I have first hand experience with the Mormon Orwellian titled “Court of Love”, or disciplinary council, even though I’ve never participated as a defendant. Given the latest hoopla over Ordain Women Kate Kelly’s excommunication and the impending drop-kick of others I thought I’d just share my experience rather than try to weight in on those events like everyone else.
My experience comes from my perpetually serving as Ward Executive Secretary or Ward Clerk in almost every ward I lived in as an adult.
As everyone knows, men and women are treated differently by Mormon leadership. For church discipline it is no different. Courts for men who hold the priesthood (almost all of them) are held by the stake leadership consisting of 15 men (at a higher or regional level). Priesthood-less folks (all the women, and some younger or barely active men), on the other hand, are summoned to a ward or single congregation court consisting of 3 men and the male “secretary”. That was me at any given time.
I never participated in a court where the charge was apostasy. They were all sexual in nature.
I clearly remember the very first court I was asked to participate in. I was around 25 at the time attending a singles ward in the stake I’d grown up in, so I was bound to know the individuals in question really well. I did. The defendants were a young dating couple, 18-ish. She was the daughter of the bishop who had taught me all about masturbation, the bishop who interviewed me to gauge my worthiness throughout my teenage years. In other words she came from a well known family in the stake, part of the elite. He, on the other hand was someone I’d only known for a short time because he grew up one stake over. They were high school sweethearts. And they’d been having sex for most of their Junior and Senior years of high school.
To make things even more awkward for the couple, the bishop acting as judge in Israel for this particular event had served as bishop’s councilor to the young girl’s father back in the day, maybe 10-15 years prior. These things are always embarrassing. Knowing the intertwined relationships made it even more so. It’s always embarrassing. It always felt wrong.
I can’t remember what made these two finally confess and decide to stop their frequent romps, but there they were repentant and ashamed. She was female and he hadn’t yet been ordained an Elder, so both of them were subject to the lower bishop’s court rather than the stake heavier hands.
Here’s how it went down… The bishop introduced the case and ran through the details with the other men present. One by one the girl and boy were invited in to sit in front of 4 men to repeat the details of their sordid affair and to answer specific questions. The question and answer period was always awkward. I couldn’t understand why they needed to know some of the details such as whether they orgasmed or not, birth control details, where and when they found the privacy, who initiated it, who felt the worse, who else knows and how they managed to keep guilt at bay for so long.
Finally, they were asked to leave the bishop’s office. The four men discussed. Sometimes I was asked to weigh in, sometimes I wasn’t. Sometimes they knelt and prayed about it. Sometimes they didn’t. The couple was invited back in and some form of discipline was administered. In my experience it was almost always an informal probation period or official disfellowshipment. I never saw anyone full-on excommunicated. Certain conditions were laid out for getting back into God’s good graces once again. We all shook hands or hugged and went home. I typed up a letter summarizing the proceedings and that was the end of it.
This scenario was repeated several times over the years. I recall a few more such young couples, a few married women committing adultery, several single young adult men committing various and sundry (normal) acts of a sexual nature.
Other thoughts and observations come to mind:
- While the men in charge really do tell themselves they are being “loving” and issuing “righteous judgement” or God’s will, the degree of kindness and compassion varies depending on who’s in charge.
- If women leaders had been the ones doing the questioning of the women, I believe the line of questioning would have been DRASTICALLY different.
- I found it odd that prayerful questioning was really only part of that first one I participated in. For the others, I guess it was just assumed that since they had the authority of the priesthood whatever they did, if it felt right, was God’s will.
- The lack of training and understanding of human behavior was painful to witness.
- The longer the confessor waited, the better it seemed to be. Confessing to sex a week ago was dealt with more sternly than say a married woman confessing to pre-marital sex 15 years ago.
- If I was asked my opinion, I almost always suggested professional counseling for the individual rather than church discipline. That was almost always met with “Oooh! I never thought of that! Interesting idea!”
- I occasionally witnessed leaders with a “prodigal brother syndrome.” By that I mean, the idea that they’d always been the good, righteous ones and someone else couldn’t go off and sin and just waltz back into the church’s good graces without some severe consequences. If those consequences didn’t come naturally, they would indeed be the ones to assure that the consequences of sin were administered even if they had to do it themselves.
- All of the leaders saw themselves as extensions of “the brethren.” In other words, there was very little that they felt they could do to vary from the training and details in the Church Handbook of Instructions.
- The bishop almost invariably entered the event with a pre-determined outcome in his mind which he presented to us at the beginning. This outcome having been previously discussed with his higher up, the stake president.
- In order to reach a unanimous decision, counselors always deferred to the pre-determined decision of the bishop even if they obviously harbored some doubt or reservations.
- Did I mention that these are always uncomfortable to witness?
- I’m ashamed that I had anything to do with them, ever. I apologize to those, who shall not be named, for my part in your shaming.
I changed my mind. I AM going to weigh in on the recent “Courts of Love” for Kate Kelly, John Dehlin and others. They are not being tried for sexual sin, so I don’t have much experience with the nature of their crimes in this setting. But here are a few random thoughts:
Hypocrisy – The description of Kelly’s violation reads to me to be almost an exact description of Mormon missionary work…promoting and proselyting to others in an aggressive effort to persuade persons in other religions to the Mormon point of view, thus eroding their faith in Catholicism, Buddhism, Atheism, Paganism, Hinduism, Shamanism, Scientology, etc…
The problem is that you have persisted in an aggressive effort to persuade other Church members to your point of view and that your course of action has threatened to erode the faith of others. You are entitled to your views, but you are not entitled to promote them and proselyte others to them.
Credibility – I believe the greatest reason for them not wanting to be excommunicated and for their actually being excommunicated is that as members they held a certain credibility with other members, doubting or not. John Dehlin was able to book several interviewees for his Mormon Stories podcast by virtue of his intact church membership. Without that it will be more difficult to convince active Mormons to participate. This is exactly what the LDS leaders are going for, I believe. Kate Kelly now becomes an angry apostate, rather than a fellow sister in Zion and that will have an impact on future participation in Ordain Women.
Internet Savvy – The LDS church lost the PR battle as soon as the Internet took hold. The vacuum created by Kate Kelly’s ouster will be filled by others and the discussion will rage on. As others have said, excommunication really is a “16th century solution to a 21st century problem.”
“What did they think would happen?” – This is an entirely irrelevant response in my opinion. The same could be said of Joseph Smith. What did he think would happen when he started marrying other men’s wives and stealing the secret ceremonies of the Masons? It still doesn’t make the actions of the mob honorable and just.
Sincerity – Like the Bishops holding those church courts I participated in, I believe Kate Kelly, John Dehlin and the others are sincere in their efforts to do what’s right for their consciences. For that matter, so are the Church leaders. Sincere yes. Not always honest or without severe cases of confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance piled on a heap of logical fallacies. Everyone involved is human.
It’s an exciting time to be an Ex-Mormon. I’m grateful I got out when I did. I’m glad I’ll be able to say I was one of the early ones who resigned before it became logical and fashionable.