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 So its entirely possible some things I’m reading in this uploaded version are outdated.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.
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.)
- “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.
- 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.
- 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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