Lavina Fielding Anderson may have been excommunicated from the LDS Church for apostasy more than 20 years ago, but don’t think for a minute that this Utah writer is now an outsider to her faith.
Truth is, she has never stopped attending her Mormon ward.
LDS officials disciplined Anderson and five other Mormon intellectuals in and around the fall of 1993. Two of the so-called "September Six" have found their way back into the LDS fold while Anderson — though never rebaptized — in some ways has never left.
On Sunday — with similar church disciplinary actions threatening Mormon feminist Kate Kelly and blogger John Dehlin, Anderson discussed her spiritual journey:
What triggered the LDS Church’s disciplinary action against you?
I wrote an article for "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought" that summarized 133 cases of LDS ecclesiastical abuse, and my pleas to do better to care for the Mormon faithful. That came out in early 1993. In May, my stake president called me in about it. He didn’t seem to know what footnotes are so he thought I made the whole thing up. I assured him I did not. He then announced that I was not a member in good standing and could not use my temple recommend. I wouldn’t give it up, but promised him I wouldn’t use it. Then I went away to my cabin for the summer and he called all the temples in Utah, saying he was canceling my recommend. It really hurt my feelings. I had never been treated as a liar before.
How did you find out about the impending disciplinary hearing?
We had stake [regional] conference in September. [Husband] Paul, Christian [their son] and I sang in the choir that day. The stake president shook our hands and was cordial. We had been home about 20 minutes when two high counselors came to our house and delivered a letter, inviting me to a disciplinary hearing two weeks from that day. When they left, they said, "Have a nice day," to which I replied, "You have just assured that I will not."
What was the reason for the discipline?
That’s a good question. They never gave me one reason. The stake president said I was "exed" for apostasy but I didn’t really fit the handbook definition. He said it was apostasy because I believed that general authorities had done something wrong. I said I didn’t think members believe general authorities don’t make mistakes. But the cause didn’t really matter because it was pretty clear that Elder [Boyd K.] Packer [of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles] was trying to send a message by targeting certain people, such as historians and feminists. He left it up to local leaders to come up with a reason.
Why didn’t you go to the hearing to defend yourself?
I had a spiritual prompting that summer staying at my cabin that I wasn’t to go. The cabin has no phone access, so I had months [after her initial conversation with the stake president] to think about it. I could listen to the spirit there. What I heard was that I would be excommunicated and that I shouldn’t go. This puzzled me because I had a lot to say, but the message was absolutely clear.
That night, we went over to our neighbors’ house and watched "A Man for All Seasons" and ate popcorn.
Looking back, it was a real blessing. It was held by the stake high council, and so my bishop and ward members took the position that that was their doing. I didn’t have to look at the councilmen and wonder what they said about me. I don’t think I could have done that graciously. I was removed from that situation.
Neither Paul nor I nor Christian had to field a single negative comment the next week, when we went to church in our ward.
Did you think you would be rebaptized?
I did. I didn’t have any doubts. I love the church. I love the gospel. I love Jesus. I cannot be anything but a Mormon. Where else would I be but in the church? I assumed there was a way to work it out. I had received a blessing from a former stake president, assuring me that when the time was right, it would come very easily, so I could be at peace. That has been a blessing truly fulfilled. To this day, I would have made exactly the same decision. There is a peace that comes with that kind of clarity.
What’s it like going to church for two decades as an excommunicated member?
Paul usually sits on the outside of the pew, so when the sacrament comes, he shakes his head toward me so we don’t have any socially embarrassing moments. [Excommunicated Mormons are not supposed to take communion.] But 90 percent of the ward has changed since my court. Most people don’t know I’ve been excommunicated. Since I’m there every Sunday, I don’t fit their model of an excommunicated member.
Part of what I feel is a calling to be there. The church has control of my membership; I decide whether I’m Mormon or not.
It was really important to Paul and me that Christian grow up in a religious community, and the church was the one we chose. We embedded him as thoroughly in the church as we ourselves had been. We had a family devotional every night with prayer, singing and scripture reading. There were stretches of time when he was the only deacon, and he and I would exchange glances as he passed the sacrament to our row. After high school, Christian went to Stanford, and we thought, "This may be where we hear bad news." But he had a caring bishop that first year and decided on his own to serve a mission. He later got married in the temple, while I sat outside with friends. The temple president tried to make it as good an experience as he could for my parents, Paul, Christian and Marina [his bride] and me. He found me outside and was kind and helpful.
When something like [my excommunication] blows up, the first casualty is trust and that never comes back. The second thing that happens is members learn to be afraid of leaders, and leaders learn to be afraid of members.
The fact that we keep going to church is a blessing. That was my decision. I felt they were not going to drive me away. I feel like I am going by proxy for others who feel too damaged, too hurt and afraid to go. They don’t feel safe enough to keep going — it’s such a terrible, terrible loss.
How have the members of your ward treated you?
After the church court, when I walked into the chapel, it took about three times longer to get to my seat because so many people hugged me. They didn’t say anything. The kindness of my ward members has been really important. The [women’s] Relief Society president found a way to involve me as a "permanent substitute" for Relief Society pianist. I have been doing that for 18 years. It’s a way for me to participate and contribute, almost like having a calling. When I make comments in Sunday school and Relief Society, they are accepted as anyone else’s. The handbook doesn’t say you can’t speak in class, just over the pulpit. Being treated like an ordinary person is a gift a ward can give.
How did it affect the people around you?
Paul’s mother was great. She said she was really angry at the church, not at me. My parents never blamed me, but they were heartbroken. My dad was a bishop twice. Mormonism was as much an identity issue for them as it is for me. This was hard on Paul [who works at Brigham Young University]. It is always harder on the loved one who has to stand by and see someone they love being hurt.
What do you miss the most ?
Taking the sacrament because it’s an exclusion I feel every single week. Going to the temple, but I feel that it’s more important to have the temple in me than for me to be in the temple. I am confident that my desire to be worthy of the temple is acceptable of the Lord. I go over the temple ceremony and the covenants in my mind and remake them before the Lord often.
What do think about these potential actions against Kate Kelly and John Dehlin?
I just feel such heartache that the church I love is doing this to people who are sincere and trying to find ways of being Mormon and express their love of the gospel. What’s happening is so wrong.
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