Many Latter-day Saints cheered Wednesday to see their church’s softer tone on discipline, its emphasis on pastoral care, its clarity on complex issues and its push for greater compassion toward same-sex and transgender members.
Some, though, were troubled by new policies toward transitioning transgender persons and the insistence that gender is defined at birth.
It’s all in the “General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” used to spell out the faith’s mission and goals as well as to govern its policies, practices and procedures and now available online for all to read.
Published on Wednesday, the handbook will be digital only, though printed copies will be available in the future where internet access is limited. It replaces two previous volumes, Handbook I (for stake, or regional, presidents and bishops) and Handbook II (for all other lay leaders in the faith).
Those earlier printed handbooks are “obsolete and should be discarded,” the governing First Presidency, led by church President Russell M. Nelson, wrote in a letter to the faith’s leaders and members.
This new volume contains 38 chapters, including the nine “completely rewritten” ones and an “updated” one released Wednesday. The remaining 29 chapters will be revised over the next two years.
One major change is the language used to describe church actions to help members repent who have committed “serious sins.”
Excommunication and disfellowshipment are out and disciplinary councils have been replaced by “membership councils.”
To remove a person from the faith, “the feeling of the First Presidency and the Twelve [apostles] and members who we did research with felt that [excommunication] was a particularly harsh term,” general authority Seventy Anthony D. Perkins, executive director of the church’s Correlation Department, which oversaw creation of the handbook, explained in a video. “And so that term is replaced by the phrase ‘withdrawal of church membership.’”
As for “disfellowshipment," Perkins added, “that term indicates or seems to suggest that someone is being cut off from association with the church, which was never the intent, but the wording implied that.” The phrase in the new handbook is “formal membership restrictions.”
“The idea behind these terminology changes is to ensure that we understand that when we make a mistake in our life, the Lord is always extending his arms of mercy,” Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the women’s Relief Society general presidency, who was closely involved in the creation of the new handbook, said in the video.
Ross Trewhella, a longtime bishop in England, was pleased to see the new language.
“The word discipline isn’t used anymore and the emphasis is more on repentance and helping any victims,” Trewhella wrote in an email. “The church procedures aren’t there to be a punishment, but to help people. Replacing archaic terms such as excommunication with more descriptive phrases is better at demonstrating the possible consequences.”
‘Walk in my shoes’
Perhaps the biggest addition to the handbook is the extensive section regarding members or potential members who are transgender.
It was developed, Perkins said in a news release, because Latter-day Saint leaders have fielded “an increase in questions coming from bishops and stake presidents saying, ‘What can a transgender person do? What are the guidelines?’”
The transgender policy states that everyone is welcome to attend meetings and urges leaders to “create a warm, welcoming environment for all — including persons who identify as transgender,” the general authority said. “At the same time, the policy clarifies that some of things in the church are gender specific.”
Some are pleased with that clarity, while others argue it makes church participation worse for transgender members.
For its part, North Star, a support organization for believing LGBT Latter-day Saints, is celebrating the handbook. “It provides clarity, where there was ambiguity,” North Star’s executive committee said in a statement. “We are deeply grateful for this inspired policy change.”
It contains “significant guidance on loving and including transgender Latter-day Saints, allowing transgender members to participate in church meetings and receive callings and sacred ordinances,” the statement said. “We are heartened that the policy recognizes that each situation is unique, and that local leaders are required to consult with area presidencies. This allows the policy to be adapted to individual circumstances.”
For Laurie Lee Hall, though, the handbook’s message is built on a “false premise” — that gender is “an essential characteristic of Heavenly Father’s plan of happiness…[whose] intended meaning … in the family proclamation is biological sex at birth.”
That position cements in policy the views expressed by President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, before last fall’s General Conference.
“As long as that remains,” said Hall, a transgender woman and former lay leader who previously was excommunicated and now is senior vice president of Affirmation, another LGBTQ support group, “it nullifies my lived experience and personal revelation.”
And, she said, it causes harm to transgender members.
“Most of us transgender persons have strong witnesses that we are who we are, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” she said from her home in Louisville, Ky. “They are giving us no place to be.”
The church does acknowledge that some people experience feelings of “incongruence between their biological sex and their gender identity ... and may identify as transgender,” the handbook said. It also takes no position on the causes of people identifying themselves as transgender.
Transgender persons may be baptized and partake of the sacrament, or communion. But priesthood ordination and temple ordinances are received according to birth sex.
Members who elect medical or surgical intervention to transition to the “opposite gender” or who “socially transition” — dress as the gender they identify as or change their names or pronouns — “will experience some church membership restrictions.”
That could include limits on exercising the priesthood, which is a male calling, attending the temple, or receiving a church assignment. An annotation also will be placed on the person’s membership records.
That sends the message to transgender members, Hall said, that they may be welcome at meetings but not as their true selves.
“It begs judgment of us and is not welcoming but toxic,” she said. “No one except the person walking in my shoes knows how I feel inside.”
Hall feels lucky that her congregation has embraced her and allows her to attend women’s Relief Society, where she often sits by the wife of the Louisville Temple president.
“She is kind,” Hall said. “Many of my friends have begun to find acceptance in their home wards, but it’s very fragile.”
LGBTQ policy about-face
In April 2019, the Utah-based faith reversed its 2015 position branding same-sex member couples “apostates” and denying religious rituals for their children.
Ever since, observers have been asking when the reversal would be reflected in the handbook. Now it is.
Blessings and baptisms of children require only one custodial parent to give permission. LGBTQ partners are treated the same as heterosexual couples, where “membership councils” could be convened but are not mandated.
Nathan Kitchen, president of Affirmation, said his group applauds the reversal finally making it into the handbook. But he worries about how closely it will be followed by lay leaders worldwide.
“We have witnessed over the years much inequality in the treatment of legally married same-sex couples, which is entirely dependent on where the couple lives,” Kitchen said in an Affirmation statement. “I’m concerned that today’s updated policies still leave LGB members highly vulnerable to the education and personal feelings of local leaders, continuing a harmful game of ‘leadership roulette.’”
He also was disappointed to see the church move content from mormonandgay.org to a new portion of the faith’s website under “same-sex attraction.”
The term “same-sex attraction” is “an ineffective descriptor created by people and organizations outside the LGB community,” Kitchen wrote, “rooted in a belief that sexual orientation is a behavior and therefore amendable to conversion therapy to change such behavior.”
Using this identifier, he said, “is a step backward from the positive vernacular President Nelson used in his September 2019 speech at Brigham Young University referring to policy adjustments impacting “those who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.”
Identifying oneself as gay, lesbian, or bisexual is “not against church policy or doctrine,” Kitchen said. “Positive mental outcomes occur when LGB members have the self-determination to self identify.”
Other handbook highlights:
• All Latter-day Saints, regardless of gender or church assignment, exercise delegated priesthood authority when they are given formal service opportunities in their congregations. “All church members who keep their covenants — women, men, and children — are blessed with God’s priesthood power in their homes to strengthen themselves and their families.” Only men and male youths, however, can be ordained to priesthood offices.
• The church “condemns” female genital mutilation, a not uncommon practice in some parts of the world where the faith operates. The handbook notes that “additional policy direction” will be coming on this issue.
• For those born with “ambiguous genitalia” or “intersex,” parents or others, with the cooperation of medical professionals, will have to determine their child’s sex. Questions about “membership records, priesthood ordination, and temple ordinances” for those members should be directed to the First Presidency.
• The “four aspects of God’s work” are detailed as “living the gospel of Jesus Christ; caring for those in need; inviting all to receive the gospel; and uniting families for eternity.” Latter-day Saints believe people can live with their families in heaven.
• Efforts are reinforced to persuade members, media and others to refer to the church by its full name and cease using shortened terms like “Mormon” and “LDS.”
• Apostasy is no longer listed among reasons for a mandatory membership council.
• Predatory behavior requiring a mandatory membership council now includes “violent, sexual or financial” acts.
• Ties and white shirts are no longer mentioned as being “recommended” for young male deacons passing the sacrament; now they should just be “well groomed and clean.” The notion that members should “partake” of the bread and water “with their right hand when possible” was added.
Why release the new handbook not only to leaders and members but also to the general public?
“Church leaders,” a Q&A released with the new handbook said, “feel there is value in allowing those who are not members to be able to see how the Church of Jesus Christ operates in the latter days.”
The decision to make the content available to all won praise from members and observers arguing for more transparency in the faith.
“Giving members access to all the information can end some ignorance about the church’s various policies," senior Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess wrote recently, “only some of which have been made clear to members in the past.”
The book, available now in English, will be translated into 51 languages.
“Our original plan was to completely rewrite the handbook and then translate that. That gave us a delivery date of probably 2022,” Perkins explained. “But as those first chapters came out, the First Presidency and [Quorum of the] Twelve felt that the updates were important enough to release as soon as possible.
“And that means,” he added, " ... that the church is true and living. It can change.”