After his 30-minute speech Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington, Latter-day Saint apostle David Bednar tackled a tally of questions about declining membership growth in the Utah-based church, LGBTQ issues, female leaders, and the faith’s depiction in recent popular media, including the current FX/Hulu series “Under the Banner of Heaven.”
In his opening remarks to nearly 100 reporters at the prestigious venue and others watching online, Bednar, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gave an overview of the faith’s beliefs and actions across the globe.
In the question-and-answer session, he was quizzed about an array of issues:
• On declining membership in a number of places, Bednar said, “If you look at the church in the aggregate, it is growing, which, in the climate we find today [when most churches are shrinking], is rather newsworthy.”
He pointed to “out-migration” from parts of the western United States and in-migration from Mexico and Central America.
“I have confidence in the growth,” Bednar said, “but if you break it down state by state, that is a rapidly moving target.”
• When asked about whether he could ever envision the church allowing LGBTQ couples to wed or be “sealed within the church,” the 69-year-old apostle did not directly respond but simply restated the faith’s position on marriage — that it is between a man and a woman, which is “ordained of God.”
• In answer to a query about his view of “Banner,” he alluded to all the works he cited in his formal presentation and then quipped, “Given all the stuff I just described, who has time to watch programs on TV?”
Even so, the apostle pointed to a recent Salt Lake Tribune story that separated the fact from the fiction in the show.
This is “not new. Christ was mischaracterized,” he said. “We have been mischaracterized since 1830, when the church was established. … I don’t think it will ever go away. We don’t like it, but we don’t spend all of our time trying to respond to it.”
• To a question about whether there will ever be a female president of the church, Bednar said, “We follow the pattern of the ancient church. … The pattern anciently was that the apostles were men.”
In his prepared remarks, he noted that “women comprise the majority” and lead the female Relief Society in 31,000 local congregations.
“All women and all men in our church have responsibilities,” Bednar said, “to teach, minister and serve our brothers and sisters.”
The faith teaches that it is the “restored church of Jesus Christ,” he said, and its organization is “the same today as existed in the primitive church.”
Bednar explained how the denomination has grown from a handful in the 19th century to nearly 17 million worldwide, spread through the work of its volunteer missionary force, which now numbers 91,000 (more than 54,000 full-time proselytizers and 36,000-plus service missionaries).
He outlined many of the church’s humanitarian efforts to bring post-disaster relief, to aid refugees, to provide immunizations, and to supply assistance wherever it can.
“We certainly do not have all of the answers,” Bednar said, “but we do lock arms with the global community to eradicate hunger, administer lifesaving immunizations, provide wheelchair mobility for those who are immobile, and train health care professionals to provide physical, mental and emotional support.”
On other matters:
• He was asked about transgender people who have completed transitioning before exploring membership in the church?
“We welcome all and strive to love them,” he said. “I use the word ‘strive’ because we don’t do that perfectly. People have stereotypes, they have biases and prejudices, but we strive to love everybody.”
• In answer to a question about the church’s reported $100 billion in investment reserves, Bednar joked, “If you look at the stock market, I don’t think it’s $100 billion anymore.”
Having a substantial sum in savings “is a good idea,” he said. “You can read in the Old Testament about seven years of famine and seven years of plenty. … If things are different in the future than they are now, we think it’s provident and wise to prepare to maintain that kind of support in an uncertain economic environment.”
• When asked about eschewing the popular “Mormon” moniker, Bednar said, “[church] President Russell M. Nelson will be known forever as a man of remarkable courage to say we will no longer use a nickname pejoratively attached to us by our enemies, and we are inviting other people to call us what we are called — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
• Reflecting on the mass shooting at a Texas elementary school, Bednar said, “We mourn with those who mourn and pray for all those impacted by this senseless act of violence. My prayer and my blessing is that we will be guided, comforted and helped in our important work, and that victims, families and nations might be granted the peace that surpasses all understanding — the peace that comes from Jesus Christ.”
Bednar became the first official high-ranking church leader to address this respected group of journalists in more than two decades, when, in 2000, then-President Gordon B. Hinckley gave a similar speech.