Steve, over at BCC had up a rather interesting post on authority and excommunication the other day. I actually agree for the most part with what Steve says. This line in particular sticks out:
This is the cardinal sin within Mormonism, for activists: failing to recognize the authority of leaders. You can say whatever you want, act as you please. But when your leaders call you to heel, you best step in line. This is because our church depends on this authority from top to bottom.
Now I don’t think Steve really intended this in a positive sense. More just acknowledging the way things are. This discomfort shows by criticizing authority as “some Abrahamic test.” Down in the comments you see more evidence that a lot of people aren’t exactly enamored by this status quo. However imagine what the alternatives actually are.
I suspect many at BCC (not necessarily Steve) would love their namesake to have more influence on Church governance. That is they wish it were more democratic (common consent) so they’d get more of a say. However how would that work out? I think it safe to say that those of a more theological and organizational liberal streak are a pretty small minority in the Church. If anything going more democratic would likely enforce the status quo much more and lead to far less patience with agitators for change.
The alternative to a centralized control, even if more democratic, would be a decentralized model such as we tend to see in Protestantism – especially Evangelicalism. That is the Church would descend into breakoffs like we see with Protestantism. Don’t like what your tradition is doing? Just make a new Church. The benefit of Protestantism is the ability of everyone, at least in populous areas, to find a Church that matches their liking. The downside is of course the same thing. As Yeats says (in the aptly named “The Second Coming”)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
While I think some might cringe calling such theological and organizational freedom “mere anarchy” it’s hard to escape seeing it as anarchy. Once authority is in the individual then individual taste and comfort takes the lead. All those with differences with the brethren would be apt to form their own congregations.
Would that be a good thing? It’s hard to see how. If they think they are theologically correct they lose influence on the bulk of members. They get what they enjoy and feel comfortable with, but one might always question whether religion ought be about what we’re most comfortable with. Or whether it ought be more about pushing us out of our comfort zone. Further theology gets reduced to preference. While Mormons view our leaders as fallible, that doesn’t mean individual preference would lead us closer to the truth. Indeed if we take the D&C seriously, it’s hard not to see a descent to this model as taking us farther away.
If liberal Mormons want change, it’s really hard to see how anti-authoritarianism brings it to them. Their best bet isn’t to agitate for change, but to persuade. My sense, perhaps incorrect, is that many more theologically liberally oriented members recognize this. So, if anything, they might look even more askance at agitators since such agitation might well undermine the very persuasion they are attempting.
Of course this doesn’t just apply to those more theologically liberal. It applies to those more theologically conservative as well. If we’ve seen in my lifetime a fairly substantial shift away from the type of “literalism” that characterized McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine it has come because the Brethren have become convinced it wasn’t helpful. While I’ll be the first to admit my bias against many of the positions of liberal Mormonism it does seem the issue ultimately is about persuading the Brethren. Agitation past a certain point really is no longer about persuasion but is more about hurting the Church. As Steve pointed out, once you agitation starts being questioning or undermining authority, there’s typically just one direction things can go. I just think this a good thing.