At last night’s Stake Leadership Training Meeting, the stake president announced the first two speakers, both bishops. The second was assigned the topic “the unwritten order of things.” Hard to think of a topic more likely to spin out of control — I braced for the worst, and prepared myself for the upcoming train wreck by Googling up a copy of Elder Packer’s actual remarks at the 1996 BYU devotional and (#3 on the Google search) Julie’s 2009 post “The Problem with the Unwritten Order of Things” and the 103 spirited comments to that post.
It turned out the speaker talked about an entirely different topic and never even uttered the words “unwritten order.” I think we can add the fact that speakers generally feel free to ignore the assigned topic and talk about whatever they want as another item on the unwritten order list. I certainly can’t fault this speaker for making that choice, and I’m sure whatever he talked about was informative and encouraging (I don’t recall the details). Surprisingly, having re-read Elder Packer’s talk during the meeting, it’s not really that bad. I think the problem is how easy it is to take that idea and run with it, simply taking the phrase itself as approving the pernicious idea that a local leader can do anything they want, regardless of what Handbook 1 or Handbook 2 says, as long as they feel good about it.
That Phrase Does Not Mean What You Think It Means
First, let’s highlight this statement by Elder Packer: “The things I am going to tell you are not explained in our handbooks or manuals either.” That is important because it directly refutes the idea that the unwritten order idea can be invoked to trump the written order of things (the Handbooks). If someone is pursuing their own approach rather than what is directed in the Handbooks and justifying it using the phrase “unwritten order,” they aren’t using Elder Packer’s unwritten order of things, they are just making up their own rules. My prepared response to that situation is: “I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ, not the Church of Bishop X. If you want to make your own rules, go make your own church.” I’ve never had occasion to use that fine response as I have always had reasonable and responsible bishops. But I know the lunatic fringe is out there, and sometimes they get called to local leadership. It is good to know Elder Packer specifically rejected that broad reading of his counsel.
And what did Elder Packer actually affirm? His alternate description for the unwritten things he was alluding to was “The Ordinary Things about the Church Which Every Member Should Know,” which doesn’t sound quite as sinister. Particular items he referred to in the course of the talk as examples of the unwritten order of things were:
- The one presiding at a meeting should sit on the stand and sit close to the one conducting the meeting.
- The first counselor should sit on the President’s right, the second on the left.
- We don’t ask for callings and we don’t ask to be released, although one is free to consult with the leader who called you if circumstances change.
- For blessings or counsel, go to your parents. Plan B: get a blessing from your home teacher and counsel from your bishop. Don’t go to GAs for blessings or counsel.
- Revelation is vertical: a bishop shouldn’t consult other bishops for advice, he should consult the stake president.
- Be a little patient with how things are done in the Church; busy local leaders might not always get the details right.
- “Bishops should not yield the arrangement of meetings to members,” with specific reference to missionary farewells and funerals.
- Funerals should be “spiritually impressive” and not become “informal family reunions in front of ward members.”
- Wear your Sunday best on Sunday.
- Over the pulpit, leaders should use full names when calling and releasing people, not first names or nicknames.
So what he was describing was the things ordinary members should know about how the church works at the local level in meetings and so forth. There is *nothing* about doctrine or history in the general principle (things ordinary members of the Church should know) or the list of examples that he provides, so anyone trying to pawn off their own personal doctrines or ideas about LDS history using Elder Packer’s idea is just off base. That would be an unwarranted application of Elder Packer’s counsel.
How Not to Apply the Counsel
So back to Julie’s post, which stated that “any adult member can offer either prayer in sacrament meeting” (paraphrasing the Handbook) but noting that some LDS units were operating under a rule that only men could offer the invocation at Sacrament Meeting. Some local leaders had apparently received direction from higher leaders that this was a requirement, an unwritten order thing, despite Handbook language to the contrary. That seems like a plainly mistaken use of Elder Packer’s counsel (“The things I am going to tell you are not explained in our handbooks or manuals”). Which is not to say that some circumstance may arise where a departure from the written order is appropriate, just that one can’t use “the unwritten order” idea to justify that departure.
The bottom line: as actually spelled out by Elder Packer, it’s a much narrower concept than most of us suppose. If he had just titled his talk “Ordinary Things about the Church Which Every Member Should Know,” a lot of confusion could have been avoided. Maybe one of the things that every member of the Church should know is that the unwritten order of things as that idea has come to be used in the Church (rather than how Elder Packer originally explained it) is a folk doctrine.