A funny thing happened on the way to the conference. On Saturday morning I was driving to the final day of the SMPT Conference held on the BYU Campus. I hit the main BYU intersection near the Marriott Center. My light was red. There were cars stopped at other approaches as well. Everyone was stopped. All the lights were red. As I had been thinking Mormon thoughts while driving down Provo Canyon and onto campus, that seemed like a sign: Nothing is changing. No movement. Full stop.
I exaggerate only slightly. There are small changes and a bit of movement. A few women now get to sit up front at General Conference and a few women address the assembled Saints. But no one is surprised that all three of our new apostles are old white males. We enter the 21st century with a 17th-century Bible and a 19th-century message, then wonder why an increasing proportion of Mormon Millennials just wander away, finding our Sunday meetings to be dull and uninteresting and the Church as a whole to be not so much false as misguided (the endless war on gay marriage) or simply irrelevant. Any chance for change or reform, or are all the lights stuck on red? What does Mormon reform even look like?
Reform is not a four-letter word; it is meaningful positive change. An institution that does not change loses efficiency and relevance, and over time people go elsewhere to find whatever was once provided by that institution. Here is an example of church reform: Once upon a time (until the 1960s) Catholic services were conducted in Latin. If you went to Mass in Denver or Philadelphia or Atlanta in 1958, the liturgy was performed completely in Latin, not English. The reform to vernacular languages seems simple and obvious, but it required a huge institutional undertaking (Vatican II, a three-year conference of Catholic leaders from around the world) and was very controversial. Churches are conservative institutions; change is never easy.
That wrenching reform episode is recounted in four short chapters by Garry Wills in The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis (Viking, 2015). Vatican II was only the end of the process; the struggle over Latin lasted five centuries. Here is how it started.
By the sixteenth century, control of doctrine could no longer be maintained simply by refusing to have it dealt with in any language but Latin. The Renaissance humanists had discovered the charms of Greek, which Erasmus praised as superior to Latin — as well as being the language in which the New Testament is written. … The leaders of the Reformation began to preach from and promulgate the Bible and catechisms in the English of Wycliffe, the German of Luther, the French of Lefevre d’Etaples. Aided by the invention of the printing press, such works swept down in a torrent on the closed Latin citadel of Rome. It was not enough, in that situation, to keep the laity from straying by keeping all theology in Latin. One must now keep them from reading Bibles and church instructions in other languages …. (p. 20)
Part of the Catholic response to that initial challenge was to establish the Index Liborum Prohibitorum, or List of Prohibited Books, in 1559. It was not formally abolished until 1966. One might draw some parallels to current Mormonism (the Internet is like the printing press, formally prohibiting books is like informally discouraging non-Correlated reading, excommunication is still excommunication) but that is a post for another day. I have a simpler question: What small positive Mormon reforms are possible and what Mormon institutional avenues are available to promote such small positive changes?
Here are a few example proposals: Move away from the KJV and use a modern English translation for seminary and for the curriculum. Shorten the Sunday block to two hours or 90 minutes. Allow non-LDS family members to attend temple weddings. Allow LDS Relief Society Presidents to give worthiness interviews to LDS young women. I’m not making an argument for those changes or reforms, just posing them as reforms that many Latter-day Saints would regard as positive and achievable. Hey, if Catholics could change the entire language used in Sunday services across the entire global church, we ought to be able to make some small positive changes. But how institutionally can we promote positive change within the Church? Any success stories?