Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Lifetime of Covenants, Part 2

Covenants define a lot of what it means to be LDS.  As an LDS man I took mine very seriously.  As I grew up and made the covenants that defined so much of my life, I always wondered, what would I do if I ever decided the LDS religion wasn't true?  What do you do when you try to make an agreement with God but later decide it wasn't God on the other end?  Mostly you just try to move on.  I no longer feel bound by a promise to God to obey and not criticize and give my everything to the LDS church when I don't think God participated in that agreement.  But of course its more complicated than that.  The Episcopal Church doesn't require rebaptism for a situation like mine as we haven't pursued it nor have resigned from the LDS for personal reasons.  So my only baptism that I can claim is the one I got when I was 8 years old.  It is another way that I have a mixed identity- my baptismal commitment is still wrapped up in my Mormon identity, even if I now apply that understanding in another church.  Someday that may become really awkward.  Some LDS bishop in the future may decide we're dead weight on his ward numbers and decide to try to excommunicate us.  Or perhaps some ward leader in the future will decide it is time to aggressively try to save us and we'll have to resign our membership to force them to stop stalking us.  What would it be like if the only baptism you have is technically revoked or resigned by the authority that performed it?  I honestly don't know and part of me hopes it will never come to that.  There was lots of good in the way I was raised in the Mormon church and I'd prefer to honor that in my own way, even if my interpretation of what my baptism means to me changes over time.  While I appreciate the original covenant, I feel I have added to it, especially when in worship I "remake" my baptism covenant using a while new set of promises.


The Episcopal Baptism covenant is a very unique system from Mormon Baptism.  Mormon baptism, according to Mosiah 18:8-10 involves promises made, without ever saying them directly as part of the ceremony, to
  1. be "desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people"
  2. "willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light"
  3. "Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort"
  4. "stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death"
  5. "that ye will serve him and keep his commandments"
With the promised blessings:
  1. "that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life"
  2. " that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you"
The Episcopal baptismal promises involve the parents or godparents of children being baptized, the individual being baptized, and the community of worshipers in the parish.  Only a subset of what I list below are formally known as the baptismal covenant, but all these promises are made as part of the baptism ritual so I am including all of them.  The full ceremony, including the traditional phrasing for accepting these promises can be found in the online version of The Book of Common Prayer.  Altogether these promises are:
  1. "Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?"
  2. "Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?"
  3. "Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?"
  4. "Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?"
  5. "Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?"
  6. "Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Saviour?"
  7. "Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?"
  8. "Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?"
  9. (The next one is too long to quote directly, but essentially asks for agreement with one of the creeds)
  10. "Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?"
  11. "Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and  fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?"
  12. "Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?"
  13. "Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?"
  14. "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving  your neighbor as yourself?"
  15. "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?"
These promises are in exchange for the blessings or benefits:
  1. " are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever."
  2. "that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior."
  3. "...those who are sealed with it may share in the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ"
The Episcopal Church allows the baptism of infants with the idea that it is a way of automatically joining the community of God- similar to the LDS concept of being "born in the covenant."  Since infants cannot be expected to be bound to commitments made on their behalf, later a confirmation ceremony is held to reaffirm these commitments.  Again the full ceremony is available online.  The following promises are made:
  1. " Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil?"
  2. "Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?"
  3.  "Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?" 

A proper comparison of the LDS covenant of Baptism wouldn't be fair without also including the LDS sacrament covenants which are almost seen as an extension of the baptismal covenant even though the sacrament covenants are actually distinct from the covenants outlined in the Book of Mosiah.  These promises as quoted from the D&C are to:
  1. "eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son"
  2. "willing to take upon them the name of thy Son"
  3. "always remember him"
  4. "keep his commandments which he has given them"
  5. "do it in remembrance of the blood of thy Son"
  6. " always remember him"
These promises are for the benefit "that they may always have his Spirit to be with them" or "that they may have his Spirit to be with them." depending on whether the bread or water prayer is being recited.  Through promise 4 those partaking are said to be remaking their baptismal covenants even though theologically there is no limit to which covenants are being remade in the ceremony.  The Epsicopal church remakes baptismal covenants during baptism services.


Though the LDS temple marriage covenant is not published by the church, those who want a refresher on what exactly is promised can find the text of the ceremony here.  The Episcopal ceremony (quoting only one gender role each since they are repetitive), which again is available online for full context, includes promises to:
  1. "will you have this man to be your husband"
  2. "to live together in the covenant of marriage"
  3. "Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?"
  4. "Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage? "
  5. "In the Name of God, I, [name], take you, [name], to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death.  This is my solemn vow."
What may be of interest to LDS people is that Episcopalians do not have a doctrine of marriage necessarily only being till death.  While the ceremony may explicitly mention until death, it is not because the ceremony is somehow invalid in the next life.  It is because death parts people in this life who may then remarry in what would otherwise be a violation of promise to "forsake all others."  Most Christians believe that in the afterlife they will be reunited with their loved ones- because why would a loving God provide a heaven where the most meaningful relationships were denied unless they were authorized properly?  Also of interest is that the LDS ceremony has no direct analog of the gender neutral promise to forsake all others, probably because of polygamy.  Though it might strike some as odd, polygamy was a very real concept to me because of an friendship I had with a very devout roommate who was from a polygamist family but eventually joined the LDS church.  There was always that possibility that someday polygamy would be restored and that we would be assigned to it.  I knew it would likely ruin the happiness of my marriage if that happened but it was always a remote possibility.  As a result, I find the inclusion of that promise meaningful.  My wife and I will never have to worry about or wonder about another woman intruding on our marriage in this life.


For some reason, many of the wards I have lived in since coming to Utah have included people who openly discussed their fear of the sinners they expected to encounter outside of the church or even just outside of Utah.  In talks and lessons I've heard people talk about how afraid they were to visit the area where I grew up in Maryland because they thought all the bad people lived outside of the Wasatch Front, give their opinion that only in the LDS church were the basics of honesty and integrity taught, or explain how they felt that couldn't possibly have anything in common with a non LDS except experiencing the weather.  If there is one thing that my past and present have in common, its a focus on covenants where the basics of honesty and integrity, marital fidelity, empathy, and Christian identity are held strongly as important qualities.  While different religions and even atheists interpret and pursue their moral commitments differently from each other, it doesn't mean they don't still have them.  And in the case of the Episcopal and LDS churches, both define them in covenants that help define a lifetime of devotion to God.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Lifetime of Covenants, Part 1

Growing up LDS, I took pride in special nature of the LDS covenant relationship with God.  At most my religion teachers told me about how other Christian churches were based on simply affirming your acceptance of Christ into your life and that nothing else was needed.  I was typically told about this deeply emotional and sacred process of other religions in order to impress on me how shallow those religions were in comparison to the LDS church.  It didn't even occur to me that any other Christian church viewed themselves as administering covenants between God and man or that these covenants might be meaningful and deeply powerful in the lives of who partook of them.  Having seen an Episcopal baptism service I was surprised at the beauty and depth of the covenant relationships entered into and the moral and religions obligations involved.  Upon researching further, I was also impressed by how differently the Episcopal system of covenants operated from what I was accustomed to.  The main differences I spotted were the following:

1. The covenants as modeled by the Episcopal church are explicit in nature.  Very little is implied or set up only to be understood by those in the know.  Very little theological background is needed to understand them.
2.  The obligations were not made to the church directly, but directly to God with few exceptions.
3.  Comparatively few of the obligations involved actions which were only moral or immoral in a theological sense.  Almost all of the covenants directly involved commitments to a moral way of life.

To explain what I mean I will be discussing some of the specifics of the covenants made in the LDS church including in the temple.  Specific wording won't be quoted nor any information presented that is covenanted not to be revealed.  But, if you don't like seeing the temple covenants discussed in even the most basic terms you'd be better off skipping the rest and going to part 2 where I will list the specific covenants made over the life of a typical Episcopalian to provide a context for this discussion.

To understand what I mean on point one, think of the LDS baptism or Priesthood covenants.  An outsider could watch those ceremonies without knowing that specific promises were being made because they aren't part of the ceremony.  Similarly, the LDS sacrament covenants involve a promise to keep all commandments given.  An outsider watching would have no knowledge of what commandments were meant and frankly many members don't appear to know either.  It is commonly taught that this only means baptismal covenants when theologically it includes marriage vows and pretty much everything else you can imagine.  Temple covenants are not even known to the people about to make them until the moment they are confronted with them.  A knowledge of the theology is generally required to understand what most LDS covenants actually mean.  This isn't inherently good or bad in many respects but simply a different culture of how commitments are presented.  Personally I think the LDS church would be healthier if most all of the temple covenants were a matter of public knowledge and discussion so that people could prepare for their commitments directly, but my opinion doesn't really count for anything in that discussion.

To understand what I mean by point two, consider that the LDS consecration covenant is explicitly made to the church itself.  The Law of Sacrifice covenant is made explicitly to the Kingdom of God which in practical terms means the church.  While there are plenty of other specific covenants that aren't made in this way, these who covenants are the most explicit and far reaching in binding LDS church members to obedience to God that I know of and they are worded to give that obedience to God through the LDS church directly.  This perhaps helps explain why there doesn't appear to be a strong culture of LDS people establishing 'personal ministries' where they try to serve God in their communities or in the world directly but instead channel that service to God through their church callings.  This does help create strong ward communities but also limits exposure to service outside of those communities except as mediated by community leadership.  For members who don't see that obeying their leaders is the same thing as obeying God, the format of these covenants can be damaging because it sets up a conflict between obeying the institution and obeying their personal moral understanding of the world.  For those who see God's will as directly manifesting at every level of the LDS leadership, there is no conflict here.

To understand what I mean by point three, consider the covenant obligations in the LDS religion such as garment wearing, not criticizing leaders, not laughing loudly, obeying leaders, attending meetings, and magnifying callings.  While many of these actions support the values and concerns of the church community and in many ways aren't inherently bad in many cases, they are not inherently good either except as defined by the theology.  There is nothing about complete obedience that makes the leader's decisions good or bad.  Attending meetings can be evil if it takes away from overarching concerns which are of greater moral priority.  Wearing garments can be deeply disruptive to marital intimacy for some people.  Laughing loudly is of so little moral concern that it's prohibition is extremely seldom thought to mean anything literally and the editors of the ceremony should probably reword it so that it has direct moral relevancy literally as stated.  For those who view the LDS church as having direct authority and guidance from God in how all covenants are established, the comparative moral, immoral, or amoral content of the specifics of covenant obligations are of no concern since their obedience to God is worked out through observances that may or may not have any personal moral relevancy to their lives.  Frankly, any religious or spiritual culture has its own baggage of expectations that are of cultural spiritual significance instead of direct moral spiritual significance.  But I'd argue it is healthy if obligations that are have little direct moral or ethical content be viewed in a more flexible light than the "covenant with God" model provides.

For part two of this discussion I'll present the specifics of the covenants an Episcopalian might expect to enter as they passed through baptism, confirmation, and marriage as well as discuss how I relate to my own history of taking covenants in the LDS church.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Am I ashamed of Mormonism?

My earlier post about being proud of the Episcopal Church begs the opposite question, whether or not I'm ashamed of Mormonism.  I don’t know how to answer that question simply, but I think I’d on the whole say no.  There are many things about Mormonism that are hurtful, painful, and frequently simply and demonstrably not true.  That being said, Mormonism has gone through many many improvements and I’d say is undeniably a much more Christlike religion now than when it was created.  I expect it will continue to go through such improvements.  I don’t see that as the result of any special revelatory providence such as the church claims.  I believe that if the church has such a profound endowment of revelation as it claims many of the problems that supposedly resulted from revelation in the first place simply wouldn’t have existed and Mormonism would have been created as a religion notable for its uniquely thorough institutional Christlike behavior.  But I do think the progress in Mormonism happens I think it is because God loves all people and works to grow love and understanding in the lives of all people- so as generation and generation of people try to seek for better understanding and divine direction many things can become better over time.  In many ways that is no different from any other church.  I’m fairly certain just about any church out there also has its history of traditional abusive behaviors, its traditional beliefs that are at many times demonstrably not true, and its own history that hopefully includes institutional and personal self improvement in the quest to love both God and neighbor.  On the other hand, any church can resist the spirit.  Any church can hold to the negative parts of their traditions and assumptions- certain that the previous generation understood God’s will perfectly.  Any one and any organization can be motivated by their fear more than their love.

When Mormonism was created it was intensely innovative and speculative- ready to assume that all before them had been wrong and that some new idea of their leaders might be the eternal truth.  This was an immense advantage in some ways- negative things found in some religious traditions could be ignored and dispensed with readily and with no real sense of loss.  Nevertheless, the ability to be spectacularly right about some things also creates the ability to be spectacularly wrong.  Unfortunately, the self-confidence of Mormon theology is a weakness when dealing with the issues when the religion is spectacularly wrong.  This I think is tragic and leads to a profound inability to say, “I’m sorry” or “We were wrong.”  Even the smallest admissions of the most obvious things seem to institutionally be like pulling teeth.  Recently I’d say the speed at which old rotten teeth are being ripped out is increasing.  This is both institutionally healthy and excruciatingly painful.  Both for people like me who find themselves outside of the church and for the church body as a whole that doesn’t necessarily know what to do with all the change that is happening to it.  This is no reason to be ashamed of Mormonism.  Mormonism has a rich and vibrant tradition and culture in many ways and will continue to be emotionally healthy for many people in many ways.  Unfortunately, that no longer includes me.  We teetered on the edge of whether we wanted to be in or out for quite some time.  By the end, things had reached the point where I was semi routinely discretely getting up and leaving the Sunday School or Priesthood because I just couldn't deal with the things I was hearing anymore.  There was so much that was unchristlike about ideas that were openly embraced in church that I had never noticed before and suddenly I was noticing a ton of them all at once in part because I was studying the issues like crazy trying to drive the sickness out of my soul that such unchristlike attitudes produce and in part because I was in the cross hairs of the leadership who didn’t like anybody to even look different.

Despite all that pain and some specific areas where I vehemently disagree with the LDS church, I don’t think I’d ever say I was ashamed of the church as a whole.  Mormonism is just another group of humans wandering this existence trying to figure out what it means to be human and what it means to love.  There’s nothing easy about that.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Mixed identities

At church today there was a baptism and I was struck by how different the covenant system of the Episcopal Church is compared to the LDS church.  So when I went to work I grabbed a Book of Mormon and the Book of Common prayer so that between calls I could really spend some time comparing the baptismal covenants contained in each.  While I was at work, a coworker asked me what book I had out and I explained it was the Book of Common Prayer.  He left before we could discuss it further so I have no idea what he thought of it, but if this coworker knows anything about Anglicanism he now can be pretty sure I'm an Episcopalian.  But if he had looked over just a few minutes before, he would have seen me with a Book of Mormon and been certain I was LDS.

Yesterday another coworker asked me out of the blue whether we were "doing Ezra Taft Benson" this year.  Though taken aback, I'm still connected well enough with Mormonism that I knew exactly what he was asking and why and could answer appropriately as if I were still Mormon.  This employee has reason to think me LDS since I started laughing when someone at work claimed that Orin Porter Rockwell delayed baptism until late in life so as to avoid having to give up his smoking, swearing, and drinking for as long as possible and I had to explain why that was so funny and why interpreting the historical context of something like the Word of Wisdom can be so difficult.  These kinds of things happen regularly.  I know the language of Mormonism enough that when I can follow along with the in group conversation, people assume I'm Mormon.  Even though I no longer believe or attend, the LDS church itself still considers me a Mormon by its own standards, making any discussion of the subject complicated, awkward, and socially dangerous depending on how judgmental the mormon is of former mormons.   I'd practically have to pretend not to understand what people are talking about around me to avoid this situation.

Part of me feels the tug of years of training that I am supposed to testify of my religious opinions and as a result make sure everybody knows where I stand whether they want to know or not.  Another part of me knows this is socially blunt and risky and would rather let people make what assumptions they want to as long as they don't hurt me.  Another part of me isn't sure how to be true to the new me that is becoming if I can camouflage chameleon style to whatever belief system the people around me want me to have.  I want to be able to accept myself not just in the privacy of my own mind, but also in sharing my thoughts and beliefs with other people as is reasonable to the situation.

There is no easy answer.  I want to just feel free to be me, but how to do so is simply a mess because my identity is mixed.  The fervent Mormonism of my past will always be part of me.