Saturday, June 14, 2014

Of Myths and Membership Records

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This is the second in a series of posts, originally published in the spring of 2013 that chronicle my decision to resign my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon).

In the months that followed my moving out of the family home, I ambivalated about the Church. Finally, I decided to move my records out of my old family ward (partly to remove myself from the jurisdiction of my former bishop and stake president), and this was a dry run at what would follow several months later. It was a big step for me; whereas my moving out of the family home had marked a physical separation from my wife and children, moving my records demarcated a spiritual separation of sorts.

Such a statement might be difficult for non-LDS readers to comprehend but would, I am sure, be totally understandable to Mormons. Why is this? Two primary reasons.  First, because conscious Mormons understand the mystical and myth-ical bond that is created by the sealing ordinances of the Mormon temple, whereby husbands and wives and their children are “sealed” together so that they can be an “eternal family,” i.e., not only a family in this life but in the after-life.

Secondly, if Mormons are anything, they are a record-keeping people. Unlike other churches that sorta kinda keep track of people (in a highly-decentralized, localized fashion) who are baptized, confirmed, etc., the Mormon Church has made a multi-faceted, scientific, highly-centralized discipline out of its record-keeping procedures. 

When converts are baptized, a record of their membership in the Church is processed and sent to Salt Lake City. When children are born and blessed, their names are enrolled on the records of the Church; when they are baptized and confirmed – thus officially becoming members of the Church – this is duly noted.  When they receive priesthood offices, when they go on missions, when they get married – all these events are duly noted on their membership records. A family’s membership records are the physical (or, these days, the cyber-) manifestation of the mystical sealing power (of the Mormon Temple) that unites them.

In addition, one’s membership record is precisely that. Unlike Catholics or Lutherans or Methodists, for example, who can float from one parish or congregation to another without perhaps ever having to “prove” that they are such, or who can simply fade away if they no longer desire to practice their religion, the Mormon Church keeps tabs on its members. Once inscribed in the Great Book of Mormon Life (which Mormons perceive as being an earthly reflection of the heavenly Book of Life that figures prominently in the Book of Revelation), the name is forever there, unless voluntarily removed through resignation or involuntarily removed through death or excommunication.

Returning to the issue of myth, the hold, the power, that the sealing bonds have on Mormons – whether currently practicing or not – is profound, and I earlier used the term “myth-ical” deliberately, keeping in mind the following definitions of the word “myth”:
" ... a traditional or legendary story … with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature”; “an unproved collective belief that is used to justify a social institution”; “a traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people, as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society”; and, “a traditional sacred story, typically revolving around the activities of gods and heroes, which purports to explain a natural phenomenon or cultural practice.”
There are many aspects of the modern “Mormon Myth,” but I would submit that the concept of the eternal family lies at the center of the myth, in that it is the most powerful motivating force of the entire religion. And at the very heart of that center stands the temple, the nexus between mortals and the Gods where the sacred ordinances of eternal family creation are performed.

It was these types of concerns that tugged at me as I prepared to move my records, one more step away from the Mormon idyll. Even though my testimony of the Church’s modern leaders had taken a direct hit, I still felt the mystic chords of myth pulling at me as I took this step, an experience which would be repeated in a few months' time.

I had to go to my new ward to initiate the record transfer, and I knew what that would mean: a visit from my new bishop. Sure enough, he called to make an appointment and came to see me, an experience that I wrote about on my old Invictus Pilgrim blog and republished recently on this blog. He was a good man. He tried to understand, but I could tell he had totally missed the point when, after a two-hour-long discussion (half of which was spent by him trying to get me to admit that I am gay), he asked me how he could help me "get back to the temple." I sighed. I never went back to church.

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to formally sever my ties with the Church and all that went with that: membership, priesthood, temple sealings, etc. I thought I could just go inactive. Then I met Mark, and all of that changed. I fell head over heels in love with him, and he with me. I felt that I had found my soul mate. It wasn’t too long before I moved in with him. I was officially “living in sin.” I was also in the middle of what was quickly becoming a very messy divorce. I had to consider the very real possibility that I might be summoned before a disciplinary council ...

I had already decided that if I was summoned to a disciplinary council, I would immediately resign my membership rather than face the indignity of investigation, judgment by people who had absolutely no connection to me, and excommunication. There was no way I would submit myself to that. But I gradually came to feel that, for once in my life, I should be proactive, rather than waiting for external forces to compel me to do something.

Thus, I found myself sitting one late October day in 2011, staring at my computer, feeling sick to my stomach. The cursor blinked. I typed the second sentence of my letter to Church Headquarters:
“I hereby withdraw my consent to being treated as a member and I withdraw my consent to being subject to church rules, policies, beliefs and ‘discipline.’”  
To be continued ...

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