The version of evangelical Christianity which nurtured me from my youth taught that The Church of the Latter-day Saints, commonly called the Mormons, were not Christian. They were a strange sect, or nearly a cult, with a set of obscure teachings, unorthodox practices, and mistaken founding personalities, along with a whole book claiming inspired status, which simply canceled out whatever remnants of Christianity were found among its followers. The only part of this tradition which received any appreciative attention was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
When I embraced the Reformed tradition, I found little difference. To the extent that the Mormon tradition appeared anywhere in my seminary training in Reformed institutions, such as in a course on American religious history, or perhaps in a course dealing with current cults and sectarian groups, the stereotypes of my early learning were mostly reinforced.
For this reason alone, I am very grateful that the decision was made to include The Church of the Latter-day Saints, through the presentation of Robert Millet, in these Respectful Conversations. That choice in of itself, before any words were put on paper, was an important ecumenical gesture. These conversations, after all, are between diverse and divergent Christian traditions. They are not designed as “interfaith” conversations with non-Christian religious traditions. Including The Church of Latter-day Saints in these conversations makes the implicit declaration that they are a part of the highly diverse Christian community.
That is a step which no major ecumenical body in the United States, or no major global ecumenical organization, has undertaken. The Church of the Latter-day Saints is not a member of the National Council of Churches of the USA, nor a member of Christian Churches Together. Neither is it a member of the World Council of Churches, nor the Global Christian Forum. The is not because The Church of Latter-day Saints has no interest in such membership. Rather, it is because some member churches (denominations) in those bodies would object to such membership because they do not regard The Church of Latter-day Saints to be a Christian church.
In fairness and of interest, the ecumenical connections of the Community of Christ should be noted. Formerly named the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Community of Christ is a far smaller, divergent branch of Mormonism with its origins in 1860 and presently with about 1,100 congregations in the U.S. and around the world. It tends to place less emphasis on some of the more distinctive and controversial beliefs and practices of The Church of the Latter-day Saints (it never approved of “plural marriage” in its history for instance), it ordains women, and it includes an emphasis on peace and justice in its ministries. It does accept the Book of Mormon as part of its scriptures but has tried to refine its understanding of scriptural use and interpretation. It places a strong emphasis on core Christian doctrines such as the Trinity.
The Community of Christ made an application to join Christian Churches Together. But after focused theological dialogue, some members of CCT objected and vetoed the application. In 2010, however, the Community of Christ was accepted as a member of the National Council of Churches (USA).
Our dialogue in Respectful Conversations, however, is with The Church of the Latter-day Saints, by far the strongest expression Mormonism today, with 16.8 million members globally and 6.7 million members in the U.S., making it the fourth largest denomination in this country. Throughout our conversations, I have been deeply impressed by Robert Millet’s participation and contributions. With a wide knowledge of diverse Christian traditions and a deep theological engagement with others, Millet has modeled how the Mormon tradition can function as a respectful partner within the Christian community, instead of as a suspect voice outside of its circumference.
Millet’s presentation in this month’s conversation on what it means to faithfully follow Jesus continues this consistent and clear witness. One can only affirm that reading Scripture devotionally, practicing prayer, loving and serving others, and participating in worship are key elements in how we practice our faith. Writing as a voice for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he presents his tradition’s way of faithfully following Jesus in clear and unapologetic terms. I wonder if the unspoken subtext is, “Since this is how I understand and practice my faith in Christ, how can you possibly exclude me from the bonds of Christian fellowship?”
For me, at least, that is the beginning question. It’s like the ecumenical elephant in the room, which must be acknowledged. Most Christian traditions, including those represented in the Respectful Conversations, hesitate, or simply refuse, to include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in local, national, or global formal structures of Christian ecumenical fellowship. Are we justified in doing so? Have these months of Respectful Conversations with Robert Millet’s participation changed our views?
They have influenced me. It was right to include the tradition of Mormonism, as represented in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as part of these honest conversations between diverse Christian traditions. Perhaps it can serve as an example to encourage similar initiatives in other ecumenical settings.
Of course, I have a long list of questions around points where I seriously differ with various beliefs and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And I would have been grateful if Robert Millet had acknowledged some of the serious differences between his church and the dominant expressions of Christianity. After all, historically those differences led at times to violent persecution, eventually driving Mormons west and out of the United States into Utah, which at the time was part of Mexico. But today the honest and earnest discussion of these differences should take place as partners in a common faith, rather than as combatants. My hope is that Robert Millet’s participation in these Respectful Conversations can open a door to an accepted framework of shared faith that can host and hold this difficult but necessary dialogue.