Mormon bishop: “I wasn’t going to excommunicate anyone”

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Rees, BobWeighing in on this summer’s excommunication controversies is former LDS bishop Bob Rees, who made it a goal to avoid the nuclear option of excommunication. His perspective in this guest post strikes me as compassionate and wise, as shown by his very personal story at the end. — JKR

A guest post by Robert A. Rees

When I became bishop of the Los Angeles First (Singles’) Ward in 1982, I didn’t know much about being a bishop, but I did know that, except under the most extreme circumstances, I wasn’t going to excommunicate anyone.

I had two reasons for this.

First, when someone is excommunicated, it often leads to a de facto excommunication of his or her family and, in some cases, even friends and acquaintances. Since excommunication suspends eternal sealings, others in the family are dramatically affected by disciplinary action.

This can have far-reaching consequences as an excommunication in one generation often leads to successive generations being disconnected from or disassociated with the Church. For example, it is likely that my great-grandfather, David L. Rees, was excommunicated from the Church. Of all my great-grandfather’s descendants, only a small handful of us are members of the Church—all, by the way, as a consequence of later, independent conversions, not his spiritual or religious influence.

Second, LDS history and Christian history more generally contain many examples of excommunications that, with the hindsight of history, appear arbitrary or unjust (e.g., Catholic Galileo Galilei and of Mormon Helmuth Huebener).

While it’s not possible to know all the facts of any given case, based on the best available information, some excommunications seem capricious and others disproportionately punitive, and, in the case of Huebener, politically motivated.

The possibility of this happening is increased by the fact that the Church has a lay, professionally untrained priesthood which sometimes leads to individuals being unexpectedly thrust into positions requiring wise ecclesiastical and also psychological counseling and judgment for which often they are unprepared.

A good example of the arbitrary and inconsistent nature of church discipline is the treatment of California Latter-day Saints during Proposition 8.

While I know of no excommunications over Proposition 8 (although there could have been some), in some instances members lost their temple recommends, were put on probation or were disfellowshipped for seemingly minor expressions of dissent (for example, wearing a rainbow pin to Church with the slogan “All Families Matter”), which in other stakes resulted in no disciplinary action—or even comment.

Another factor that complicates excommunications is that conditions that might justify such an action during one period may seem (and actually be) trivial in another. For example, an ancestor of my late wife was excommunicated in early Idaho for buying flannel for diapers for his new baby from the gentile store in Southern Idaho instead of at ZCMI, the Church’s store.

So how did my resolve not to excommunicate anyone play out during my time as bishop?

Not long after I became bishop, I interviewed a woman who was living with a non-member. Finding that she was a returned missionary and therefore endowed, I called her to repentance and told her that she had either to marry the man or end the relationship.

She replied that she had tried unsuccessfully to get him to marry her. She felt she should stay in the relationship.

As a new bishop, I understood that it was my duty to press her to decide between two moral choices, neither of which included maintaining the status quo. I gave her time to make her decision and when she refused to end the relationship, told her that I had no choice but to hold a court, thinking that in this instance I might have to surrender my previous inclination against excommunication.

However, surprisingly, I did nothing. I was not completely comfortable in doing so, but something prevented me from taking disciplinary action against this woman.

A number of years later while visiting another ward, I attended a Sunday school class that I found particularly inspiring and well taught and afterwards took time to convey my sentiments to the teacher.

When I was finished, she said, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

I told her I didn’t, and then she reminded me of who she was. It was the woman I had almost disciplined.

She said, “I’m glad you didn’t do anything. The man I was living with joined the Church and recently we were married in the temple.”

I cite this example not to validate my inaction (since action is often required) or even to assert that it was inspired, but rather to illustrate that in such matters one cannot always rely on precedent or the Handbook of Instructions.

Robert A. Rees teaches at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.