The Problem with the Unwritten Order of Things

Can women offer the opening prayer in sacrament meeting?

I’ve heard two answers to this:

(1) Yes, of course. Read the handbook. It says clearly that any adult member can offer either prayer in sacrament meeting.

(2) No, they can’t. It is part of the unwritten order of things that they don’t. An Area Authority reported to a friend of mine that he (=the Area Authority) had heard the question posed to Elder Oaks who replied that Pres. Hinckley was asked to change the handbook to reflect that women shouldn’t offer the opening prayer, but chose not to because “everyone knows” that women shouldn’t do it. Of course, that’s quintuple hearsay. (And you reading it makes six.)

And that is my problem with the unwritten rules: depending on where you live, you may not have many church members and leaders familiar with them, which means that you are left using quintuple hearsay to determine what correct practice is supposed to be. Which means that there is a huge potential for hurt feelings, misunderstandings, disputes, incorrect practice, and wasting time in conversations and leadership meetings where the issues arise. Another unfortunate side effect of the unwritten order is that it creates a situation where people who have family connections to church leaders have a privileged insider status: they can contact grandpa and find out what the policy is (or at least what grandpa claims he remembers hearing once from someone), while the rest of us are either left in the dark or have to rely on their fifth-hand information.

I’m not nearly as concerned with whether women are able to offer the opening prayer as I am with the issue of unclear directions and the inevitable disputes that arise because of them. This certainly isn’t the only issue where I’ve heard claim to unwritten rules that we were all just supposed to know. I’ve heard high-level authority claimed to justify that we weren’t supposed to go out of our way to accommodate non-majority-language speakers, who should just learn the language of the area they were in. The list goes on, which is pretty amazing considering the fact that I have virtually no contact with leadership meetings and/or decision making. (I always have teaching callings.)

The unwritten order may have made sense in the small, close-knit, geographically compact church of the past that had frequent visits from high-level leaders to local congregations, but today it does more harm than good. Given the problem that the Church has had with statements attributed to leaders that were not accurate, one would think that we’d realize that we cannot rely on word of mouth to transmit policy.

103 comments for “The Problem with the Unwritten Order of Things

  1. There’s a reason that the order of many things remains “unwritten”. If it’s actually written down, it’s official. If it’s official, it must be able to be officially defended when criticized by an outside third party. Most of the stuff that lies within the “unwritten” category simply isn’t defensible.

    BK Packer’s talk has caused all kinds of problems, partly because some of his suggestions (notably that the deceased should not be talked about at his/her funeral) are simply bad ideas. I find the larger problem is that almost anyone can attempt to defend the indefensible by saying that “there is an unwritten order of things, Elder Packer says so, and he’s an apostle, so…” Trump card played, brains may now be disengaged.

  2. While I tend to agree, we’ll then have a CHI the size of Encyclopedia Britannica. We’ll have to write everything that not only is done in the Church, but not done. It could be tedious.

    Eric, thanks for the tip. I’ll have to check out this Bible you speak of.

  3. During the first leadership training broadcast about 8 years ago, didn’t Elder Packer say one of the reasons for the broadcast was to help educate the church on the unwritten order of things? In one, he went as far as showing physically exactly how a priesthood blessing was to be done (of course without giving the blessing).

    There has been direction on standing for prayers, etc. in the Ensign, conference and the handbook, and I believe much of the unwritten order of things is now written.

    For me, if it aint in the handbook, it is the traditions of men – unless clarified by a GA in conference or the Ensign. Otherwise, it really doesn’t matter…

  4. There was an area in Brazil I worked on in my mission that wouldn’t let women pass the sacrament down the row they were sitting in, since they didn’t have the priesthood. They also thought they shouldn’t share the Doctrine and Covenants with non-members, due to some verse (can’t remember where) that says not to show these words unto unbelievers. (I’m paraphrasing, because I can’t find the verse).

    Neither of these things were due to apostolic pronouncements, but the unwritten culture that sprang up in that particular area. It was interesting the resistance we got when we tried to tell them that wasn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

  5. I thought the men had to say the closing prayer, to bring the meeting to a close with priesthood authority (wink). I remember distinctly about seven years ago there was a directive that couples should not say the prayers in sacrament (the wife says opening, husband says closing tradition) because it was a “tradition of man” that was making singles feel uncomfortable. And rightly so. But then we moved back to Utah and I’ve never heard of it since. Was it just my Colorado stake?

  6. Interestingly, the General Handbook of Instructions is very well written–in the sense that it it is supposed to be clear rather than, say, poetic. It is a highly functional document that can resolve most questions that arise IF PEOPLE ACTUALLY READ IT. It’s long, however, and clear, instructional prose is not usually very interesting. It’s much easier to rely on what your mission president said 22 years ago, or what you thought Packer meant when you read his talk on the internet.

  7. I think that the unwritten order is a cop-out to escape discussing difficult questions. If its not written down, then it can probably be safely ignored.

  8. Ditto Red.

    I have lived in the Mormon corridor my whole life and the only order of things I have seen is woman (usually wife) gives opening prayer and man (usually husband) gives closing

    While I am a staunch advocate of the UOOT, I haven’t felt that the prayer tradition was part of it. But if it is, what part of the globe are you apostates from where men are giving the opening prayers? :)

  9. I agree that the existence of codified practices and procedures (CHI) alongside an uncodified set of rules has the ability to create a whole lotta conflict.

    Why not modify it? Instead, let’s only have unwritten rules for a particular locale. Let’s call it “the unwritten order of things for this particular ward/stake/branch”?

    I see it as roughly analogous to a legal system with codified law (constitution/code/statutory law) and then judges in particular jurisidictions with the power to interpret that law. In that sense, I’ve been in wards where I was told (“In this ward, the ward choir sings twice a month!”). I can handle that!

  10. I would also like to address one of the core issues of this post—and that is what actually constitutes the unwritten order of things?

    I think it also includes “unspoken things”. In other words, rumors about what various GA’s have said do not constitute the unwritten order of things. But how the brethren live, act, dress, sit on the stand, open and close their talks and prayers is definitely a part of the unwritten order of things.

    The unwritten order of things should be transmuted through observation and following the spirit. In most cases it would seem odd to invoke it during a debate (at least where there are sizeable numbers invoking both viewpoints).

  11. Hunter–I actually think Pres. Packer was trying to get localities to not do their own thing when he talked about the unwritten order of things.

    But I admit, as the church gets bigger, it is harder to have a universal unwritten order of things.

  12. I choose to ignore the unwritten order of things and if someone calls me on it, I ask them to give me their objection in writing.

  13. Is it off-topic to discuss specific local “unwritten order” items?

    Last week, the bishop told the elders that it was part of the “local handbook” that families should pay fast offerings to the Aaronic priesthood at the door, not in the tithing envelope to the bishop. Even if this was inconvenient or meant writing a separate check, it is what we should do to support the deacons. We live in a geographically small Utah county ward. The deacons come each month on Fast Sunday, even if you say you usually pay with your tithing. They also come back the next week for “call backs.”

    I’ve been in other Mormon-dense Utah neighborhoods before, and never experienced this. Is it an “unwritten order” thing, or is there really a “local handbook”?

  14. The problem with the UOOF is that if unwritten things can hold doctrinal authority then anything can be doctrine.

    Anyone who hears an uncle’s friend’s cousin’s brother-in-law who heard from the nephew of an ex-husband of a stake president’s daughter that you can’t give a priesthood blessing if you aren’t carrying your temple recommend with you has to then consider whether or not that falls into the UOOF despite the fact that such an instruction isn’t in anything official from the church.

    (..and if you made your way through that entire sentence I thank you and commend you.)

    I’ve been in the position before of being sent by the Stake President to correct a practice that was being forced onto a Branch by a BP who had instituted a no-left-handed-sacrament-taking policy (“the right hand is the covenant-making hand”). He’d read it in an email someone had sent him, and, wanting to be a faithful leader, announced the rule over the pulpit the following Sunday.

    With no UOOF, he would have simply checked his CHI and finding no such policy, recognized the email for the speculation it was. With a UOOF, he wasn’t sure and, with good intentions, passed something off as doctrine that wasn’t.

    Keeping the doctrine pure means protecting it from the zealot as well as the heretic.

  15. My wife insists on giving the invocation, even when they ask her to give the benediction. She simply refuses to give benedictions, because she wants to get the prayer over with. (She’ll do 5 sales presentations a week, give a talk, teach a lesson, but she hates to pray in public.)

    She’s never been declined when she counters with her request to give the invocation, even though she’s always asked to give the benediction. Not sure which rule is being played here.

  16. I found out there was an unwritten order of things when I saw my Stake President “ambushed” at our stake conference when he didn’t know the unwritten rule about who could open the meeting. My opinion is that if it is a rule, write it down, for example, some prayers have to be word perfect. In my opinion, this idea sets up 2 levels of leaders, those of us who follow the handbook and those who have “progressed” to the next level….the unwritten level. I don’t like it.

  17. I agree with no. 1. The Church tried to make the women can’t give the opening prayer thing official a long time ago. That lasted for about six months, when the church pulled the plug because it was a stupid, indefensible idea and the church as an institution simply couldn’t stand up and take the heat and defend it. But certain GAs think that sacrament meeting is a priesthood ordinance that has to be opened by priesthood authority a la the opening prayer. And they try to slip their silly idea into the church through this mechanism of an “unwritten order of things.”

    My view is that if there really is a supposedly genuine and worthwhile “unwritten order of things,” having women not give the opening prayer as part of that corpus taints the whole batch. This is just a collection of stupid, indefensible ideas that individual leaders are trying to propagate sub rosa without the authority or machinery of the institutional church backing them up. I give no credence whatsoever to any claimed “unwritten order of things” practice.

  18. I think I’ve mentioned before my attempt at rebellion while I was in the bishopric. The tradition in that ward was for women to give the invocation and men to give the benediction. I switched it around solely for the purpose of breaking the tradition. It was only after I had been released that I found out that I had been unwittingly moving the ward toward conformity with the UOOT.

    For the record, I fully agree with Julie. I have often suspected the the UOOT is whatever policy a given GA favors but can’t get his colleagues to sign off on.

  19. Elder Packer’s talk notwithstanding, I think the “rules” in the UOOT are far and away most often the ideas and practices of local people than they are those of general leaders. Just because someone justifies his unwritten rule by claiming that it originated with his favorite apostle doesn’t make it so.

    (My contribution to the unwritten catalog is the instruction given by a branch president in my mission, in a meeting to which only endowed people were granted admission: He told us that henceforth our garments must be washed and dried in separate laundry batches from any other articles of clothing. Didn’t matter if everything else in the load was white and of similar weight, fabric, and soil level — all the things you ordinarily take into account when sorting laundry — garments must be washed and dried in separate loads. Anything else showed disrespect to the garment.)

  20. I was talking to a woman recently, on this topic, a convert of most of a year. She commented on “needing the manual.” She said there are so many things Everyone Knows, but converts stumble over. Such as being sent to buy soda for a ward activity,and having anxiety over getting “the wrong kind, you know, the one that will offend, but honestly not being sure.” And what to wear to a LDS wedding, or funeral, or how to get out of a calling she can’t handle (as if I’D know…Primary may well do me in this time!), and feeling guilty for referring to the Holy Ghost as the more Protestant Holy Spirit in public, and not knowing how much of what to bring to a ward potluck. On and on…and she concluded with “why can’t somebody just tell me where all the unwritten things are written down?!”

    I’m a convert, but it was long ago, and it seems I recall ward members carefully explaining things. Now, seems, we kinda tiptoe, grateful to have new members, but not wanting to scare them off, and you know missionaries’ teachings are superficial about the day-to-day stuff. Whose job is this, and how is it to be done? I see her point…how do we find out much of what we just know? There really is no handbook… look at the firestorm that could be set off by merely dictating what is to be worn to an event, or is cola okay, or how often should the temple be attended or how many kids should a good family require ? Yet, it seems to new people that Everyone Knows More than they do.

  21. Isn’t the most common UOOT the white shirt and all of its surrounding issues? (can’t pass the Sacrament if not wearing one, uniform of the priesthood, etc.) I know this is spoken of somewhat regularly in GC Priesthood session and so forth, but it is always in the spirit of “we would prefer it if you wore white” rather than hardline positions. IIRC the Handbook is the same.

    I’m with Kevin Barney on this one. The UOOT for a worldwide church is just dumb. I’m thankful that I live in an area in which no UOOT that I’m aware of are enforced. Sorry President Packer.

  22. Interestingly, even the handbook itself is not available to regular members.

    So even the “written order of things” has some of the same problems that you point out with the “unwritten order,” just to a lesser degree. Ask a group of people in your ward about the policies for temple sealings, for example, and I expect you’ll get a lot of hearsay, disputes, incorrect ideas, and wasting time.

  23. Ooh, I know the answer to this one!


    Last week, my wife and I were uncharacteristically on time to church and were asked to give the prayers. (It’s always “by invitation” in our ward. I think it’s etched into the program.) She gave the opening prayer and I gave the closing.

    Then again, it wasn’t a Utah ward, so I suppose it’s not a part of the canon.

  24. Kevin (29) and jjackson (#1) nail it.

    For some unexplained reason, women are not allowed to say the opening prayer in my ward in the Atlanta suburbs. The idea that women are somehow incapable of expressing gratitude to God and invoking the blessings of heaven we as open our worship services is beyond my comprehension. It’s a weekly disgrace.

  25. If it isn’t written down, we don’t need to worry about it. If it was important enough to be doctrine or gospel, it would be written down.

  26. As the church becomes larger, we will eventually need to create a calling of “Order Keeper” to make sure local traditions don’t get in the way of the UOOT, as well as correlate all UOOT statements from GA’s, etc… Come to think of it, we could learn a lot from the Catholics – that is the role of their Canon Lawyers.

  27. My son had to do the devotional moment in Seminary the other morning, and I suggested he read 1 Cor 14:34

    “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.”

    He immediately recognised the folly of my advice, since his teacher is a woman, and might make him finish the lesson…

    Seems odd that some might think she is okay to teach Seminary (a calling that has a lot of responsibility re nurturing testimonies) but not to open a meeting (a questionable “priesthood perogative” that does not seem terribly important in the big scheme of things)

    I am vaguely aware of women not praying in Sacrament meeting at all when I was a kid (but it was okay in Sunday School) but maybe this was only a local, tradition.

  28. Excellent, Julie.

    The 100% concur with the idea that being embarrassed to write something down because it feels indefensible is a pretty clear sign that we shouldn’t be doing it. Kinda like what we always tell our youth (“would you do that if you parents were watching?..”)

  29. I see, Julie, that you have awakened Kevin!

    In our neck of the woods, we have very little order, written or otherwise. We don’t do very well at most of the things that we as a church are supposed to do, and we certainly don’t have energy to waste on rumors about who should pray in what order in sacrament meetings.

    We have our own hobbyhorses: people who are absolutely certain that the doors of the chapel must not open during the sacrament, and heaven forbid that a deacon step outside to offer the sacrament to those outside; others are certain that someone, maybe all of us, will burn in hell if a non-member takes the sacrament.

    The underlying issue is the same: people want the certainty that comes with rules–and without realizing what’s happening, they lose sight of principles.

    Regarding this comment:

    when I saw my Stake President “ambushed” at our stake conference when he didn’t know the unwritten rule

    If the blasted rule isn’t important enough to be written in the handbook, why is it important enough to be the basis for embarrassing a brother in front of a whole congregation? (This could get me as hot under the collar as Kevin seemed to be!) This is just evidence that visiting authorities are fallible men who can make mistakes as well as the rest of us.

  30. Does anyone else find it heavily ironic that we only know of the existence of the UUOT because Elder Packer wrote it down?

    My problem with the UUOT is that, as explained narratively above, it undermines any means of confirming whether something is policy/doctrine.

  31. Heh, Mark B. you’re quite right that this subject does get me a little bit hot under the collar! (g)

  32. I’m sure from those who oversee a global church, the UOOT makes some sense. I’m sure they get tired of having to lay down policy for every little thing, and it’s probably just easier to say to the church: “just look around, and you’ll figure it out.”

    But what I hate about it is that it makes it so easy to be governed by rumor. As a result, there have been times in my life when I have purposefully taken the sacrament with my left hand, worn blue shirts while fulfilling priesthood duties, and brought caffeinated beverages to ward functions, just to rebel against the UOOT.

    But as it turned out, nobody gave a damn. Story of my life.

    So now I take the sacrament with whatever hand is handy, wear whatever dress shirt is clean, and grab whatever is available in the fridge for ward functions.

  33. UOOT, I think, is a natural outgrowth of men trying to do their best to interpret God’s will. We are, of course, a revelatory outfit, and believe that while God speaks to the prophet for the whole church, he speaks to us as individuals not only for our personal benefit, but as needed for our responsibilities. Some of us get a little carried away with defining those responsibilities, not only for ourselves, but others also. That’s the natural man in us. That’s the D&C 121:39 “sad experience” and “unrighteous dominion” scripture.

    I think this UOOT thing extends to us in our family life as well. Early on in a marriage, couples are always running up against “well, that’s what we do in my family” or “my dad always mows the lawn at right angles to the sidewalk, doesn’t everyone?”

  34. Ed, (#24)

    Our bishop allows members to come into his office and “look up” issues in it if they wish, but it is not permitted to leave his office with anyone.

    I think bishops should be expected to actually READ it (and reference it regularly) and then direct their wards accordingly. A lot of the different practices would then be eliminated and we’d be closer to that whole “becoming one” thing.

  35. I must have missed the BK Packer talk that is referred to in several of the comments. Can someone please link to it or reference it?


  36. The CHI is legalistic in a good way. It creates a standard that is universal, enforceable, and defensible.

    And the UOOT is there to scare us when they wish it to do so, but they can command it to return to the tomb at will. When they wish to uphold a practice it requires, they invoke it. When they wish to adopt a practice it forbids, they can ignore it entirely. Such a docile and useful monster is worth keeping around, at least in a somnolent state; one never knows when one might need him. (See 508 U.S. 384, 398-399).

  37. Ack. Here we go again. I wrote about this a couple of years ago:

    The Prayer Thing: Why Women Aren’t Worthy to Open Meetings

    You can see our (less diluted) experience with GAs on the issue there.

    I’ve heard every reason in the book under the the guise of “the unwritten order,” up to and including, “The men won’t feel special about praying it the woman can do it to.” Most of them come up either in that article or the hundreds of comments.

    Sincerely, the whole think just gives me a knot in my stomach. The idea of the “unwritten order” often turns into a kind of local tyranny.

  38. Ardis #21 He told us that henceforth our garments must be washed and dried in separate laundry batches from any other articles of clothing.

    I think that’s what we call kosher laundering.

  39. Kevin Barney wrote: “This is just a collection of stupid, indefensible ideas that individual leaders are trying to propagate sub rosa without the authority or machinery of the institutional church backing them up. I give no credence whatsoever to any claimed “unwritten order of things” practice.” I wish I had a stronger word than “amen” to add to this. I might print this off and glue into my scriptures as part of my own personal *written* order of things. Thanks Kevin.

  40. Doing my best to inflate Julie’s comment count… :)

    For the record, I first encountered “the prayer thing” when we lived in South Florida, not Utah. It was banished by the GA there (per the article), but has been enforced in every ward I’ve lived in since moving back to Utah. (Not every ward I have visited in Utah, thankfully.) If you do read the comments on my site, you’ll see that it seems to be running about 50% across the country. And the people who haven’t encountered it almost disbelieve it could possibly be true.

    How I wish everyone got a copy of the handbook! It would resolve a good 75% of the policy debates I hear. And probably start an equal number. But at least we’d be debating in the light of day.

    My favorite reason for the “only men” rule was that if a man presides, only a man can open with prayer. I’ll go with that and demand that boys never be allowed to open Primary again.

    Now, someone else hurry and post so I don’t end up with so many consecutive posts!

  41. I’ve actually never been able to keep straight whether the pretend doctrine is that men have to open or close the meeting with prayer; because I’ve never been able to remember, I’ve never noticed how my ward does on that count. Except that the bishopric asks people to give prayers the day of, so I’m pretty sure we’re not doing anything systemic. But our Order of Prayers is certainly Unwritten.

  42. I suppose you’ve all noticed that women have never, ever, EVER opened (or closed) a session of General Conference. I guess I should be happy about the “progress” of having female speakers at all..

    OK, seriously, we seem to have this consensus here and on my site it was almost the same. So why is this perpetuated so often? Do you all say the things you’re saying here when (if?) you witness this in person?

    We recently moved to a new ward where, again, it’s happening. Every week it feels like a punch to the gut to see that women are excluded in this way. But I have chosen, so far, not to say anything about it.

    I really love my new ward. Love it. Love it. Love it. But it’s a VERY “old school” ward. My eight-year-old came up and asked us to get him some white shirts for church. Sam said, “This is a white shirt ward.” (I hate white shirts. They’re like white walls in a rental apartment that you can’t change.)

    I feel as though I have to decide whether to speak up about it–and be considered a rebel or boat-rocker–or just shut up and deal with it. (Oh, that’s another half-written article altogether.) But I would certainly prefer an option #3.

  43. Just so everybody knows, Elder Packer, in the talk of his that many have referenced, never once talks about women/men saying opening/closing prayers. I think it was a nice talk and I think some may be assuming him to have said some things he in fact, did not say. Comment #42 linked the talk so I won’t, but I just finished reading it, and it’s great!

  44. I don’t have a high opinion of the church’s teachings on gender roles as a rule, but holy crap. Any man who thinks a holy woman of God can’t invite the Spirit into a meeting needs to have his head re-examined and his Guy Card™ revoked.

    This whole unwritten order of things sounds like something well worth ignoring.

  45. It has been noted by others that Packer’s counsel about funerals, that the speeches not focus on the departed, was completely ignored at such prominent recent funerals as President Hinckley’s, or his wife Marjorie Hinckley’s. That lends credence to the idea that the UOOT is mostly just Elder Packer’s opinions.

  46. The UOOT differs regionally as well. I can remember a ward in East Texas where a man wouldn’t dream of not wearing a tie and almost all men wore suits.
    Here in the Northern Rockies, nice pressed blue jeans and a bolo tie are not at all out-of-place.
    I had a book some years ago called “So You’re a Mormon Now”, or something to that effect, that attempted to explain a lot of this. It was quite comical. I’m going to dig around and try to find it.

  47. #50 HeidiAnn

    You’ve hi-lighted the very reason this talk given by BKP is a problem. He doesn’t say anything at all about prayer order etc. But people use what they see as the underlying principles behind his “unwritten order of things” as justification to lend credence to all kinds of ridiculous whims that just don’t stand up to doctrinal (or logical) scrutiny.

  48. Does anyone else think that we’re rapidly approaching our own giant creed-canoninzing-correlation meeting?

    Let’s say we hold it at NICAEA!

  49. I think that the UOOT basically involves doctrines, practices, notions, etc., held by a person powerful enough to speak to a church-wide audience, but not able to exert sufficient influence to convert the other powerful people necessary for something to make it into the WOOT. I find it really difficult to believe that an authority who, say, thought that the deceased should not be the focus of funerals would intentionally avoid codifying this preference if he had the opportunity to do so.

  50. Reliance on an oral tradition is supported by our experience with temple ordinances, and our reticence to speak or write about them in explicit terms. Here is one of the most significant parts of our covenant life, and it has no written record or script for most of us.

    We are also discouraged from making direct sound recordings of blessings and talks, apart from those made in General conference and patriarchal blessings. Yet these can be transforming experiences for us that we recount for decades. We are accustomed to important inspired direction and experiences being made solely through oral, rather than written, media. We take oral communication seriously because it often IS serious.

    A material number of the statements we attribute to Joseph Smith were recorded in a fairly casual way by his contemporaries, and even written down years later. Significant teachings like the King Follett Discourse lack official standing as revelatory, even though universally accepted by later apostles and prophets as inspired.

    But this channel can be faulty. One of the theories about the policy of withholding priesthood ordination from people of African descent is that it arose as an informal, unwritten rule. It certainly was not a positive revelation. President Kimball and the other apostles who wrote about the change in 1978 would certainly have referred to such a written rule if they had ever seen it. So something that arose outside the normal prescriptive channels of revelation was practiced so consistently and taught on a person-to-person basis, so that the tradition, without any explicit rationale or pedigree, became an entrenched belief of the Saints, to the point that it took a specific revelation for it to be persuasively discarded.

    What other oral traditions are widely held in the Church among the members? Harold B. Lee warned us against passing on “faith-promoting rumors” and using them as the basis for our testimonies, advice even more timely in this day of internet religious spam.

    I would nominate certain beliefs published by Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith about the nature of the creation of the earth and humanity, which leaned toward the young earth creationist theories embraced by certain Protestant fundamentalists, despite the fact that official Church statements from James E. Talamage and others endorsed a more open regard for the consensus of geology and astronomy about the age of the earth and the universe, while JF Smith’s and McConkie’s books were criticized by the other brethren. One of the uniquely Mormon rationales for young earth creationism was based on the statement by Joseph Smith that our earth was made out of already existing “worlds” or “globes”. JF Smith proposed that dinosaurs and other fossilized creatures lived on those other worlds, though the notion of creation being from already existing matter rather than ex nihilo would be anathema to most Evangelicals.

    LDS scientist Frederick Pack, in a Church-endorsed book “Science and Your Faith in God”, published around 1960, asserts that he accepts the Prophet’s statement, but that it does not mean that this explains the fossil record, since merging two or more planets would have involved energies that would destroy any such pre-terran fossils. Yet the pre-terran fossil idea, and the idea that earth was created in the vicinity of Kolob and then, as part of the Fall, moved to its orbit around Sol, can still be found in recent books written by other Mormons.

    Incidentally, the only good explanation for the geologic composition of the moon and its significant angular momentum is that a small planet struck the earth about 4.2 billion years ago in a sidewise blow, melting both worlds and pushing vaporized, lighter rocks out by vapor pressure, which cooled and coalesced into the moon. Recent attempts to simulate planetary formation in the solar system have concluded that initially there were as many as a hundred smaller worlds, which collided and merged into the earth, mars and other current planets. As many as 10 small planets were blasted together to form the earth. It is almost as if Joseph Smith read a copy of Scientific American from 2000. And a number of Christian professional astronomers find the remarkable coincidence of the apparent diameters of Sol and the moon, demonstrated in total solar eclipses, to be a literal sign from God that the highly unlikely events that gave us such a remarkable moon are a confirmation to the believers that God is the creator. Here an oral church tradition seems to be confirmed by modern cosmology.

    My rambling conclusion is that oral traditions are alive in the Church, so we are forced to evaluate each one that presents itself in terms of provenance and logic and consistency with the written doctrines. We cannot assume that all oral traditions are without authority, nor that all oral traditions are authoritative until proved false.

  51. Although I see a need for handbooks, I find that sometimes those in positions of authority refer to it, and ignore the promptings of the spirit to guide them in dealing with individual members. If we look too hard at rules (written or un) we forget to look at the people, who may have shown up at church in blue shirts. For awhile in our ward the deacons had to have one hand behind their back while passing–then someone finally said hey, that is not required. We need to look beyond silly things, and be charitable. It does not matter who says the prayer, it is the spirit we need to follow. Although some order must be established in a handbook, (the sacrament can be prepared and passed in a clean shirt and tie) a leader must seek out personal revelation in helping those that he leads. Not every issue can be addressed. Let us not get to the point where we are counting how many steps we can take on the sabbath day.

  52. Fantastic posts and interesting comments.

    For an encore, I’d love to read an exegesis of the BKP proverb: “Some things that are true are not very useful”.

    [ Quoted recently in the infamous “Big Love” episode :) ]

  53. I am not a big believer in the UOOT. I am mostly a believer in the handbook in most cases. But then again sometimes you can hew too close to the handbook and ignore the spirit. I recently had a debate with a local PH Leader who claimed that the handbook was like scripture. “the will of the Lord” was a direct quote. I asked him what version? I do not take it that far in my view. There needs to be the right level of flexibilty for certain topics that in the grand scheme of things are not that important.

    Here is a good example. White shirts for YM participating in the Sac. UOOT would say that this is an absolute rule. I disagree

    I see this as an ideal. Not a rule. We should ask the kids in a gentle way to wear white shirts but not prevent them from participating or chiding them when they wear another color. Same goes for their hairstyles.

  54. We should ask the kids in a gentle way to wear white shirts but not prevent them from participating or chiding them when they wear another color.

    I actually disagree with this. Within a ward, I think it should either be a rule that we require the kids to follow, or we should stop worrying about it altogether.

    The passive-aggressive approach reminds me of the restaurant manager in the film “Office Space” who gets on Jennifer Aniston’s case for only wearing 15 pieces of “flair;”

  55. As an executive secretary on the west side of the Salt Lake valley, I would get a couple to say the prayers each week. Sometimes the wife would open and the husband would close, and on other weeks I would switch. The bishop and stake president never had a problem with that. In our current ward in Arizona, sometimes we have a couple, other weeks prayers are said by two women, and on others, two men. And we even have weeks where a woman and a man who aren’t married to each other say the prayers. It seems to vary every week.

    The Church Handbook of Instructions is a relatively sparse administrative manual for running such a large organization. As such, it does leave a lot to the interpretation, inspiration, and imagination of local leaders. That was by intent, because local leaders are supposed to learn how to lead and follow when appropriate. Often the handbook tells leaders what to do but not how to do it. Or the how-to instructions are minimal at best. The parsimony in the details does give a lot of leeway for people to cook up their own approaches. While sometimes the result isn’t great, I think that that flexibility is essential for a global organization.

  56. #57 – in the way of clarification-

    We are NOT discouraged (at least officially) from the direct audio recording of talks. Chapels are equipped with recording equipment for exactly this purpose. But, recentlly, we’ve been directed not to do this with the talks given by visiting general authorities. (Presumably because they haven’t been through the correlation comittee like general conf. talks) Blessings and other ordinances ARE discouraged, with the notable exception you mentioned being patriarchal blessings.

  57. Kevin, thanks for that. I had forgotten that this issue was addressed in the Ensign. That really ought to settle it; I would hope that we can at least agree that no “unwritten order of things” can contradict something said by the prophet in the Ensign.

  58. #64. In case anyone wonders, there is a cassette tape recorder mounted under the sacrament table. It gets audio input directly from the chapel sound system. As a stake tech. specialist, I have to check them periodically to make sure that the recorders work.

    Newer stake centers also have the capability to do audio and visual recording directly to DVDs. We routinely, by directive, record and archive copies of General Conference. We are authorized to record just about anything that is on the broadcast schedule except where there are copyright issues like the Pioneer Day concert last year.

    Stakes also own a video camera. We use it to show a close-up of the speakers on the big projection screen in the cultural hall for all of the people out there in the eyestrain zone.

  59. And we even have weeks where a woman and a man who aren’t married to each other say the prayers.

    Heresy. I can take the shame of a meeting that isn’t opened by priesthood invocation. I can even take the shame of a meeting that isn’t sealed by priesthood benediction. But a meeting with pray-ers that haven’t been sealed by priesthood power, that’s asking too much. What will you young people think up next?

  60. ed (61),
    In my experience, nobody’s ever said shirt color was a big deal. In high school, I never once had anybody at church ask me to wear a white shirt or to cut my hair; I passed, prepared, and blessed the sacrament in all sorts of colors of shirts and hair lengths. And I can’t think of a ward I’ve been in where anybody said to do otherwise (although I have visited wards where I seem to be the only guy wearing a colorful shirt).

  61. I think the title of this post and the comments put undo blame on Pres. Packer and his talk. IMO, even w/o his talk, there would be the problem of local leaders making things up that ought not be made up.

    That said, I think that it’s worth noting that that link to his talk is not an official link. I have not been able to find an official copy of this talk anywhere. I don’t know what that means, except that maybe it ought to be left alone.

    And again, imo, he or his talk should not be blamed for wrong decisions of local leaders or members who don’t think about what they are hearing or doing.

  62. m&m, how much sense would it have made for Elder Packer to have written the talk down? Then it would no longer be the unwritten order of things :)

  63. I leave during the closing hymn to open the library and didn’t pay enough attention to figure out that my ward had a policy until I was asked to give the closing prayer. I’d just as soon stick pins in myself as say public prayers so I was relieved to be able to say no and reluctantly waited to be asked to give the opening prayer instead. But he said, oh, then you will never be able to give the prayer. I pulled out some old ward bulletins and sure enough, women were giving every closing prayer and men the opening prayer. They then have the women speaker followed by a man. When I mentioned this might not be a good idea to the bishop he seemed surprised and said it had been our tradition.

  64. Yeah, well, part of the unwritten order of things is that you don’t get all bent out of shape with a talk that was given at a devotional and can’t even be found in print anywhere official. :)

    All joking aside, in a way, complaining about the talk is as bad as people who perpetuate rumors. I actually liked the talk, and I love Pres. Packer and think there is much to be learned from him, but this talk in particular isn’t one that has official status (it’s not on or byu broadcasting) so imo, people ought not get so bent out of shape about it in the first place.

  65. m&m, the problem is that this isn’t just local leaders coming up with this stuff. They are being specifically taught it by certain Area Authority Seventies in training sessions. This is why the practice exists geographically; it exists in some units and not in others. And the AA70s aren’t just rogues making this stuff up on their own. Someone in a (very) high position of authority is directing them to do this. I can’t prove that it is Elder Packer behind these training sessions. But as I mentioned on my other thread, two different friends from different parts of the country attended such sessions and informed me that the authorities indicated that Elder Packer was their file leader and responsible for the content of their training. I don’t expect anyone else to take my word for it, but I am convinced to my own satisfaction.

    This isn’t about the talk; it’s about the training.

  66. If I recall, President Packer’s talk (UOOT) was written down because it was delivered at BYU.
    The suggestion has been made that we should “walk and walk and not just talk the talk” about this issue and express concern when women are not allowed to give prayers/opening prayers. That is how I learned about Priesthood leaders being taught by Area Authories that “sacrament meeting is a Priesthood ordinance, and as such, properly requires that a Priesthood holder give the opening prayer. I asked a member of our bishopric why women weren’t being asked to give the opening prayer. He said he had been specifically taught that in a regional training and that practice had been restated by our Stake President.
    Julie stated in her posting that this is not just the idea of a local leader. An area authority reports to have been taught this “proper order” by Elder Oaks.
    I recently asked my newly called bishop about women giving the opening prayer in sacrament. He expressed his surprise and concern about whether this was true. He had never heard of it. The following week he reported to me that there isn’t anything in the handbook on this and therefore, it isn’t true. I’m waiting for the Stake President to visit and correct our ward’s incorrect practice of allowing women to give opening prayers.
    If the UOOT (cited by current authorities) doesn’t trump the church published statement of President Kimball, referring to a decision reached by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, then what are members of the church to do? To whom do we address the concern that this practice exists, is being taught, and is being defended. I keep telling myself I don’t really care. But fact is, I do care. I know the church is not a democracy and technically my opinion doesn’t count. Do none of our Priesthood leaders question each other about the appropriateness of not following the counsel of President Kimball?

  67. Oddly, in most of the wards I’ve been in the unwritten order of things has been the reverse of what everyone seems to be describing: women are only allowed to open with prayer and only men close. My experience trying to buck that UOOT has not given me much hope: if I asked women to give the closing prayer, they almost always refused, though they were willing to give the opening prayer.

  68. I always thought that the reason that when a couple speaks the wife goes first is so that the ward doesn’t have to wait for the interesting talk.

  69. I’ve met with members of the 12, the 70 and our local area authority 70 regularly during the past six years in connection with my current calling. Not a single one has ever said a thing on this subject.

    The only correspondence I recall seeing from SLC on the issue of prayers in Sacrament Meeting was a suggestion (which may have risen to the level of encouragement) to avoid the practice of always having married couples offer prayers in Sacrament Meeting, since that would obviously preclude those who aren’t part of a married couple from offering prayers in those meetings.

    Otherwise, there’s been complete silence. If it’s of such importance, why oh why are we suffering here in the dark? Why are we being allowed to lead the members in this area carelessly down to hell?

    The answer of course is that this “rule” is all myth, and those who hold fast to it must think that they’re on the inside, they have the secret knowledge while the rest of us fools suffer in ignorance. It’s either the foundation for a new Gnosticism, or for another fundamentalist spin-off–remember, they all know about those secret ordinations, but the rest of are too unenlightened.

  70. Kevin,

    I understand what you are trying to say, but imo it’s unfair to use rumor or word of mouth or whatever else to blame Pres. Packer for what has happened — or any authority, for that matter. That becomes part of the problem — “well, my friend said that an authority said another that authority said….”

    Hearsay is never evidence, and yet we sometimes address it as though it is.

  71. Julie stated in her posting that this is not just the idea of a local leader. An area authority reports to have been taught this “proper order” by Elder Oaks.

    I think Julie’s whole point is that this isn’t proof of policy, though. And it’s an important point.

    Nor is hearsay proof of a problem. Without actually BEING at a training meeting to hear what is taught first-hand, one cannot know for certain what was taught in the first place.

    A former bishop’s statement has stuck with me: “I follow the Handbook so I don’t have to remember what I made up the last time.”

  72. Oh this is a sweet discussion. I love it.
    The UUOT makes it so easy to be governed by rumor. It is so very easy to be governed by something said so many layers deep, and I do suggest that we Mormons are most susceptible to that. Well, I must say: Let Us Not Be Latter-day Pharisees. Now swirl that one around a while, think of it objectively, attempt to blank out some of the stuff you have become very used to, and consider what the statement really does mean. (Oh, by the way you offended ones, Yeshua instructed His followers to do as the Pharisees SAID. Why?)

    Back to basics: I know a brother, a very good smooth-appearing speaker thus standing in great respect among many, who repeatedly quoted BK Packer as responding why he didn’t fast before some big spiritual decision/event. Pres Packer said he didn’t need to; he lives in a constant spiritual environment. Maybe so, but the brother I speak of used that as a reason he doesn’t fast: He lives constantly spiritually. So he says. Of course he used to walk in front of me as he spoke in HP and tell how he is to love everyone but not like them. And his wife wanted to divorce him for a long time. She once told that in tears, and I told her stay with him.

    BKP once put out a thing that said LDS people should not participate in interfaith musical events. About two weeks later a letter from the first presidency came out saying they can but there are be this and that (quite reasonable) considerations about it. I can’t quote the letters now.

    There was letter from the reginal PFR years ago that said not to display portraits representing the Savior in chapels. That brother had all the pictures removed from throughout all the meetinghouses in the stake. I had to get a clarifying fax from the region PFR to straighten that out.

    There is the thing that’s been classified as a Mormon Urban Legend that the certain depiction of The Christ (you know, the one that looks like a swarthy European) is directed by revelation to be as the savior appeared. Regardless of classification of the story, it seems that we still hold that to be true. Well, not as bad as the big one in a temple that makes him look Irish. I guess we just cannot stand for him to be a Jew and to look like someone of that race.

    The undocumented order of things says we cross our arms as we pray. Where is that in the scriptures? There is an unwritten but reasonable reason that our little kids are instructed to do that. Us 70 year old folks know how to be reverent without doing that. But we don’t want to look like those other people when we pray. (Dig into the reason that the Jews nowadays pray a certain way not the way someone else does, then you rightfully may smirk about this issue.)

    There are things that are very reasonable spiritually, and those that are not. White shirts and ties: reasonable spiritually – even though the most spiritual men of ancient never heard of such a thing!! Have you ever thought of that? Do. But do be assured that they would not have worn grubby, workday garb.

    The jews are rediculed for having many many rules, some of them amusing. Let’s look at some of these things objectively and reasonably.

    Women are truly generally more genuinely spiritual than us guys, no matter about authority and priesthood. They truely turn to the Lord more deeply and sincerely than us goys. (Catch that spelling? Look it up.) So why in the world should they not give the opening prayer? They often do in my ward.

    Let’s try to be Latter-day Saints, not Latter-day Pharisees. Have your heart full of genuine charity and spirituality, not 10,000 left-brained rules.

  73. There is one more element to this issue that is swimming in my mind. It’s so easy to be frustrated with a leader who does this, that, or the other. But in the end, I think that often, we just can benefit from sitting back and letting things go. Most of the time, mistakes that are made are not going to be the end of the world, and most of the time, leaders are just doing their best.

    I’m not one who is afraid to raise a concern with a local leader if something seems out of line. But then, I think it’s just good to let it go. Getting overly wound up about our leaders’ mistakes doesn’t help the kingdom any, either.

  74. Kevin, proud to be the friend quoted on your blog. I need to link to that post.

    james #77 I always thought that the reason that when a couple speaks the wife goes first is so that the ward doesn’t have to wait for the interesting talk.

    heh heh

    Sam and I spoke in our ward recently. I was first, he was last. I teased the counselor a bit about the order, without specifically asking about it. He dodged the implied question more than once, so I let it rest.

    I have actually been told a couple of times that the men go last so that they can correct any erroneous information given by the women. Fortunately, this hasn’t come up nearly as often as “the prayer thing.”

  75. Just to give a UK perspective – In all my years in the church (40+), I’ve never heard of any instruction re who gives prayers in meetings. I’m glad to say we have a healthy mix of Ward members (including youth) giving invocations and benedictions in every sort of meeting (including Stake Conferences), and to my knowledge never been instructed otherwise by any visiting authority (and my husband has been involved at Stake presidency level almost all of that time). My own response to UROOT is to say ‘show me where it’s written down over the signature of the First Presidency’ – if they can’t, then I don’t worry.

  76. We’ve been beat up by the UOOT in this ward. The last bishop felt that we needed to do things the Michigan way. His philospohy was that it was easier to get forgiveness than permission. I’ve told the story before about how after my son died, we had over $850,000 in hospital bills. But the bishop sat mute while his wife forced us to pay for a funeral dinner for 300 people, because “that’s the way we do things in Mighigan”. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know if we would have the proverbial pot to p!ss in as long as people had a hot meal that I paid for. The Stake President called him on the carpet for that one, but he continued doing as he pleased. He even had an interior wall in the church taken out to make a larger room. In his mind we evidently didn’t need permission or a building permit. They took out the wrong wall. From that bishop I learned that the UOOT is often one’s personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect that of the church hierarchy (or a rational thinker).

    Our current bishop lost no time calling people into his office to correct their wardrobe. On brother was ordered (not instructed) to wear a white shirt and tie. A convert was told to cut off his braid. First councilor HAD to sit on the right of the bishop and the second councilor HAD to sit on the left. More white shirts and ties. “We need to look like Mormons!” From this bishop I’ve learned that church culture should not be used as a procrustean bed to force uniformity. “Away with steriotypical Mormons” said Brother Brigham.

    I have to agree with the poster who wrote that the UOOT tended to make people into Pharisees. They use the UOOT to build a hedge around the law. Suddenly we have “you can drink Pepsi, but not Coke” , “we have a pot luck EVERY Fast Sunday”, “brownies are against the Word of Wisdom because they contain chocolate.”

  77. “I think the title of this post and the comments put undo blame on Pres. Packer and his talk.”

    That wasn’t my intention with the title; in fact, I’ve heard “it is the unwritten order” as the justification for so many things that I don’t personally associate that phrase with his talk but rather as a free-standing justification made by people who may not even be familiar with his talk. (And, FWIW, I agree that a lot of the comments have been more critical of Pres. Packer than I am comfortable with.)

    Jones writes that (s)he has been told, “sacrament meeting is a Priesthood ordinance”

    And yet another problem I have with unwritten order: it leads to spurious after-the-fact reasoning to justify things. Sacrament *meeting* is not an ordinance; the *sacrament* is.

    As to your questions, Jones, I’d copy the statement from Pres. Kimball and keep it on hand to share with anyone who is unsure of the practice.

    m&m writes, “But in the end, I think that often, we just can benefit from sitting back and letting things go. Most of the time, mistakes that are made are not going to be the end of the world, and most of the time, leaders are just doing their best.”

    There is a place for that. There is also a place for helping the church avoid contention and false practice by rumor and hearsay and helping individual members who are sensitive to gender issues avoid being hurt by false practice. I would hope that you would respect people who feel that way and not imply that they should just be quiet.

    Which is my way of saying that I find your comment extremely aggravating: if you can let this one go, more power to you, but telling other people who can’t (and I know some of them, although I’m not one of them) to let it go serves no good purpose. It is wrong to suggest that we should advocate something that hurts people and is _contrary to what the FP and Q12 concluded in a written statement in the Ensign_ just so we don’t make waves.

  78. m&m,

    I’m still trying to figure out how to explain why I find your comment so completely wrong-headed. Let me try this:

    Imagine if my post had been noting that, despite a clear statement from Pres. Hinckley, some AA70s had been going around teaching that someone from the Q12 had trained them that we should begin our public prayers with “Dear Mother and Father in Heaven” and claimed that that invocation was part of the “unwritten order of things.” And many commenters noted that that was the practice in their local wards, but they were uncomfortable with it. And others noted that all sorts of interesting theological explanations were being offered as to why we should begin our prayers this way.

    Would you have advocated just leaving it alone?

    I didn’t think so.

    I sense that the many of us are far more comfortable with unorthodoxy that takes us in a conservative direction than unorthodoxy that takes us in a liberal direction. I think both are wrong. Where the Brethren have made requests re prayer in print in the Ensign (which they have on both the addressing Mother in Heaven AND the women opening sacrament matter), I think we need to follow that and that we are completely justified in not being content when local leaders choose to violate what the prophet has stated concerning proper practice.

    And since you are normally the one offering up statements from GAs to buttress whatever position you take in a conversation, I’m somewhat amazed that you want us to ignore them this time.

  79. I agree with m&m. Mistakes are made all the time in the Church. Sometimes it is best to do what we reasonably can, and then let it go.

    FWIW. A couple of years ago when I was a bishopric counselor, after I had asked a woman to give the opening prayer (and she had given the prayer), my bishop leaned over and told me that our stake president had said that elders or high priests should give the opening prayer in Sacrament meeting. I asked if that was in the handbook; he said no. He understood that the basis for that instruction was that whenever a visiting authority came for stake conference, the authority instructed that the opening prayer in stake conference be given by some one holding the Melchizedek Priesthood. Our stake president had inferred that the same rule should apply in Sacrament meeting. I asked our bishop if that was a rule he wanted me to follow in the future, and he said yes. I asked what about after he was released–and he said whatever the new bishop wanted on this point was fine with him.

    I suppose I could have appealed this to the stake president–and find out how hard and fast his rule was, or the bishop or I could have appealed to an Area Authority (who, for all I know, might have been the source), or to the First Presidency. I gather that some people have appealed to higher authority and been able to obtain a change in local practice.

    But I did not appeal, nor did our bishop. We lived with it. I may go to Hell for not having further protested up the line, but there it is. I think dealing with the ecclesiastical and bureacratic order in the Church is like dealing with teenagers–I pick my battles carefully. I did not pick this battle, in part, because our stake president and our bishop (both of whom are wonderful human beings) had almost completed their terms.

    We now have a new bishop and a new stake president. I do not know whether the order in which prayers are given in Sacrament meeting has ever been discussed. But I notice that in our ward now sometimes opening prayers are given by men and sometimes by women in our Sacrament meetings. And, in stake conference sessions, opening prayers continue to be offered by male priesthood holders.

    It is fairly well known that the Church follows blog posts. With the sizable number of posts over the years in the Bloggernacle about this practice in some local areas and disputes over its origin (and perhaps some letters and phone calls from members and relatives), I think the Brethren are well aware of the problem. I think the reason why a Churchwide clarification has not been issued on this is that the Brethren are not united in deciding whether to “pick this battle” with local authorities or with each other at this time.

    On the other hand, if some one could get the Associated Press or 60 Minutes interested in this, a question from the media to headquarters might force the issue. I could see one of the spokespeople answering, like they did with respect to the bishop in Illinois who organized a letter writing campaign against same sex civil unions, that this local practice was not directed by Salt Lake. Or I could see the spokesperson saying that the Church has no comment or position at this time. Or that the Church has no policy, and the order of prayers is up to local leaders (as is a decision whether to allow guitars in Sacrament meeting). Or in some other manner providing guidance on what the guidance is or is not.

  80. Given that the Church has worked hard to define “doctrine” over the years, and given that the Church has also worked hard to define the “scope of relevance” (my phrase) of GA talks, we can safely eliminate Packer’s talk as official.

    (There was a whole letter to bishops several years ago about how stuff a GA said at a stake conference was applicable only to that audience.)

    Plus, didn’t President Packer disavow his own statements during the PBS special?

  81. (Ignore my last sentence in 89. I was thinking of a different Packer talk, and the written transcription doesn’t document Packer’s aside that I believe exists on the video. Anyway, not relevant to this topic.)

  82. Julie M. Smith #87 I sense that the many of us are far more comfortable with unorthodoxy that takes us in a conservative direction than unorthodoxy that takes us in a liberal direction. I think both are wrong.

    Thank you so much for articulating that so well. Where’s that jumping up and down applauding emoticon, anyway?

  83. Julie,

    I agree completely with your post, but I think there are some cultural reasons why we still cling so tenaciously to the UOoT.

    First, I’m about 99% sure that if we were given a choice to have things spelled out or rely on the spirit as we go, we would choose the detailed, step by step procedure and explanation. The handbook would expand to look like the IRS code, and within 5 years, we would be drowning in jot-and-tittleism.

    We place strong emphasis on giving heed to every word from our leaders, and many of us understand section 1 to say that when God’s servants say something, it is like the voice of God said it. In addition, we are taught to obey every word of command with exactness. Our mission culture is a strong reinforcer of this impulse. We wield authoritative statements like blunt instruments, bludgeoning one another into line and enforcing orthodoxy. As long as there is an unwritten order, we can borrow it for our own pet projects and doctrines. We are also planners and organizers who want to know beforehand the things which we should do.

    On the other hand, maybe I’m wrong. I’ve taken a look at the last three editions of the handbook, and the thing which impresses me the most are not the individual changes which have been made, but how the overall tone has changed. The most recent handbook very rarely lays down the law. It uses phrases like “Local leaders are encouraged to…” or “It is recommended that…” (Always with the passive voice!), but there are almost always caveats which allow for local leaders to adapt and seek inspiration. That message comes through very strongly.

    Probably the most glaring instance of the church not spelling out detailed procedure for local congregations is with church discipline. Two people living in neighboring wards who commit the same transgression can be given very different consequences. One bishop is lenient and the bishop across the hall swings the axe early and often. In a church that is a correlated and regimented as ours, I have always been interested and surprised to see how much of church discipline is left up to the local leader, and how each one can come to such different conclusions.

    The big question is, are we willing to live in a church where so many other things vary that much from ward to ward?

  84. Mark, very thought-provoking.

    I guess my answer is that if women opening sac. mtg. was just a matter of local policy, I would shrug. I know there are other local variations of practice, and that doesn’t bother me. I agree with you that a covers-every-scenario handbook would be unwieldy and Spirit-squelching.

    In this situation, though, I’ve never heard the policy justified as “that’s just our local practice.” (If I did, I would shrug.) Instead, what I hear is, “that’s a rule that we have to observe, it just isn’t written down anywhere. But Pres. A told Elder B who told AA70 C who told his grand daughter who emailed me.” That’s a dangerous precedent, because now anything anyone claims was emailed to them might just possibly be part of the unwritten order of things, and we have no way to ferret out the true policy from the false.

  85. Julie, agreed. It my mind it’s a matter of accountability! If a bishop chooses to create a “local policy,” so be it. (They do it all the time–every practical decision made is, to some extent, “local policy.”) But at least let him also be responsible for explaining (if need be) the policy he created, rather than just passing the buck to the mysterious, unnamed UOOT.

    In my experience, this accountability keeps willy nilly rule-making in check to a great degree.

  86. The problem with UOOT is that we gradually quit listening to leaders who push the policies (women only invocations, white shirts only, men only keynote speakers, etc.) because we know deep down it’s a bunch of whooee and that the Saviour could care less. Over time it creates a bit of numbness and disinterest for the listeners and a loss of credibility for our leaders.

  87. One of the possible sources of UOOT is letters from the First Presidency to be read in Sacrament Meeting. I’ve come to the conclusion that they must not be distributed to the whole church. I first started thinking this on my mission and sometime early in 2003, my Mission President read a letter from the First Presidency about some policy clarification (can’t remember what it is anymore) and finished by saying that the same letter was going to be read in Sacrament Meeting on Sunday. He then talked about how great the church is because even though the world is divided up by missions as well as Stakes and Wards (it was in the US) that official statements were coming down both ways instead of one or the other.
    Well I waited for the letter to be read in any Sacrament Meetings the rest of my mission and it never happened.
    Then I’m in singles wards (still) and as a result travel from ward to ward on somewhat of a yearly basis. It’s interesting to see some wards doing something I know was spelled out in a Letter from the First Presidency not to do. I even brought up one of these issues with my current Bishop and he said I could look through all of them that he had. He has a drawer of about five years worth of letter from the First Presidency, and I couldn’t find it.
    The next thing is that I’ll hear a letter from the First Presidency, and then the next edition of the Handbook of Instructions will come out, and the item mentioned in the letter isn’t there.
    Does anyone know why the church doesn’t publish online all of the Letters from the First Presidency online? Well, at least all of those to be read in Sacrament Meeting?

  88. I have been attending sacrament meetings in Asia for the last few months. Several times the sacrament meeting opening prayer has be given by a member holding the Aaronic Priesthood; not an adult, but a 13 year old son of a member of the stake presidency. This is not an isolated ward or stake, but a stake with a temple within it’s boundaries.

    I found it interesting as this was the first time I’d attended a sacrament meeting with such a young person offering the prayer.

  89. That wasn’t my intention with the title; in fact, I’ve heard “it is the unwritten order” as the justification for so many things that I don’t personally associate that phrase with his talk but rather as a free-standing justification made by people who may not even be familiar with his talk.

    I apologize, then, Julie, for bringing the title into my comment. Thanks for the clarification.

    And since you are normally the one offering up statements from GAs to buttress whatever position you take in a conversation, I’m somewhat amazed that you want us to ignore them this time.

    While that feels like a bit of a jab, and is definitely an exaggeration (I don’t use GA quotes to buttress *whatever* I say, and I have done a lot less of using quotes and a lot more ‘I thinks’ and the like over time, but anyway….), now it’s my turn to clarify. With my comments, I wasn’t speaking specifically about the issue of women and prayers in meetings; I was speaking in more general terms (which I thought you were doing in your post — you said: “I’m not nearly as concerned with whether women are able to offer the opening prayer as I am with the issue of unclear directions and the inevitable disputes that arise because of them.”)

    Sometimes local decisions don’t fall under the category of something with clear doctrinal dispute, and so sometimes it’s better, imo, to just let it all go.

    And sometimes, we have to give our leaders room to learn from experience.

    But I never suggested ignoring clear direction and doctrine from the prophets and apostles, and were I to run into something that clearly ran up against what the general leaders say (such as your example), I would not hesitate to share my concerns with local leaders. But not everything is of such extremity. We all have personal hot buttons, and as such, we as mortals can sometimes overreact.

    All I’m really saying is that sometimes it may be wise to quietly follow even when things aren’t perfect, and sometimes we *can* make a big deal out of something that may not always be such a big deal. We as ‘followers’ need to use wisdom in how — or if — to respond.

  90. And, Julie, sometimes people can take this approach of ‘expressing concern about the unwritten order of things’ to criticize teachings from those at the general level, including prophets and apostles. That’s another element of my concern with not being cautious about criticizing what we *think* might not matter. Sometimes it’s the followers who are wrong, not the leaders.

  91. An elephant in the room re UOOT is the ordination of women. The practice is justified with as much scripture and published revelation as was the practice of declining to ordain members of African descent.

  92. Orwell, thanks for links to those other posts.

    m&m, thanks for your clarification.

    Well, we have an unwritten order of things ourselves here at T & S: we close down comments at the century mark.

    Thanks, all.

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