Friday, May 03, 2013

Breaking News from America's Heartland

Community of Christ Temple
Independence, Missouri, USA
The Examiner is a newspaper that serves Kansas City's eastern suburbs, particularly Independence, Blue Springs, and Grain Valley. There was a day when The Examiner alone satisfied the news appetite of many citizens. Others of us chose to complement it with a subscription to the Kansas City Star.

Today it survives because people like me can't break the habit of receiving its daily fare of cucumber salad recipes, stories about local kids advancing to the state science fair competition, and (yes, I have to admit it) the obituary column.

The Examiner is hanging on, knowing that in the not far distant future the obituary column will likely be reporting its own demise rather than that of its readers. In the meantime we have the opportunity to enjoy some charming disconnects.

On Wednesday, April 24, 2013 the five column banner headline in The Examiner was "Waffle House Getting New Sign." That kind of heart-thumping journalism is not atypical of a good news day for our local paper. But it jarred me, knowing as I did that the international conference of a religious denomination was going on in town. I went to my stack of newspapers, some read and some not, and pulled out the previous day's edition.

On Tuesday, April 23, 2013 the five column banner headline in The Examiner was "Delegates Urge Church to Open Door." The lead paragraph in that article was as follows:
After a weekend of discussion and prayer, national delegates have recommended that the Community of Christ recognize same-sex marriage and ordination regardless of sexual orientation.
At first look it would seem that the action of the national conference of a religious denomination to embrace marriage and ordination of gay and lesbian persons would attract media interest almost anywhere. The fact that the denomination is headquartered in Independence, Missouri would lead one to expect extensive follow-up by the local paper. That it was bumped from the front page, or any page, by the Waffle House sign is perhaps an egregious oversight that speaks to the decline of newspapers around the world.

Or perhaps it means something else altogether, something about faith and culture and social networks and the blurring of all kinds of boundaries in a global society.

Here are a few quick facts that may be helpful to those unaware of the context of this remarkable story. (At this point I should acknowledge that I served for 33 years on the church's denominational staff, and for over eight years as president of the church, departing from full-time service in 2004. While I had no involvement at all in the 2013 Conference, my perspective is obviously shaped by that leadership experience and by my lifelong love of the movement.)
  • The Community of Christ is a religious denomination of approximately 250,000 members with a presence in around 50 nations; its world headquarters are in Independence, Missouri.
  • The church was birthed in the 1830's as a part of the movement that is commonly known as Mormonism. It shares a 14 year slice of history with that group but separated from it in 1844 and developed an entirely separate identity over time, rejecting many beliefs connected to the Mormon faith, i.e. polygamy, baptism for the dead, secret temple rituals, etc.
  • Beginning in the 1960's the church began to examine the significance of its own global expansion, learning from other cultures and authentically engaging with the issues of its own time--considering the role of women, embracing human diversity, and taking on difficult questions of war and peace.
  • Those explorations over time led to the building of a Temple "dedicated to the pursuit of peace," the changing of its name to Community of Christ, beginning the ordination of women in 1985, adopting progressive positions on capital punishment, gun control, and human diversity, and engaging in interfaith and ecumenical relationships.
Conference Delegates From Around the World Debate Issues in Legislative Sessions
Community of Christ Auditorium, Independence, Missouri, USA
It was a long journey that led a small religious denomination headquartered in the heartland of America to find itself exploring one of the most conflicted issues of our time. As recently as 1982 the official church policy on homosexuality was entitled, "Homosexuality and Other Sexual Perversions." That policy was replaced by one that described homosexuality as an orientation rather than a behavior. As to ordination, the policy provided for ordination of persons with a homosexual orientation but only if the individual agreed to remain celibate. Few accepted the offer.

Over the past decade or so the church engaged in a somewhat more structured dialogue process whereby members were urged to share their personal experiences and viewpoints with the goal of understanding others more than convincing others. That process became even more difficult because of the church's involvement in the developing world. In Haiti, for example, where the church has thousands of members, homosexuality is illegal and churches that accept it are subject to being delicensed by the government.

The recommendations that emerged from the 2013 USA Conference reflected travel down a long path where viewpoints evolved and where part of the agreement was that we will disagree. New ways of deciding and building consensus undoubtedly contributed to unexpectedly high margins of support once the final votes were announced. It was not the vote of a conference. It was the vote of a journey.

The Examiner was there in the 1970's and early 1980's when the struggles over faith and history, politics and justice, were disputed and where protests spilled into the streets of Independence. By 1985, when the first ordinations of women began, thousands of people became inactive or left the church to form independent congregations with fundamentalist theologies and a desire to cling to conservative interpretations of the church's foundational story.

When I was a kid I used to throw newspapers for The Examiner, never imagining the role it would have in chronicling the story of my own church and to some degree my career. Forty years ago the struggles of this faith community were big news to our hometown paper, which also benefited from protestors taking out full-page ads to register their objections to church polity or beliefs. There was drama, intense dialogue, and even coverage on occasion by the New York Times or Newsweek.

But it is a new day. What I have in view at the moment is the remarkable story of a small but global community that chose to look deeply within itself and to follow a path without map or compass but with a faith rooted in story and compelled by a power not its own.

Perhaps it is a story no longer covered in depth by the local newspaper but it was tweeted and facebooked and simulcast via the Internet for all the world to see. I am immensely proud of my church. The journey is not over, but we can pause for a moment and look back with satisfaction over the road we have traveled.

And if you're so inclined, you might want to saunter over to the Waffle House. I hear its location is well-marked.


  1. I am one of those starry eyed RLDS kids that has fully embraced life as Community Of Christ. I have always loved the church, and all of the things that go with it.. So many things we have walked though, so many ways we have grown. I have a soft spot in my heart for particular first president of the church, who took on the role of leadership, without the last name of Smith. It was a tremendous responsibility, and important for the church to become it's current identity. The church was really beginning to transform from a relational and mostly heritage based church, to a faith community that would begin to to try to define what Christ's ministry is, and how can we truly begin to encompass that call as a people. However the "RLDS" kid in me has noticed that many of our ties in the local community of Independence have lessened in significance. There are no longer many signs welcoming people or places that are offering promotions for the events in town that are church based, compared to the way things were in the 1990's. In a way as Community of Christ, it is oddly comforting for me. Rather than be treated as the city's chosen, it is in my mind, more important that people view our faith community as a part of the universal team, a woven in part of the community there.

    I have LDS family that are completely mystified that the Temple is open for all, and that our business sessions allow people to view in chambers from the balcony. The concept of openness is very strange to them. The entire idea of common consent can be just as much a wonder for many faiths that are used to direction from a board of Elders or a Single person. I think the part that bothers me most about the Examiner's lack of interest, is the topic of human rights that was just sort of blown over, but then again I am not sure that it was entirely bad either just in this case. I saw the protesters each day at the Auditorium. I worried as many tried to pass out tracts, some were very persistent.Some of our non English speaking delegates were overwhelmed with this kind of activity, because at home, this can mean danger for them. More attention in the papers, without understanding to the process we use to conduct ourselves might have made things worse. Most people outside of our faith have no idea what the recommendations process entails, and for the safety of people who have no idea that a national conference does not dictate international policy may have incited back lash for people around the world. So I guess it is like many things in our faith community, we may never know exactly why the Examiner never really dug deep, but at least in true history, the results of the conference will out last the paper and all of us.

  2. Grant, I respect your viewpoint on the direction the church has taken, even if I do not agree personally due to scriptural teachings. I would ask you to contact the World Church regarding our numbers. If the person I spoke with the other day is correct, we are now under 200,000 (197,000 plus or minus). I have also heard that many of our Haitian brethren are contemplating leaving the church due to the results of our National Conference (approximately 11,000 members).

  3. I pray this vote trickles down to the congregations as the form of tolerance and love. I lost my daughter to the church when she and her partner attended the congregation and were told by one of the older members that "they" were not wanted there.

    They visited the local UU church...I was with them that day....and they snuck in a hug in the kitchen...they quickly separated when someone walked in but she said...Don't stop that hug!!!...we love everyone here!!!" I knew we had lost them. They joined UU that day.

  4. Thank you for your perspective. I love how you mingle newspaper coverage, conference, and waffles.

    How I loved working for the church the short time I did with your presence and support, offered in a very personal and effective manner.

  5. Well shared, Grant. The National Conference was a powerful experience.

    I think the fact that press gave the story of what happened fairly minor play is partly because the process of the conference had a more intimate structure to it. I think it also reflects how much the attitudes of the country have changed on the subject in the last few years.

  6. Sustainability is becoming the biggest issue in shrinking congregations, with several congregations closing in my local area. Why are the congregations closing? The members are aging, and there is a lack of interest among younger people raised in the church. So, the typical mission center has 2-3 vibrant, functional congregatins, and several marginally functional ones, and 2-3 that are on life support and would close without outside help. So, changes are being made to try and increase the sustainability of the local congregations, as changing demographics put pressure on congregations that are nearing the end of their lifecycle. National and world conference addressed some of these issues, and for some, there is new energy and vitality being felt. But for others, it is just another indication, or realization, that the church is becoming less sustainable, and will continue to diminish in size and importance.

  7. I guess my question is.... Since the church has in the past removed persons from priesthood who lived together without being married, are these homosexuals expected to be married, at least in the eyes of the church, in order to be ordained? If not, is the church going to allow non-homosexuals in the priesthood to live together without marriage?
    Hope you are doing well, old friend.

  8. Thank you for your thoughtful perspective, Grant. To those who despair of growing our church, I want you to know we are growing in San Jose, CA, and our recent vote has only encouraged new members. I would suggest embracing the future of the church with enthusiasm and it will encourage others to do so.

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  10. Anonymous, regarding relationship & priesthood...
    In Australia the recommendation is: We support the ordination of individuals who are called by God through the processes established by Community of Christ, who are in long-term, committed, homosexual relationships, i.e. de facto relationships (this is a legally recognized relationship status in Australia for same-sex and opposite-sex couples), and recommend that the First Presidency and the Council of Twelve Apostles proceed to prepare and implement policy allowing these calls to be considered, and, if approved, for ordinations to proceed within the Australia Mission Centre.
    In Canada the recommendation is: There be a change in policy to allow the sacrament of ordination for individuals in same-gender marriages in Canada.
    In the USA the recommendation is: •The 2013 USA National Conference recommends allowing a priesthood call to be processed according to established procedures regardless of sexual orientation, including a person in a monogamous, committed, same-sex/gender relationship (e.g., legal marriage, civil partnership, covenant relationship) in the USA. Thus, the 2013 USA National Conference recommends a change to the current policy on ordination for the USA.
    And looking at the recommendation to be voted on in the British Isles in October: A priesthood call for a person in a monogamous, committed same sex/gender relationship (legal marriage, civil partnership) may be processed according to established procedures
    From these three recommendations and one proposed recommendation it appears the expectation will be marriage, where legal, and where not some other form of long term monogamous relationship status, as marriage for heterosexuals is legal in all three nations that have made recommendations for change, I would guess the answer the answer to your last question is no. But until we see the policies, it is hard to say with 100% certainty... Canada and Australia should be out soon (I once heard March, but as it is now May...)

  11. And The Examiner noted last week that fifty years ago three high school boys won awards for participating in an essay contest---Third Place was given to Grant McMurray!!

  12. I would give Grant first prize for this excellent essay if the same competition were to be held today.

  13. Grant, you've summarized well the half-century+ prelude to the USA National Conference of Community of Christ last April. That the local news media did not report the result very extensively suggests to me that the church could perhaps do well to nurture its ties with the larger culture, including the journalistic interests.