural marriage.’ Church authorities didn’t see it that way and Lyman was excommunicated. Worries that he might join a fundamentalist group proved unfounded and he was rebaptised in 1954. He died in 1963 at the age of 93 and his full priesthood blessings were restored posthumously in 1970.
In this latest instance excommunication follows ‘disciplinary action,’ and since it isn’t for apostasy or disillusionment, its anybody’s guess what the cause. Discipline is sometimes discretionary, sometimes mandatory, the latter covering particularly serious sins, usually of a criminal nature.
The church stands as guardian and final arbiter, through priesthoods, ceremony, and sacraments, over whatever blessings the faithful receive
We do know James Hamula no longer holds any office in the church, indeed he is no longer a Mormon. When he gets dressed in the morning, he will not wear his temple garments, which in itself will be a strange and painfully difficult experience. He will no longer be considered worthy to attend the temple, which has further ramifications for his family. Family occasions exclusive to the temple will be barred to him.
He will not have a job to go to, since he worked full time for the church. If he attends church he cannot play an active part in the simplest of activities. He cannot pray in public, take communion (which Mormons call the sacrament), take part in discussions. The most callow youth, a twelve-year-old boy, will now wield more authority as a Mormon deacon than this man who has been a missionary, bishop, stake president, mission president, and General Authority of the Mormon Church. Read his background here.
Whatever the reasons behind this news – and they may well be distressingly intimate and personal – it is important to realise how very painful and difficult this will be for all involved, especially for his wife and six children. Perhaps our best response as Christian believers would be to pray for him and his family, and to count our blessings.
The June 2017 Ensign magazine of the Mormon Church carried an anonymous personal testimony of someone who had suffered excommunication. One wonders at the timing. This person writes:
‘I never realized how losing my membership would change my life completely. I could no longer wear my temple garment or attend the temple. I could not pay my tithing, serve in any calling, take the sacrament, or bear my testimony or pray in church. I no longer had the gift of the Holy Ghost. Most importantly, I was not in a covenant relationship with my Saviour through the ordinances of baptism and the temple…I was frightened that I no longer had the blessings of keeping my baptism covenants, and I worried that I might not be washed clean again.’
We don’t find out, and really don’t need to know, the reason for her excommunication. What stands out, and this is true for every Mormon, is that the church stands as guardian and final arbiter, through priesthoods, ceremony, and sacraments, over whatever blessings the faithful receive. On being excommunicated, everything is withdrawn. It is as if you were never a member of the one true church, except you ‘know the truth’ and no longer enjoy the benefits of it. Like a child looking through a sweet shop window, you can see but mustn’t touch. But this is simply not the way to mend a broken relationship.
‘You have to knock on the church door until your knuckles bleed.’
When are blessings restored? In this case it took a year, for Richard Lyman it took eleven years, but it depends to a degree on the temperament and attitude of whoever has direct authority over you. In one instance I know, an ex-communicant and personal friend was so desperate to return she abased herself before church members to the point of personally confessing and repenting of bad thoughts she had had about them.
Finally, she asked her bishop what she had to do to get back into the church. He replied, ‘You have to knock on the church door until your knuckles bleed.’ Thankfully, she heard the true gospel, repented before the One who is always ready to forgive, and was baptised a Christian before she died.
Christian Church Discipline
Church discipline is biblical, of course, but nowhere is the church an institution that issues or withholds blessings, like a corporation suspending an employee. Rather, it is a community in which we determine and develop our relationship with each other according to gospel principles and act in the last resort to protect ourselves from error and sin, and correct and restore the sinner.
Jesus demonstrates the love and patience Christians should have in dealing with these difficult issues in Matthew 18:15-17. Here the offender is first challenged personally. If the offender refuses to listen, two others come along to witness the challenge. If he still refuses to recognise his sin then the whole church is to get involved. If there is still a refusal to listen then he is cast out of the community.
We are intimate family, not impersonal society
In 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 Paul recognises that sin has impacted the whole community, as well as noting the punishment meted out. Now he urges the church to reach out to the penitent so as not to overburden him with ‘excessive sorrow.’ How many, including my friend, have been overburdened with excessive sorrow because of a legalistic attitude on the part of Mormon Church leaders?
Within the context of factions in the church, Paul writes, ‘No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.’ (1 Corinthians 11:19) Yet he uses the phrase ‘when you come together’ three times in verses 17 to 19, indicating that differences are no reason to avoid fellowship, or to exclude someone. Here correction is to happen within the fellowship as people grow together in the faith.
Paul warns against idol feasts, ‘The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too…’ But he recognises some have a weak conscience and even refuse meat from the market previously sacrificed to idols, while others eat conscience free. (1 Corinthians 10:23-30) This is no cause for division, but a reason for exercising grace.
My point is, while there is family discipline in the Christian Church (1 Corinthians 5:12,13; 6:4; Ephesians 5:4; Titus 3:10) it is exercised in light of the freedom we all have and grace we all enjoy in Christ, and not under the cosh of an inflexible legal system. We are intimate family, not impersonal society.
Excommunication is a last resort and is the exclusion of a person from active involvement in worship and fellowship. It is activity that is curtailed and not identity. ‘No amount of excommunication will produce a perfect church, since it cannot deal with secret sins and hypocrisy. Also the oil of leniency has to be mixed with the vinegar of severity’ (New Bible Dictionary) Such judgement as is necessary is passed by a community that is, itself, imperfect and in need of daily grace. Augustine wrote:
‘We judge that it pertains unto sound doctrine…to attempt our life and opinion, so that we both endure dogs in the church, for the sake of the peace of the church, and, where the peace of the church is safe, give not what is holy unto dogs…that we neither grow listless under the name of patience, nor be cruel under the pretext of diligence.’ (Augustine, Treatises, 1884, p.43)