The Mysteries of God, or Handbook 1

I’ve done something scandalous again. I’ve read the Church Handbook of Instructions 1, or at least some of it. The recent debate over whether or not the contents of Handbook 1 qualify as doctrine got under my skin, so I decided to study it and find out for myself. (How Mormon of me.) Of course, there was a hitch to my plan. Handbook 1 may be an authorized read for stake presidents and bishops (plus those who outrank them), but not for lowly members like me, who aren’t given access. My problem is compounded, of course, because I’m female, which means I’ll never serve in a bishopric or stake presidency. I suppose I could, technically, be plucked from obscurity and called to serve as one of the nine women in the general auxiliary presidencies who have authorized access, but the chance of that is exactly zero. So, for all intents and purposes, the book is sealed to me, in spite of the fact it contains policies by which I, as a Latter-day Saint, am to live and be judged. Huh. That stinks. What’s a girl to do?

Turns out, a little investigation, that’s what. And ta da! The 2010 Church Handbook of Instructions 1 appeared in all its glory here. Thank you, Heavenly Father, for the Internet and its ability to spread the Church’s teachings.

I want to make it clear that anything from Church Handbook of Instructions 1 I quote below is copyrighted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has a pernicious record of legal wrangling with those who have put it online. Also, as we’ve seen lately, the Brethren sometimes slip new stuff into Handbook 1 without thinking the membership needs to know. So its entirely possible some things I’m reading in this uploaded version are outdated. Mea culpa, but I can’t exactly double-check my source. Regardless, the copyright belongs to the Church. This is just me, making my space as safe as I can.

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Upfront, I have some questions about the secrecy of Handbook 1:

  • If Handbook 1 is doctrine (as some have zealously argued since November 5, 2015), why isn’t it publicly accessible?
  • If Handbook 1 is not doctrine, but is policy based on doctrine, why are members judged according to hidden policy, rather than clear doctrine?
  • How are members (especially women) to know the policies and rules by which we are expected to live and by which we will be judged, if the policies are only available to us secondhand or through hearsay?
  • How are members to determine if a bishop or Stake President steps out of line, or behaves out of compliance with policy, if members can’t have access to the policy?

I’m still looking for the bit in the handbook that explains what should be done with curious people like me. So far, I haven’t found it. I think that means I’m okay asking this stuff, since each of the above is an “earnest question” as opposed to a “doubt.” A doubt would be worded more like this: “Say whhaaat?”

Before you continue reading, though, you should understand that, technically, reading the excerpts I place below means you’re behaving in contradiction to church policy, unless you’re a bishop or stake president or an otherwise authorized important person. But you can’t really know that until you read the church policy that you aren’t supposed to read, so I think you can successfully argue ignorance. Reading on remains your choice.

If you’re still with me, know that, so far, I’ve been unsuccessful at finding answers in Handbook I to the questions I’ve listed above. So I’ve given up. I decided, instead, to check out what the church rules are about my female body, so a scrolled a bit. I stopped at the section on abortion. Now, I’ve never had an abortion, though once upon a time I was tempted to flush a two-year-old down a toilet (I didn’t). Regardless, I’ve always been pro-life with exceptions, just like the Church. So I anticipated that the abortion section would be a good place for me to ease into policies on women and their bodies.

Um, not so much. According to Section 17.3.1 of CHI 1, abortions are allowed when (I quote directly)*:

  • Pregnancy resulted from a forcible rape.

  • A competent physician determines the life of the mother is in serious jeopardy.

  • A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.

Blink. Blink. Read that again if you need to. Most women probably got it on the first go-round. Most fellows, too. But the men who wrote the book somehow missed it.

(Aside to the Brethren: I love you guys. So much, in fact, that I’m about to sustain you with a little of my close-reading skilz.)

  1. “Forcible rape” is (hold for it) an oxymoron. This wording demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of the concept of consent. It puts women at risk of having a local priesthood leader forbid her an exception because, in his view, she didn’t fight back hard enough. It risks a girl thinking she wasn’t raped because she held her breath, hoping compliance would keep her alive, or, at the very least, make the nightmare end more quickly. Rape is rape is rape is rape. Words matter. These are bad words.
  2. The wording also puts the onus on lay clergy to evaluate the competency of a physician, regardless of the fact the local leader may be, oh say, something like an accountant or a football coach. This may not matter so much in  more advanced nations, where licensing standards are stringent, but there are places in the world it could.
  3. Seriously, I have to know. When is the risk of a mother losing her life not “serious”?

By this point in my study of Handbook 1, I obviously was feeling a little rational. I decided to see how Handbook 1 handled a sex topic that applied to men. So I scrolled to the section labeled “Surgical Sterilization.”

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t realize church policy requires both men and women to consult with their bishop before snip snip or twist tie. Oops. I’d learned all my church policy information on birth control through the grapevine and recklessly thought the decision was to be made in private by the married couple. Alas, 17.3.15  of Handbook 1 reads*:

The Church strongly discourages surgical sterilization as an elective form of birth control. Surgical sterilization should be considered only if (1) medical conditions seriously jeopardize the life or health or (2) birth defects of serious trauma have rendered a person mentally incompetent and not responsible for his or her actions. Such decision must be determined by competent medical judgement and in accordance with the law. Even then, the persons responsible for this decision should consult with each other and their bishop and should receive divine confirmation of their decision through prayer.

Usually, it isn’t a burning in the bosom that leads a couple to opt for surgical sterilization, but a burning feeling in another part of the body, a part we don’t think we need to discuss with our bishop because, you know, we are married. Regardless, I bet a lot of us are in violation of this particular section.

Wouldn’t it be a lot more convenient if we just decided Handbook 1 is an evolving policy manual and not a hidden set of God’s laws? Nobody wants to play the game of Gotcha.

I’ve concluded Handbook 1 should be made as public as Church Handbook of Instructions 2, the policy manual for local auxiliary leaders, which anybody can access here on the church’s website. If Handbook 1 were made equally accessible, not only would there be less snip snip (well, theoretically…), we could all work by common consent (there’s that misunderstood word again) to improve the way God says things, since he most assuredly would be a distraction if he were to enroll in a linguistics class at his university there in Provo.

Or maybe make it public just because ignorance isn’t a useful tool for building the kingdom of God on earth. Nor is secrecy, or its sibling, unaccountability.

..if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost (2 Corinthians 4:3)

*CORRECTION: It’s been called to my attention that the two issues I specifically mention are, in fact, publicly available in Handbook 2 and have been for a few years. OOPS. My human is showing. lol. The Table of Contents of CHI 2 doesn’t have a direct link to it, so check it out here. Still think the whole thing should be public, but glad to see this. (hangs head)

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27 thoughts on “The Mysteries of God, or Handbook 1

  1. Contrast the policy and the enforcement of policy on “snip snip or twist tie” with the policy on transgender surgery, which IS enforced even with excommunication even if you did follow the same steps the handbook gives for “snip snip or twist tie”. Contrast it to the non-policy for boob jobs and tummy tucks. Contrast it to the transgender “may be” excommunicated with zero clear factors of when you should and should not, and leaving it up to cultural bias and vigilante religious views. Find me the doctrinal basis behind these, as it is not spoken in scripture or a single conference talk ever. Also, contrast it to history of the handbook for transgender issues. That might be a little harder to get all past versions of these handbooks too, but it reveals some things when you look at the changes over time.

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    1. The transgender surgery policy is not always followed. One example is the very public story of Eri Hayward, the subject of the Transmormon mini-documentary. She was in my home stake at the time, and no action has ever been taken against her.

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      1. This may be another case of needing to look at the wording. I believe it forbids “elective” surgery of that kind, when transitioning tends to be a medical need.

        Not that I think it HAS to be urgently needed, or that I would want anyone else telling me if I need it or not.

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  2. Naismith

    Keep in mind that the church is a worldwide church. While “forcible rape” may be an oxymoron in English, it may not be in other languages. But the English version may be written to accommodate translation into other languages around the globe. This was explicitly noted with other church materials (e.g. Guide to the Scriptures).

    Also, I was told by a bishop that the guidance in H1 is not a requirement for general members, but guidance for what the bishop should say *IF* he is consulted on the matter.

    So that if a couple has prayerfully decided on sterilization, fine. But if they are conflicted or unsure, that is what the bishop would tell them, laying out the gravity of the decision.

    That made sense to me, because the Lord does not hold us accountable for commandments of which we are not aware. That was one reason for the parables.

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    1. These are relevant excerpts from the Introduction of CHI 1.

      “Church leaders seek personal revelation to help them learn and fulfill the duties of their callings.” (para 2)

      And

      “These instructions can facilitate revelation if they are used to provide an understanding of principles, policies and procedures to apply while seeking the guidance of the Spirit.” (in para 4)

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  3. Reader

    You do know the stuff you’re reading in Section 17 of Handbook 1 is the same thing found in Handbook 2 Section 21, right? (with the exception of the recent SSM/children stuff). You sound as if you haven’t read Handbook 2, which has been available not only to all leaders (male and female) but to the general membership (even on Gospel Library app) for about 6 years now. At any rate, when Elder Oaks introduced the 2010 handbooks, if I remember correctly, he joked the handbooks contained doctrine. Nothing new or earth shaking, just a compilation of stuff the church already teaches. I am surprised at the number of people who serve as secretaries and in presidencies haven’t bothered to read anything in Handbook 2 beyond their sphere of service.

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    1. Hangs head in shame. Haven’t read it in a few years. I’ll own the error and gotta chuckle over it. I’ve added a note at the bottom, confessing my error. But the point of the article stands and the point of the wording of those sections remains. I blew it that way.

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      1. Reader

        Or maybe make it public just because ignorance isn’t a useful tool for building the kingdom of God on earth. Nor is secrecy, or its sibling, unaccountability.

        I agree ignorance isn’t a good thing, yet you seem ignorant about what is contained in Handbook 2. Now that you’ve had a chance to read Handbook 1, is there anything specific that you think all members need to know? If, like you, members aren’t reading Handbook 2 thoroughly, what makes you think they’ll read Handbook 1? Do you want Handbook 1 made public so you can make leaders accountable? If so, do you see members in general holding those leaders mentioned in Handbook 2 accountable? Are you the type to look in Handbook 2 and then complain about what your RS/Primary/YW/EQ Pres/HPGL/YM Pres. is doing or not doing? What do you mean by “held accountable?” Do we “fire” those leaders who you feel are doing their job? Do we start petition drives? Do we stand up at the podium on fast Sundays and point to portions of the handbooks and wonder aloud why leaders aren’t doing what’s set forth in the handbooks? We don’t seem to do that with respect to leadership mentioned in Handbook 2 — why would start doing it with respect to leaders mentioned in Handbook 1?

        I guess you can see my concern over your position. To you, openness invites examination and leads to improvement. I don’t believe making Handbook 1 will help us suddenly become a Zion people. I personally don’t care if leaders decide to make it available. I just don’t see it being relevant to our eternal salvation.

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        1. katiegibson1

          It’s incredibly relevant. With the moderation delay, maybe you didn’t see my comment below before making this comment. I talked about one portion of Handbook 1 that is extremely pertinent to members’ eternal salvation – the discipline procedures. Most believing members believe that if you are excommunicated, your eternal salvation is at risk. It is very important for members to know and fully understand the disciplinary policies and procedures.

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  4. katiegibson1

    Both of those sections you quoted are included in the publicly available Handbook 2. However, I think this may be a recent development – within the last 3-5 years.

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    1. Yeah. Embarrassing, right? I’ve inserted a note at the end. Thanks, Katie. I haven’t been in an auxiliary presidency in a while. I wonder why? lol Anyway, I’m leaving the post as originally published because, hey, human is as human does.

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      1. katiegibson1

        The general premise of your blog post still stands. There are still hundreds of pages of policies in Handbook 1 that we are not privy to unless we sit in the bishop’s office for a few hours to read the manual (I imagine many bishops would not allow this, and none have the time for it). The section included in Chapter 21 of Handbook 2 is only a very small segment of Handbook 1.

        One incredibly important part of Handbook 1 that is not public is the disciplinary procedures. I believe every person should know the full disciplinary policies by which they are governed.

        Another one is sealing policies. These are policies that affect the vast majority of members in some way, yet most people are left to speculate about them, never realizing that the questions are addressed in Handbook 1. One horrific example is that a baby who is born to a woman who was sealed to a previous spouse, but never cancelled that sealing, is born in the covenant of the sealing to the first spouse. The Handbook is ultra clear on this point. I have shared this information with several divorced women who were utterly horrified to learn this. They never imagined that a child of their current, intact marriage could be sealed to a previous husband.

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        1. Yes, this is why I let the post stand in spite of my faux pas.

          Sealing policies, in particular, need exposure. I think if most (women in particular) understood them, they’d be stunned. I went with this because I had been discussing these two topics with a group of about 8 femaile. We all were under the same understanding, even though there is certainly local leadership experience under our belts. As I said, oops.

          Also, the wording of these two sections remains problematic for me. Surely our bishops do what they can to be sensitive and inspired. Still, leadership roulette is a
          real thing, though. Some will strive to enact the words in the handbooks as literally as they can in their efforts to please God. (I’ve received some messages about just that in the wake of this post.) Its for these few literalist leaders that we need to be careful of expressions like “forcible rape.” And it truly bothers me that the language does not include the mother in the decision making process. We can say, “Oh, that’s obvious,” but its these subtle slights that build up in our culture to undervalue the import of women’s voices.

          Thank you for reading and being kindly forgiving. I do my best to pass that attitude along. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, life is a whole lot less fun. And probably less meaningful.

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  5. Craig

    Not to be pedantic, but the term matters, I think: isn’t “forcible rape” more a tautology, or redundancy, than an oxymoron? An oxymoron is two words that don’t go together, like “family vacation.” And the problem with a tautology is that the modifier is implying a distinction that isn’t there, which is what you’re pointing out I think–as if there’s some difference between “forcible” rape and “rape.” And that little grammatical distinction, as you point out, can have some big consequences. Maybe grammar doesn’t always matter, but it sure does here.

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    1. In many states, A 17-year old who has consensual sex with her 20-year old boyfriend has legally been raped, but I don’t think the brethren intend for that situation to be covered–hence the “forcibly.”

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      1. AuntM

        Which does shows that the church has a long way to go in understanding what consent really is. The idea that date-rape isn’t rape unless it is “forcible” is implied in this standard.

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  6. DB

    Forcible rape as opposed to consensual statutory rape. For example, a 15 year girl and a 20 year boy start a consensual relationship, she gets pregnant, and he is convicted of statutory rape. Legally, the pregnancy resulted from rape, but it wasn’t forcible rape.

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  7. jennifer Rueben

    seems like a non-issue to me as I have had not problem finding and reading both handbooks, when I needed the information. Many of the rules and standards are based on safely, insurance, and legal questions including right of privacy. Many other rules, as stated are only referred to when a member asks for counsel or a situation arises that need an informed and uniform reaction. reading the policies and applying the guidelines to actual church members and their personal lives are very different things and must rely on inspiration. As to having a member using the handbook to checking up on leaderships compliance to the rules, there are built in checks and balances for that purpose.
    By the way, I am a women of mature age and have had a variety of callings including leadership throughout the world. Even before the internet, I had both handbooks available for ready reference . When I served in leadership positions I was informed regular on any additions or chances that impacted on my calling
    As for the sealing of a child of a second marriage to the first husband, No handbook or rule will ever trump God’s gift of free will. The desires and actions of all parties involves is always God’s rule.

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    1. katiegibson1

      The only way you could have Handbook 1 available for reference is if a man with access to one decided to violate the rules and give it to you. It is very clear that he is supposed to keep it himself and not give it to others. The only women in the entire church who are authorized to have a copy of handbook 1 are the nine women in the general auxiliary presidencies.

      The only way any woman or any man not in the bishopric can access handbook 1 now is to sit in the bishop’s office and read it if he lets them, or to access a leaked copy online. The majority of members are not going to be comfortable doing that.

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      1. el oso

        In many wards, CH 1 was kept in the ‘public’ area of the clerks office. The relief society, YW, and primary presidents sometimes had a key to the clerk’s office because that is where the computer for record keeping is and also where a phone in the building is or was. That is how I had access to it when I had equivalent level callings that do not get access to CH 1 per the policy. (~60% of my mature adult life prior to 2010 and universal access to CH 2)
        As noted above, there are plenty of members with access to the policies who either ignore or are not aware of them before doing things like getting sterilized. Many of these policies are also made from a legal protection standpoint and are certainly not doctrine, but designed to protect the church from legal action.

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  8. MDearest

    I only have time to read one blog post today, and I’m glad it was this one. I enjoyed the way you wrote about this.

    I always get a charge (that sometimes takes my breath away) when I read about all the sticky, nasty scrapes that folks get into, and other folks far removed from the reality of those scrapes are weighing in, parsing diligently and verbosely, flow-charting the right actions needed and whatnot. I presume that this very human hunger for correctness is magnified among us Mormons, and in satisfying this hunger we stumble blindly through a wasteland of broken, wounded people who are afflicted with very real afflictions that are too often made worse by the application of a rulebook masquerading as The Law.

    I find instruction in the numerous examples of compassion for hurting people demonstrated by Christ when he ignored rules and actual laws, and zeroed in on the most important needful thing.

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    1. Reader

      Compassion is wonderful, and thoughtful prayer and consideration are encouraged throughout both handbooks. Neither of them purport to be The Law. I do find that most people appreciate a set of rules so there is some uniformity and predictability to things. That is, until they feel they are the exception to the rules.

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      1. MDearest

        I know, right? People can be such humans sometimes. We want safety and predictability until such becomes a hair shirt. I’m glad for the examples of Christ from the New Testament that show us that we can adapt the rules when circumstances become obstacles. That it’s ok, and necessary to take the hair shirt off, and that it can be done in wisdom with the least disruption to our valuable rules. If one is assigned to leadership, it’s worth studying.

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  9. Glenn Thigpen

    Years ago, my life intersected with policies in the church handbook of instructions. The branch president explained the policies to me and even offered to let me read them if so desired. I do not know what the policy is now, but I assume that a Branch President or bishop would allow anyone being counseled to read the pertinent instructions/advice/guidelines.
    I do know from personal experience, that when the subject of a possible abortion comes up, the counseling is loving, concerned, and compassionate, extending all the way to Salt Lake.
    I do not care to know all of the details in HB1. I believe in a “need to know” basis, i.e. if there is something that is going to affect me. I will then ask for that information. I am not going to follow that link. ut to each their own.

    Glenn

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