For the past two weeks, Melanie and I have attended Community of Christ church services. Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is the second largest church group that traces its origins back to Joseph Smith, Jr. After Joseph Smith was killed, there was much debate as to who, if anyone, should be his rightful successor. Many felt that Joseph’s son, Joseph Smith III, should be the next president of the church once he got older (he was only 11 at the time of his father’s death). There were claims that Joseph had even ordained his son to be his successor a short time before he was killed. Brigham Young argued that Joseph could not and should not be replaced and that the church should instead be led collectively by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, of which he was senior member. A larger group followed Brigham, who eventually changed his mind about there being no single person at the head of the church and filled that role himself. (Today, most people who identify as Mormon trace their religious heritage through Brigham, including those who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.) Almost 16 years later, Joseph Smith III, who had declined to lead the church until he felt inspired of God to do so, embraced what he regarded as a divine call to serve as prophet and president of the church. Most of those who hadn’t already yoked themselves to a competing would-be leader—and even some who had—accepted Joseph Smith III as their new prophet. Both those who followed Brigham and those who followed Joseph Smith III would consider the other group to have broken off from the original church organized under Joseph Smith, Jr.
But enough history. Melanie and I have been interested in visiting Community of Christ ever since attending a couple of lectures at the downtown Salt Lake City Library by a historian of Mormonism who converted from the LDS Church (the predominant “Brighamite” church) to Community of Christ. I had no interest in converting, but I did want to see what they were like. Everything I knew about them, I liked. In fact, their general ideas and attitudes seemed much more in line with my way of thinking than what I typically encounter at LDS church services. More in line with Mormonism as I understand it, really. And so, I was curious.
On our first visit, the contrast between Community of Christ and LDS services was striking. In Sunday School, we were reminded by the teacher that he isn’t trying to get us to think some particular way or another. He just wanted to get us to think, and if willing, to share those thoughts. He said that if nobody commented on anything, he would say increasingly radical stuff until we felt like we couldn’t take it anymore and had to speak up. As we went through the lesson—more of a discussion, really—on the parable of the ten virgins, the conversation focused on what we could get out of it, what it might mean, and even how we might get it wrong or abuse it. Priority was given to finding meaning and enriching and improving our lives, rather than to confirming what we already believe and showing how we are right. Quite a difference from what you get at LDS Sunday School, in my experience.
The worship service also had a very different tone to it than LDS worship services. Community of Christ had fewer “talks,” but its solitary sermon was more thought-provoking than what you usually hear from an LDS pulpit. There is a lot more singing at Community of Christ, and I found the music rather enjoyable. They have a much more expansive hymnbook—something like 600 songs in total—and at least a few of their hymns had an almost contemporary show tune feel to them. I liked it.
One cool feature of Community of Christ’s worship service is that they had a time dedicated to children. They called up all of the children and addressed them in particular, giving something of a mini-lesson. Eddie, Peter, and Creegan were with us, but I didn’t know if they’d want to go up, because they never want to participate at our normal LDS church. Eddie sat this one out, but Peter and Creegan were very enthusiastic about participating. The pastor talked about creation and how everything we see is a manifestation of God’s glory and work. He then had the kids draw a picture of something from nature while the adults watched a worshipful video. The pastor then shared the kids’ drawings. Beegy went first, holding up his picture of a woman falling into water, screaming. “She says, ‘Aaaaahhhhhh!’” Beegy explained. Everyone laughed. Peter shared an impressive drawing of a fox. When all the kids had shared their pictures, the congregation applauded their work. I really appreciated that we acknowledged the kids in this way, rather than meeting their efforts with dead silence, as is customary at LDS services.
I don’t want to spend too much time recounting details of my visit. Suffice it to say, there was much to enjoy about Community of Christ. The people seemed like really good people. In comparison to LDS services, their services seemed very humble, sincere, open-minded, thought-provoking, and inspiring. Admittedly, I left feeling like it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to reject their community for my own, just because my own is supposed to be the “right” one. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. I could imagine talking to LDS family and friends, telling them all the reasons Community of Christ felt so much better than LDS services, and having them respond, “Well, that doesn’t matter. We’re still the true church. They’re not.” These are the same people who would probably tell visitors to the LDS church that if they feel anything good or positive during their visit, they can interpret those feelings as coming from the Holy Ghost, who is testifying to them that the LDS Church is “true.” So hypocritical.
Although I hadn’t originally expected to revisit Community of Christ so soon, we returned the next Sunday. The service was atypical because someone was being ordained to the priesthood. This afforded Melanie and me an opportunity to see some other aspects of Community of Christ that differ from the LDS Church. Most notably, although it was a man being ordained to the priesthood, all four of the people who ordained him were women. (The LDS Church does not allow the ordination of women to priesthood offices, and so in turn has no women doing any ordaining of others.) Seeing four women gathered around a man, their hands on his head and shoulders, did not strike me as offensive, blasphemous, crazy, or otherwise “wrong.” I was actually impressed by how unremarkable it seemed. I was thinking about my boys seeing this and potentially asking, “Why don’t women do that in our church?” and how damn absurd it would feel to say something like “because it’s wrong” in response. “God doesn’t want that to happen.” It just sounds so silly when you’re watching it take place and it is nothing more than a loving and serviceable act. It wouldn’t be altogether different from seeing a man baking a cake and telling your kid, “God doesn’t want that to happen.” The preposterousness of it all strikes you in the face.
We also had the chance to take communion with Community of Christ, which is normally once a month and so hadn’t been offered the week before. They have an “open communion,” meaning they don’t consider membership in Community of Christ a prerequisite to taking communion. The LDS Church views the blessing of communion (called simply “the sacrament” in LDS vernacular) as a priesthood ordinance that must be done by authority. I imagine some LDS folk would consider it a sin that I partook of Community of Christ communion. But I’m not sure why. By Community of Christ’s own accord, it’s not a symbol of my belonging to their church. Plus, if Community of Christ doesn’t have any legitimate authority, which would be the typical LDS way of looking at it, then there was nothing special about what they were doing. If that’s the case, then who cares if I participated? Anyway, I did partake and tried to direct my thoughts in the same way I would if I were taking the sacrament at an LDS church. There was no reason not to. Unlike the LDS Church, which uses water, Community of Christ uses grape juice in place of sacramental wine. My kids loved that. I myself found the symbolism more pronounced through the use of grape juice. Not just the color, mind you, but the fact that grape juice lingers on the tongue. When you drink your thimble of water at LDS services, your tongue is wet for a second. That’s about as far as the sensory experience goes. Grape juice, on the other hand, coats your tongue and remains. There is an aftertaste and a residual velvety sensation on the inside of your mouth. It’s not entirely unlike blood, oddly enough. I think it’s easy to see how this might have a more profound effect on the person who partakes of juice as opposed to water. It’s not such a fleeting experience, and not something you can easily do without giving it much attention.
Now, it may surprise you based on everything I’ve said above, but I left Community of Christ this most recent Sunday feeling eager to return to my regular LDS church services next week. It’s a funny thing, but as much as I get inspired by other traditions, I seem always to find myself desirous to return to my own tradition. It’s not because something is lacking in these other traditions. On the contrary, I think it might just be that I find so much lacking in my own church culture that I want to infuse it with some of the good I am finding elsewhere. This is something I seem unable to shake. At Community of Christ, there was a good deal of talk about being “called” to something. The person being ordained an elder that day had felt called to that office, in and of himself, by God, which is actually how Community of Christ does things. In LDS circles, being “called” is synonymous with being asked by someone in authority to do something or to serve in some capacity. It’s meant to be an inspired “call,” but whether or not it is, LDS folk rarely (and in most cases never) use the phrase “being called” to refer to something a person feels is communicated from God directly to the individual him/herself. Anyway, on the way home from church, I thought of myself as called—in the sense familiar to Community of Christ and most other Christians—to the LDS Church. I am not your typical member of the LDS Church, and sometimes I come close to hating my time there, but I embrace Mormonism wholeheartedly and I feel like the LDS Church is where I am meant to serve. It’s where I want to serve. And I can see a lot of room to serve there. Not in the help-set-up-chairs way that LDS folk are so often keen on serving, but in a deeper, more theological sense, with opening minds and softening hearts. Maybe that sounds prideful. Or maybe it just is what God puts in my own heart to do.
Maybe, just maybe, being LDS is my cross to bear.