(The following is excerpted from our most recent book, The Youngest Bishop in England: Beneath the Surface of Mormonism, by Robert Bridgstock.)
“[I]t is amazing that institutional Christianity ever created the very concept of excommunication. Only the individual can do that to himself, and we had best not make it our corporate concern. Hinduism, the oldest religion in the world, has never excommunicated anybody.”
—Richard Rohr, Hope Against Darkness
Disciplinary councils or Church courts consist of a stake president, his two councillors, another twelve men (“high councillors”) and perhaps a clerk. Courts are for serious offenses involving infringement of Church laws. Though very few members are aware of it, the Church also uses such courts to silence questioning voices and get rid of members whose only sin has been to write what they honestly believe. As mentioned in Chapter 6, some very prominent Church members have been excommunicated. What makes this even worse is that most Church members will automatically assume that excommunication is the result of unworthiness.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know that excommunications take place. Every unit of the Church has at least one excommunication every year. Most commonly, the Church excommunicates those who have breached the Church’s moral code through sexual sins such as adultery or fornication. In the case of unmarried women, just being pregnant is adequate cause. These disciplinary councils, grotesquely called Courts of Love, try members of all ages, and many youngsters find themselves appearing before them due to fornication. The Church also excommunicates members for apostasy, which Webster’s defines as “total abandonment of principles or faith.” The emotional pain caused by these courts, what one might term The Mormon Inquisition, is immense.
Yet the vast majority of Church members have never stepped foot in a court, and naively trust what their leaders tell them about it. Expecting them to do otherwise would be entirely unrealistic. They live inside an all-encompassing belief system, and to a great extent within an all-encompassing culture. Expecting them to understand these “courts of love” would be like expecting a baby in the womb to understand the outside world. (I’m not pointing fingers, here. I was once—for decades—in the same boat.)
I can only begin to imagine the screaming horrors of the Catholic Church’s Inquisition in the Middle Ages, and its spiritual directors, who, with deep and sincere sadness, tried to save their victims eternal souls as they broke and burned their bodies. I’m sure, that like present-day Mormon priesthood leaders, they were driven by uncompromising dogma and believed that God thoroughly approved of their methods.
Richard Rohr explains in his book, Hope Against Darkness, that the real evil lies in those who judge, those who expel:
Jesus is shockingly not upset with sinners, a shock so total that most Christians to this day refuse to see it. He is only upset with people who do not think they are sinners: These denying, fearful and illusory ones are the blockage. They are much more likely to hate and feel no compunction. Formally, religion thought its mission was to expel sin and evil. After Jesus we find out that sin lies in the very act of expelling. There is no place to expel it to. We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us. We either carry and transform the evil of human history as our own problem, or we only increase its efficiency and power by hating and punishing it over there. . . .
My Trial in the Court of Love
I remember the day before my trial. I was in a state of grief, isolation, and severe loneliness, and had been praying incessantly. A close friend had told me the previous month, March 2006, of the reason I was being called to trial: my eldest son Ben had reported my fascination with Diane to my stake president.
In that same month, I received an invitation from my stake president to meet with him and discuss my son’s allegations. In reply, I sent the following letter:
Dear President T.,
I am writing to cancel or at least postpone, our scheduled interview. I have thought about it, and I feel there would be no point in my speaking with you. Although my testimony of the church has declined over the years, as well as my trust in its leadership, my faith and trust in God has not declined, but increases daily. Despite the moral dilemma of my communicating with a married woman, the idea of meeting with any church leader frightens me to death. Not because I feel guilt, but because of the manner in which leaders treat too many people. The experience of others, plus some of my own, demonstrates that the spirit or soul of an individual is not always safe in their hands. Insensitivity, arrogance, bullying, and sheer spiritual incapacity to see and reach individual souls is so common that in my present state of mind an interview would only serve to damage this vulnerable heart even further.
My children have suffered a tragic loss in the death of their mother. Although they can’t fully understand or appreciate it, some of their conduct toward me has hurt me, too.
Is this a time to be talking to someone who does not even know me, someone who has no knowledge of my history, who could never know the kind of relationship I have always had with God and still do? Someone who doesn’t know the kind of grief I have gone through? How could you ever judge me morally, when you can’t ever know what it’s like to be me? You will have to make some moral judgment, undoubtedly with the best will toward me, but you will act for the Church, and unfortunately the Church’s judgments and actions always seem to be harsher than those of Christ.
If you cannot allow me time, but insist on immediate repentance and change, I will not cooperate. I will not force the issue in regard to Diane. There is a strong possibility that with time, powerful change will come. But if you refuse to give me time, then you will inevitably lose me.
It is a strange thing that the people who seem to understand best what I am going through are non-members.
Almost by return post I received another letter basically ignoring my request for more time and urging me to meet with him. He also phoned to check that I received this letter.
I was of two minds as to whether to go or not, but the stake president repeatedly called and urged me to attend. I wondered whether the God who had been such a powerful presence in my life since Norma died would inspire the stake president to excommunicate me?
I started to imagine sixteen men sitting around a room talking about me, without my being there. I then thought that if any dirty laundry was going to be aired, I would want to be there to set the record straight. So on April 5, 2006, I was in the stake president’s office at 7:00 pm accompanied by my son-in-law, who was there at the stake president’s request, presumably to give me moral support. The stake president asked me, “Do you think your present state of grief has caused you to act the way you have?” I said “no,” emphatically. Saying “yes” would have been too much like pleading temporary insanity. As I look back now, though, I realize how much I really was affected by grief and loneliness. During bereavement, one simply does not act normally.
Following this brief interview, I joined my son-in-law in the waiting room, whilst the stake president, his two councillors, and the twelve high council members got ready for their “court of love.” At 7:30, Adam [my son-in-law] and I were ushered in to this eminent body of priesthood holders—six down one side of a long table and six down the other—with the stake president and his councillors seated at the far end. Years ago, when I was a clerk in the London Stake, I had sat on such a body as this. Now I was the one on trial.
After the stake president opened proceedings and described how the court would work, he read out the allegations against me, which I did not deny. I was then permitted to read my own six-page statement. (It would bore readers to reproduce it here, as it repeats what I’ve mentioned earlier in this chapter.)
All this happened in 2006, and I cannot remember the exact words spoken or the exact wording of the questions asked. But I do remember one thing clearly. One brother asked me, “Do you consider yourself to be like King David, who allowed his thoughts to lead him into sin?” I can’t remember my reply, but I do remember thinking about it later. King David saw a woman he desired, so he ordered the death of her husband and ordered her to his palace where—like it or not—she remained as his concubine (sex slave, to be plain about the matter). Unlike Kind David, I had not had a sexual relationship—I had not so much as touched the woman. Nor had I arranged the murder of her husband. Further, even if I had King David’s power, I would never have done what he did. My morals are better than that.
Finally, one brother far down the table, who seemed more impatient than the rest, asked, “Brother Bridgstock, when are you going to change and repent?” I replied (paraphrasing myself), “As I have explained, I see no reason to do what this court wants of me. People change not when they are forced to, but when they are ready to. You can’t force change when it suits you.” The brother then pointed to the stake president and said, “But Brother Bridgstock, this is the Lord’s anointed, and what he is asking you to do is the will of God.” Looking at the stake president, I said, “But I don’t trust him!” There was a shocked pause. Next, they graciously asked me and Adam to leave the room and await their decision. In the waiting room, I asked Adam how he thought I’d done. He said I’d been very honest. I mused, “Do you think I am digging my own grave?” “Yes,” he replied.
It was nearly midnight when they summoned me back to the court. The room fell silent, awaiting the stake president’s decision. No doubt he had talked with his two stake presidency councillors separately from the high council. He would also have prayed for guidance. Now he was ready. I expected a slap on the wrist, being “disfellowshipped,” which involves retaining membership but with restrictions, which are lifted as the sinner shows proper repentance. That was not to be. The stake president said, “Brother Bridgstock, after prayerful deliberation and consideration, this court has come to its verdict. It is the will of the Lord that you be excommunicated. God will not be mocked!”
Then, strangely, he asked me not to go home before having a short private interview with him and his councillors. I think he was concerned about my psychological state. I could tell they would be glad to be finished and to go back to their homes, but duty and compassion compelled them to try to help me understand that my excommunication was the will of God. In the interview, the stake president’s councilor related a story from his past where he sought “confirmation” from God about something he was agonizing over. Looking directly into my eyes, he said that if I would do the same, I would receive confirmation that my excommunication was the will of God. I said goodnight, got up, and went home to a cold, dark house.
I followed the stake councilor’s advice, and over the next few days prayed for that confirmation. I did so without cynicism. I was humble enough to admit I might have been wrong. Yet despite much time spent in prayer, I never received such a confirmation. Either the Mormon god failed me, or there is no god in Mormonism—only men playing god.
Grief For A Dead Church
Members of the Church hold the view that the “anger” and “resentment” of ex-Mormons is the result of satanic influence, which has manifested itself through disobedience, rebellion, and pride. The truth is, losing one’s faith is traumatic—it’s like suffering a death in the family. Mormonism does not acknowledge this. Anger, resentment, and blame, are not the result of loss of the spirit, they are part of the grieving process that happens after betrayal. How unfortunate that even the greatest minds of the Mormon Church deliberately perpetuate the myth that people who lose their faith are victims of their own proclivities toward pride or disobedience. How insensitive. How totally out of touch with reality. Mormonism will not admit that it bears any responsibility whatsoever for a member’s loss of faith. The fault is always with the member.
The man to whom I had submitted myself for judgement, my stake president, might just as well have had a one-legged dead duck for his god. He was a thousand miles away from me. The humanity in me was screaming to be embraced and accepted. Instead I felt dumped, deserted, and misunderstood. They dealt with my apparent misconduct, not with me. But I knew how I had struggled with temptation, how I had taken this to God with tears and pleadings, and how I had managed, at very least, to have nothing to do with this woman until my wife died. The “court of love” failed to recognize my goodness, my sincere attempts to overcome temptation, because it focused solely on my so-called sins. The stake president’s charge that I had “mocked God” was wrong. I had simply said that I didn’t trust him. That is why he excommunicated me. . . .
The Pain of My Spiritual Inquisition Remains
Henry Drummond’s words on penitence, in The Ideal Life, are the antithesis of what I experienced in the Mormon Church’s court of love:
There is nothing more sensitive in all the world than a human soul which has once been quickened into its delicate life by the touch of the divine. Men seldom estimate aright the exquisite beauty and tenderness of a sinner’s heart. We apply coarse words to move it, and coarse, harsh stimulants to rouse it into life. And if no answer comes we make the bludgeon heavier and the language coarser still, as if the soul were not too fine to respond to weapons so blunt as these. There is a coarseness in the fibres of the body, and these may be moved by blows; and there is coarseness in human nature, and that may be roused with threats; but the soul is fine as a breath, and will preserve, through misery and cruelty and sin, the marvellous delicacy which tells how near it lies to the spirit of God who gave it birth.
When, if ever, will the Mormon Church have the humility to acknowledge its cruelty and judgmentalism? When will the Mormon hierarchy grow up and start to live as if they had walked with Christ?
I am not complaining about people confessing burdensome sins. I am not talking about legitimate guilt or shame for unbecoming conduct. I am talking about the reasons the Church holds courts in the first place, the attitudes and rigidity that forces an organization to exclude rather than embrace, the compulsion to humiliate, abuse, exclude, embarrass, and punish.
I’m far from alone in feeling this way. At times, I thought that my confusion, my doubts, and my feelings were peculiar to me. Perhaps I was an oddball within the Church? Then I started to read story after story about Mormons, some of whom had been members all their lives and who were devoted to its principles, challenging the Church. They were just like me! So many of these people were relating the same things I had experienced, the self-same problems, attitudes, abuse and arrogance that I had experienced.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr comments in his book, Hope Against Darkness:
[I]t is amazing that institutional Christianity ever created the very concept of excommunication. Only the individual can do that to himself, and we had best not make it our corporate concern. Hinduism, the oldest religion in the world, has never excommunicated anybody. In another book, Everything Belongs, he says, “[S]ystems exclude, expel, punish and protect to find identity for their members in ideological perfection, or some kind of purity. The contaminating element always has to be searched out and scolded.
A Bishop’s Last Stand
When someone is excommunicated, they are no longer a member of the Church. If male, they will have lost the priesthood and any temple ordinances performed previously for themselves, will be null and void. They are forbidden to take the sacrament. They are forbidden to pay tithing, though they are encouraged to save it up in order to pay it all back (purely a gesture of commitment, you understand!), once re-baptized. They cannot go to the temple, receive a calling, pray at church, or generally be involved in any official capacity in the Church.
When I was excommunicated, I had been a member of the Mormon Church all my adult life, and had been very active in the Church almost the entire time, acting as clerk, bishop, teaching and preaching almost without ceasing. Suddenly it was over. After my excommunication, I had no desire to return to Church, yet all my social acquaintances were there, and I wanted to say goodbye to those that knew me and respected me in my ward. But of course it was impossible. Or was it?
A frightening thought occurred to me: I could just get up in the next fast and testimony meeting and say farewell. It would be embarrassing, but something inside me said, “Don’t be weak, be bold. Don’t look back years from now wishing you had been stronger.” Why should I let a rule prevent me from sharing, once and for all, my last testimony, my last chance to explain my departure?
I wrote the whole thing out. I timed it—it was average for a testimony. It began with an apology and a thank you to the bishop for allowing me to take a few moments to express myself. (I knew him, and was sure he would be okay with it.) The next paragraph was to the point and brief: I had been excommunicated for having contact with a married woman, and that this would probably be my last testimony. The remaining 90% explained my feelings about God: praise and gratitude. At no point did I criticize the Church or anyone in it.
The following Sunday I sat nervously in church, looking to the front. To my surprise, seated at the front was the first councillor to the stake president who had excommunicated me. It made no difference. In my heart I had a simple last wish to praise God.
I walked to the stand as the visiting councillor looked on with disdain. I had hardly started speaking when he walked toward me saying, for all to hear, “This is not in keeping with the spirit. I request that you stop immediately,” and he moved his hand as if to take my papers to prevent me from continuing. I gathered them up quickly and turned to him, saying, “On the contrary, I think it is within the spirit to proceed and I will not sit down unless I am dragged off.” He seated himself and allowed me to continue. I had only just started speaking again when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that my daughter was leaving the chapel in tears, followed close behind by her husband. This was upsetting; I had never wanted to embarrass her. In retrospect though, I wonder why she did not stop to listen, even though it might have been difficult for her.
I finished and sat down in my usual seat; there were many empty chairs around me, and I felt terribly alone. The rest of the meeting is a blur in my memory, but for one thing: Donna, a lady who seldom came to our ward, though I and my wife knew her, sat down next to me. She squeezed my hand and said in my ear, “I thought you might need some company.” She probably had no idea what that small gesture meant to me. Of all the people who could have come in my moment of need, it was someone who rarely came to our church.
Following my goodbye, I received a very curt letter, delivered by hand from stake leaders, telling me that if I tried to enter the meeting house again, without first consulting, or having an interview with a member of the stake presidency, I would be escorted off the premises. Time passed, and I went back to church from time to time to visit friends, without ever seeing a leader. I did not believe I was a threat to the faith of the members of my ward. I didn’t believe they were babies to be pampered or children to be protected from the real world.
Son of Perdition
A good Mormon will not make a judgement as to whether a particular sister or brother committed the “unpardonable sin,” or has become (according their teachings) a “son of perdition” (an unredeemable soul who is barred forever from God’s presence, locked forever in his or her proverbial hell). A good Mormon will not make that assessment, because he or she knows that a person’s “level of light” (knowledge, conviction, testimony, understanding) can only be fully understood by God. Nevertheless, the Church teaches that members who reject Mormonism after having received a testimony of it are on the brink of spiritual catastrophe.
Ask my non-Mormon friends if I seem like a son of perdition. Ask my sister, ask my two brothers, ask my true friends, ask anyone who really knows me. Ask the wind, the trees and the mountains—ask the universe. But do not ask my children. Despite loving me, they will hesitate, they will not be sure. Why? Because their Church teaches that those who deny the faith and turn away from it, having once been enlightened by the Holy Ghost that the Church is true, and having received endowments in the temple, will not receive forgiveness in this world nor in the world to come. Doctrinally, my children think I am lost; I think I have been found. They think I am spiritually dead; I think I am alive. They think I have failed; I think I have triumphed. We live on the same planet, but as far as theology goes, we are in different worlds.