Walking into the Heart of the Questions: An Interview with Grant McMurray

December 8, 2011

I have a different view of what I thought was important, and what I think a lot of people have. Of course, I shouldn’t be the one to define my own legacy–to say “this is what was important about the time I was president.” But here is what I think the most important things were.
The task of becoming the president of the Church at just about the time the temple was finished, and then being in the position of leading the conversation about what it means to be a people dedicated to the pursuit of peace and building this defiant symbol in the center of Independence, spiraling into the sky–saying that this building was built for the pursuit of peace, well, what does that mean in terms of discipleship, in terms of worship, in terms of the self-understanding of our people?

Note: Gregory A. Prince, a member of Dialogue’s board of editors, conducted this interview with W. Grant McMurray, who served as president of Community of Christ (1996–2004), on February 22, 2010, at the Prince home in Potomac, Maryland. Both the historic name of the Church (the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1860–2001) and the current name (Community of Christ, 2001–present) are used according to the period under discussion in this interview.
Greg: I’d like to start by talking about the Community of Christ (and its predecessor, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) in the early twentieth century. My recollection is that your faith tradition, like mine, went for a long time mostly holding onto traditions and not worrying too much about substantive change. Is that an adequate way of putting it? If you go back to 1860, you have basically a century where holding the line was primary?
Grant: I think that’s fair to say. For Community of Christ–or the other names that have been used for it, but we’ll just use that name as representative of the entire period of time–the formative identity of the movement was built around two principles. One was an opposition to the practice of polygamy, which was a key identity element by the LDS Church in the West for most of the nineteenth century; and the second principle was a support for lineal succession as the proper mode of succession for the Church. There were various other modes–seven or eight of them–that can be documented historically as being expressed at some point by Joseph Smith Jr. Of course, the Mormon Church in the West accepted the mode of succession through senior leaders in the Council of Twelve Apostles.
But at the time of the dispersion of the various elements of the Church following the assassination of Joseph Smith Jr., Joseph Smith III, the eldest son, was eleven years old, and there was not any realistic expectation that he could serve in that way. And so the branches that stayed in the Midwest, rather than following Brigham Young to the West, believed that a successor would come from the Smith family. There were various elements involved in calculating who that might be. It wasn’t always necessarily thought to be the eldest son. But over the years, between the death of Joseph in 1844 and the formal organization of the Church that would subsequently be named Community of Christ, those sixteen years, the branches remained in the Midwest as independent branches looking for a leader to emerge. There were a number of claimants to leadership, but most of those branches were looking for a lineal successor.
As Joseph III grew into manhood, there came to be an expectation that he would be the one who would come forward. There was quite a process of exploring that possibility with him before he eventually, in 1860, took leadership of the Church. About four years prior to that, there had begun to be a more formal coalescing of some of those branches under the leadership of Jason Briggs and Zenos Gurley in particular.
But in 1860, Joseph Smith III came to a conference of hopeful would-be members, called as he said, “of a power not my own,” to accept the leadership of the Church and to begin a term of office that lasted for fifty-four years, an amazing period of time.
During those fifty-four years, from 1860 until his death in 1914, I think it would be fair to say that the Community of Christ was experiencing something of an identity crisis. It seemed to mark the movement’s history to follow the ways in which the Church was trying to define itself. I sometimes refer to it with appreciation for the word anomie, which means an uncertain sense of self. I think as you look back–I’m not sure they would have necessarily described themselves in that way–it would appear clear that there was a search for really defining who the Church was. For many of those years, that definition–that identity–was laid over and against the Mormon Church: trying to define how we are different, how we are legitimate, how we are authentic, how we are accepted in the larger community. Whereas the Church in Utah had the experience of drawing away from the larger national experience and finding its own voice as pretty well an indigenous church, strong in the developing stages of the movement out in the West, it began over time to become somewhat controversial. That controversy was generated particularly by political efforts to resist the national ideology that opposed polygamy as a principle of life for any denomination. So there was a conflict about that in the West.
I think, as that conflict grew nationally, the Reorganized Church made stronger and stronger efforts to establish itself as the legitimate extension of the Latter Day Saint movement founded by Joseph Smith Jr. Opposition to polygamy became very important in those years, in particular, as the RLDS Church developed its identity.
So it was a search, I believe, for some real clarity as to what the Church actually stood for. I think that same search brought us into the present time. Some of the more contemporary things that have been accomplished over the last two or three decades still carried with them an effort on the part of the Community of Christ to explain, first to itself, and then to others, who it really was, what its focus was, and what its core ministry and identity in the world were.
Greg: Is it fair to say that, in that first century, you had a few core principles, and most of the effort was to refine those? That you weren’t doing quantum leaps from here to there?
Grant: I think, to be honest, there was a sense of the historical rootedness of the movement: a belief in the prophetic leadership of Joseph Smith, a kind of not-thoughtfully-examined relationship with those founding principles, but just an appreciation of them. Given the understandings that were available during that time, in terms of documents and historical explorations, not much was readily available. So there was this comfort level of being a “True Church.” The masthead of the Saint’s Herald, the Church magazine in the nineteenth century, carried at one point a little banner that said, “All Truth.” That was the purpose of the magazine and of the Church–to exemplify, to embrace, to embody truth. I think that, over the years, we have come to a somewhat more humble understanding of our faith, as perhaps not necessarily embodying all truth in its purity. But there was a sense in this small church–and I experienced it as a child, being the only kid in my school who was a member of that church that had a long and funny name. Here I was, living in the midst of a community where hardly anybody even knew anything about our church, where there was just a little building on a nearby street where our church was established; and yet somehow, as a kid, I needed to deal with the fact that we understood ourselves to be the One True Church–not just vis-à-vis the Mormons, but vis-à-vis all other expressions of Christianity.
And so, much of that identity formation in those early years came around defining how we were different from everybody else–especially the Mormons, but not limited to the Mormons; also how we were different from the mainstream Christian denominations. It seemed we did that in large part because it seemed that was what people wanted to know: “How are you different? What distinguishes you?”
Moving into the twentieth century, I think the Church had found a comfortable way of defining itself as a traditional embrace of the founding experiences of the early Church, a clear position, even into the twentieth century, of rejecting any notion that Joseph Smith might have been involved in polygamy, and living comfortably with the prophetic leadership of the Church being connected to the Smith family.
As we moved into the post-war period in the 1950s, in American culture it was a time when a lot of people were in the pews. Churches were active, and people felt comfortable with their faith and their relationships with other churches, as well as having strong commitments to their own faith communities.
Greg: In the pews because of the war?
Grant: I think that the post-war economic boom was accompanied by efforts to normalize things. There wasn’t a lot of deep questioning and exploration, certainly not among the people in the pews. People were just comfortable. People went to church just because it was what people did. Many of them who were there were less-than-frequent participants, and there was not a lot of challenging of faith.
Those were my growing-up years. That was the Church I learned as a young man. I was interested, I was pretty inquisitive; but I was sort of satisfied by knowing that smart people, writing on behalf of the RLDS Church, were supporting that principle of “this is the One True Church.” I would think to myself, “If they think that, then surely it must be true.”
But then the 1960s came. In the 1960s there was kind of a cultural revolution: opposition to the Vietnam War, the development of the civil rights movement, the status of women in society–all of these kinds of things were questions. Institutions were challenged, and churches did not escape that challenge. People who were questioning authority in terms of government, politics, business, and universities were also questioning authority in terms of church life and theological dispositions of people. Our church got caught up in that as well, although perhaps not to the same degree as a lot of people.
I went to Graceland College in the second half of the 1960s, and I will tell you that the opposition to certain issues in the larger society, especially the war, racial, and female issues were there, but certainly not to the degree that characterized some of the major universities, where there were riots and demonstrations and all manner of protest.
Greg: I was at UCLA when you were at Graceland.
Grant: Ah! Our experiences would have been different. But in its own way, I think that challenge to authority began to find its way into the Church as well. Maybe a couple of thoughts about what I think were formative events.
In the early part of the 1960s, President W. Wallace Smith took an around-the-world trip to begin to explore the development of the Church in some other nations of the world. At this point, we were largely an American and Canadian church, with some members in Australia, Europe, and French Polynesia, and a few in Latin America. Opportunities began to be available to begin movement into some of the developing countries of the world, as well as some of the Eastern cultures. To me it was embodied by this image of President W. Wallace Smith getting on the plane and going to visit these sites, where different questions started to be asked.
In Japan, for example, which at that time had a Christian population estimated to be about 4 percent of the total population, you had suddenly a circumstance where all of the questions that we were answering–how we were different from other Christian denominations, how we were different from Mormons–were totally irrelevant to a culture where only 4 percent of the people were Christian. They cared nary a whit about what our differences were with Presbyterians or Lutherans, or even with Mormons. It was clear that we had answers to questions that were not being asked.
Eventually the questions began to form around, “Who are you really? At your heart, what is the foundational principle, or set of principles, that your Church represents?” I think it was at that point that some of the Church leaders realized that the path we had been on was not really appropriate in this new time–that new things were beginning to develop and that we had to find different ways of approaching them.
I have a real sense of appreciation for the leaders of the Church at that time. Without a lot of experience in dealing with the developing world and with the challenges of Eastern culture to American or Western culture, they began to address those relationships by believing that we had not only something to give but that we also had something to receive. By entering into other cultures that challenged the questions that we had found to be at the heart of our movement, and by our willingness to open up and explore them and to go where they took us, we made ourselves vulnerable to a challenge to a church that heretofore had still continued to call itself the One True Church. Now, we began to realize that that effort to embrace All Truth was going to be far more demanding than what we had heretofore thought. As the Church began to experience what it meant to build this movement in developing countries in the world, a whole new set of factors was coming to bear that forced us to talk about what kind of community we would be, what was it that we really found ourselves embracing as our faith commitment. The leaders of the Church decided that they were going to walk into the heart of those questions and see where it took us.
About this same time, things were happening in Salt Lake City in terms of historical studies. A lot of documents became newly available. Historians, including a lot of “faithful” historians, were exploring new information about the formation of the Church that was challenging to the basic concepts that people had at that point. Now, we began to learn that our past still speaks to us, but we had to understand that it speaks in some different ways. We had to undo some previous understandings that we had. We had to be willing to say that we didn’t know it all, after all. There was a lot for us yet to learn from our own history, as well as from the encounter with cultures that looked at the world in an entirely different way, that had centering principles that were different from the principles that we had embraced and advocated.
Greg: Your history informed, but didn’t necessarily dictate, policies.
Grant: That’s very true. The first challenge, which was a classic for us, was when we began to move among the Sora tribes in India. There was an opportunity to begin the work of the Church in that place. But the Sora tribes were polygamist people. If any man who had several wives was to set aside or become separated from or divorced from a wife, then that wife was moved to the boundaries of society and became virtually untouchable. So here we were, confronted with an opportunity to bring the mission and calling of the Church to a fairly large group of people in a culture unknown to us heretofore–people who were seeking to participate in and live as members of the Community of Christ. And yet, one of the core principles of our separation from the Utah Church from the beginning of our movement was our longstanding opposition to polygamy. It was a dilemma. How could we accept polygamy as a principle and expect our members to support it? But if we followed that expectation by forcing a polygamous husband to set aside all but one spouse before we would allow him to join the Church, we would relegate innocent people to the social boundaries and cause them untold harm.
Through the prophetic ministry of W. Wallace Smith, a revelatory doctrine that is now canonized in our Doctrine and Covenants affirms the principle of monogamy but recognizes that in some places it may be necessary to embrace the cultural form that is present there in order to allow the persons to move into the community of the Church.
Greg: Did it allow subsequent plural marriages after they had embraced the Church?
Grant: It did not. It said that if people join the Church and are in a polygamous relationship, that polygamous relationship can be maintained; but there shall be no others, and the principle of monogamy will be the principle of the Church.
Well, a decision made in the field by the apostle in charge, to begin to move forward in that way, soon became fodder for a very painful World Conference process to begin to deal with this issue.
Greg: Had W. Wallace Smith gone to India?
Grant: He had not. The position of the Church was that the apostle in the field had some freedom to make decisions in the field that were appropriate to the place, assuming that those Church leaders would be making decisions that would be in the best interest of the Church, as well as the place where they would be. But the issue became bigger than field ministry. Soon it became an issue for the World Conference, where the Council of Twelve presented their perspective on how this polygamy situation in the Arissa province and the Sora tribes would be resolved, and then brought that issue to the World Conference. Part of that deliberation became a section of the Doctrine and Covenants presented by W. Wallace Smith that provided a pathway by which this principle could be implemented.
I remember being at that particular conference–I was still a student–and watching from the balcony, realizing that the delegates on the floor were put in a very difficult position. They had to decide whether a long-held principle of opposition to polygamy in any form could be set aside. The choice came down to say either, “I’m going to stick with that principle,” or “I’m going to accept the prophetic leadership of the Church.” That was really the crucible.
Greg: Was that the first time that had happened in the tradition?
Grant: No. I think particularly of Frederick Madison Smith’s tenure. His issues were not so much doctrinal as they were dealing with issues of Church leadership styles and organizational formations. He was a more controversial president of the Church, well educated and sometimes quite succinct in a way that seemed harsh to people. But there were several occasions during his leadership tenure where there was some real resistance to his point of view, and it was resolved in conference.
You can go back into the nineteenth century and find that dynamic with the Community of Christ. Spirited conference discussions were a part of who we were. One of the definitions of the RLDS Church, historically, was a “dissenting people.” Whereas the members of the Mormon Church were seen as willing to follow the prophetic leadership of the Church without a lot of questioning, in our movement an open and even conflicted conference proceeding would not be uncommon.
But this one got pretty hot, because this was around a very key principle. At the end of the day, support was given to the Church leadership and that situation in the Sora tribes continues to be the basic principle of the Church in that part of the world.
Greg: When you say “at the end of the day,” was it literally that, a one-day debate once it got to the conference?
Grant: It was more than a one-day debate. There was an undertow of a lot of other issues that were kind of percolating along. Bear in mind that you have to look at what was happening in the culture, and we were still in that cultural-revolution stage. That was reflected in the business of the conference. But that was really the fundamental issue on which a lot of the other issues turned. When the delegate vote supported President Smith’s counsel, that established what we would do. I think people accepted it on a different level than the question of ordaining women, which came along later in 1984 and which affected every congregation of the Church. What they were doing in the Sora tribes didn’t affect anybody, because it was out of sight and therefore could be put out of mind. Nobody’s neighbor was a polygamist. It was a philosophical discussion that wasn’t quite as personal as the ordination of women question became.
Greg: That one, in a sense, is a mini-paradigm shift, because the basic policy has remained intact, but you now have an amendment to it. Nonetheless, it was a significant transition.
Grant: I think it was a significant transition, in part because it became probably as clear an expression of the notion that faith and theological principles, or beliefs even, at times intersect with real-life experience, and one has to make decisions as to how to proceed, given that. There are a number of ways in which that happens, but this became so clear because it wasn’t just a belief; it was bedrock identity, the very foundation of our movement’s position on this marriage principle, because of the way in which we had tried to identify ourselves as over against the Mormon Church, which was much more widely established and much better known and understood. Our movement was much smaller and without nearly as clear an understanding of itself as had developed in the Mormon Church, which was growing globally. Opposing polygamy had been such an important principle for us, but now we had to face a very pragmatic, realistic issue in which our ministry of taking the gospel to the world put us just exactly counter to this founding principle opposing polygamy.
There are many other kinds of issues where decisions got made to adapt or to interpret a principle in a way that is appropriate, but this was a paradigm shift. It was global. It was an issue right at the heart of our movement, and it couldn’t be clearer what was going on here.
Greg: But the Church absorbed it.
Grant: Right. Absorbed it and moved on.
Greg: Was that, in your mind, a paving of the way both for the hierarchy and the laity to realize that, “Hey, we can do this!”?
Grant: I think so, and especially for the hierarchy, for the leadership to begin to see, “If we go this way, if we find ourselves in these cultures, we’ve got to be able to understand, and it will require us to continue to be open to understandings of our foundational faith and beliefs. It will be necessary for us to continue to be open to transformation of those notions.”
Greg: Was the process the same as in the past–just that the mindset had changed?
Grant: In terms of the World Conference deliberations?
Greg: Yes.
Grant: The process was the same. A document was prepared by the president of the Church and presented as what he called “inspired guidance,” considered as revelation in the polity of our particular movement. But that document, in our polity, always goes through all of the councils, quorums, and orders. Individually they discuss, vote, and report to the conference on their action. Ultimately, the World Conference, acting through the delegates sent from individual congregations and jurisdictions, determines to accept the document as inspired counsel to the Church from the Prophet. With that vote, it is placed in the Doctrine and Covenants as a guiding principle.
Greg: By a binding vote from the floor?
Grant: Yes. There has to be a vote of support. It doesn’t have to be unanimous, but it has to be a vote of support for that document.
Greg: Will a simple majority do it?
Grant: Technically, yes; but I will say that there has never been a time when the vote got that close. If it was that close–at least if I were making that decision–there would, I think, be a tendency to say, “Perhaps we need to continue to explore this.”
Greg: But you have had proposals voted down.
Grant: There has never been any document presented as inspired counsel to the Church that has been voted down. There have been resolutions from the First Presidency, on various issues, that have been voted down. A negative vote on a First President’s issue would not necessarily be that unusual, although, over the years, generally speaking, the leadership of the Church is supported.
Greg: And you count your votes in advance.
Grant: Sure. You strategize. You make decisions. If you think some issues are maybe going to be too difficult at this point in time for the Church, there are ways to manage them, lay the motion on the table, refer it to committee, or whatever. The process works out pretty well. It’s a big meeting, and so you’ve got to have pretty good management of the meeting. At the end of the day, the people want to support the leadership, and do that by and large on most key issues. But you never know. They do have that vote; and if a resolution or piece of legislation is voted down, it does not go into the Doctrine and Covenants. But that hasn’t happened. There have been a few times when it has been necessary to make some further explanation of certain aspects of a document or resolution before that vote occurred, but there has never been a prophetic document rejected completely.
Greg: So what was the next big one, chronologically?
Grant: Once you get to 1984 and the ordination of women, that becomes, in some ways, a real watershed.
Greg: Was that before W. Wallace Smith decided that he would go emeritus?
Grant: W. Wallace had already retired as president in 1978.
Greg: To me, that’s another big one–that before the women’s issue came up, he would step aside.
Grant: It was significant in the sense that, up until that time, no president of the Church had left office prior to death. The shortest tenure up until that point had been Israel Smith, who served for twelve years and died in an automobile accident. But there had never been anyone who had stepped aside until W. Wallace. In 1976, he reported to the conference that he was planning to step aside two years hence.
Greg: What is the story behind that?
Grant: There had been a lot of reflection among the Church leaders about all of that. I think President W. Wallace Smith simply felt that he was at an age and at a time where it was good for him to step aside and allow younger leadership. His son was generally considered to be the one who would be his successor, but his son was not active in Church leadership at that time. He was a practicing ophthalmologist in Independence. He was very active in the Church and was on the Standing High Council of the Church, but he did not have another Church leadership role. When W. Wallace said it was time for him to step down, he did so in a way that provided a two-year period of preparation for his son, who would then be ordained as president of the Church. That was a time of training and preparation for Wallace B. Smith. He did some academic work, and he did a lot of work with persons who would help him think through that transition in his career and his life.
Greg: Did he retire from his practice?
Grant: Yes, almost immediately after being called, so that he spent full-time for two years in this training mode.
Greg: How was the paradigm shift accommodated by the Church?
Grant: It was accommodated quite well and quite comfortably. The stepping away from the Smith family leadership that subsequently came was a more significant step, in terms of our polity, than the leadership transition between W. Wallace and Wallace B., but this one was different, to be sure. What it did bring up at the time when it was first introduced to the Church, prior to the ordination of Wallace B. Smith two years later, was that there was some effort on the conference floor to lift up the question of lineal succession. The person who did that with perhaps the strongest voice was subsequently called into the Council of Twelve. He actually stood and challenged, not so much in opposition to Wallace B. Smith, but in saying, “We need to explore and study what the future understanding of the Church will be regarding succession.” A lot of people interpreted his action as creating problems and trying to rain on the parade, and it was pushed aside, frankly. People didn’t want to do that, because they somehow thought that it would be expressing lack of support for the new leader of the Church. But it really wasn’t, in that person’s mind. I think he was just calling for us to be open–to see what we were going to do with the future.
Greg: Knowing that the future requirements were going to be significantly different?
Grant: Yes. I think he was just thinking that it was going to be a tougher Church to manage in the future. But that was just a flurry, and then it kind of went away, and the process went smoothly after that. Wallace B. was accepted without any challenge and then served very effectively as a Church leader.
Greg: So then you had women and temple. What was the chronology of those two?
Grant: President Wallace B. Smith was ordained as president of the Church in 1978. It was in 1984 that he brought to the Church what we call Section 156 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which had two primary messages. The first would be that the time had come to begin to ordain women to the priesthood. Heretofore, only men had been called to the priesthood. There had been some efforts during the preceding years, now and then, where pastors felt a conviction that a certain woman had ministerial capacity and had a calling; they would actually pass recommendations up the line. That was actually referenced in President Smith’s statement, something like: “These calls have been submitted from time to time, and have been awaiting further decision, and now is the time to move forward in that direction.”
This was a huge step, a very big issue. In the very same document, there was also a call to begin to build the temple. RLDS members–Community of Christ people–always believed that we were called to build a temple in Independence, but in our polity, in our particular Church, nobody had any idea what a temple would be. What would we do with it?
Greg: But you had a pretty good idea what it wouldn’t be, and that was what we did?
Grant: That’s right. We knew that it wouldn’t be what the Mormons had. It wouldn’t have secret or private rituals, sealings, endowments, and all of those things. They had never been part of the Community of Christ since its formation in 1860. So the call to build the temple came there, and then came what I believe was transformational language. In that document it said, “The temple shall be dedicated to the pursuit of peace” (D&C 154). That became, I think, one of the most important statements appearing in any of the canonical literature of the Community of Christ.
Greg: Where did that come from?
Grant: It came from the prophetic heart of President Smith.
Greg: This was not a groundswell, then.
Grant: No. In fact, to the contrary, this was a powerful statement to people. Nobody knew what that meant.
Greg: But as opposed to the women’s issue, where you had had a groundswell here and there, this one was top-down?
Grant: This one was top-down. But the other irony was that you had these two core issues in Section 156: ordination of women, which everybody knew was going to be very divisive; and the call to build the temple dedicated to peace which, on the face of it, was calculated to be unifying and to bring people together around a shared principle. So you had both things going on there emotionally. I think there was no expectation that ordination of women would come. People had been talking about the role of women in the Church over the years, but nobody was anticipating in 1984 that a prophetic message would be brought to the conference–that the Church should and would begin to ordain women.
Greg: Not what you’d expect from your typical ophthalmologist.
Grant: No. President Wallace B. Smith is an ophthalmologist, so he is a man of the contemporary world, a scientist. He understands the scientific worldview. He’s open in his perspectives, but basically conservative in his lifestyle and approach to things. Something as dynamic and potentially explosive as this revelatory message would not be in character–would not be the kind of thing you would expect from him. He was open in saying to the people that he struggled and struggled and struggled with the message before he finally determined that it was the right thing to do. And yes, it was going to be a problem.
Greg: Was it the Spirit brooding?
Grant: I believe that absolutely. And he couldn’t fight it off. He talked quite openly. If you look to the preamble of Section 156 of our Doctrine and Covenants, he says it right there in so many words: “I prayed and fought and struggled with this for a long time, and I feel I have no other choice to make but to bring this message to the people.”
Greg: It’s still interesting that you are juxtaposing those two.
Grant: Yes.
Greg: And they have no obvious relationship to each other.
Grant: None. Cynics would say–and some did say: “Well, you put something palatable in there to offset this other thing which people are going to be opposed to.” I can understand why they might think that, but I absolutely do not believe that was what President Smith had in mind. These were two different things. They each had issues for people.
Greg: Where were you in 1984?
Grant: I was serving at my first World Conference as World Church Secretary.
Greg: Lucky you!
Grant: Yes. I thought this job could be short-lived! We actually went through that: “What if this document is turned down? What if the people will not accept it? What does that mean?”
Greg: Go back. You talked earlier about Wallace B. Smith bringing you a handwritten document?
Grant: This was the timeframe. I think it was in early 1984, probably January. I was the Church Secretary, which is basically the executive assistant to the First Presidency. You manage the office, you attend their meetings, you are very involved in all the activities, kind of in the epicenter. I always liked to say it is a great job, because you are right in the middle of things, you know everything that is going on, but you don’t have to take responsibility for any of it.
Greg: Did they ever ask input from you?
Grant: They did, although not on that particular issue.
Greg: But you were more than a tape recorder on the wall.
Grant: Yes. When they brought me into that role, they said to me that they wanted to completely change the way that particular office functioned. They wanted somebody who they felt could work more closely and intimately with the leadership of the Church, with the First Presidency. So I was in all of the council meetings of the First Presidency and other council meetings that they presided over. I was the first person in this role in our Church who had an academic background, although that kind of training is typical of a lot of denominations. I had a master’s of divinity degree. So when they brought me in, it was with an understanding that this was not just to be a super stenographer. I don’t even know if I could type when they asked me to come into this role. But they wanted to change the role completely.
So I was very much involved. I appreciated that they would be solicitous. It got to the point over the years when I could see something from a staff position that the leadership was often blinded to. I would see them taking a position on a particular person, and I would think that what they were saying about that person was not what people who worked with that person knew. I can remember one time, in particular. We had on staff a person whom I knew to be one of the most capable people we had. He was a little different in his approach and didn’t jump right out at you. You had to know the guy. I spoke up, a little timidly, because I hadn’t been there that long, and said, “I’ve heard you talk about this man, and I just want to weigh in to say that what you think about him is not at all what the staff thinks about him.” And then I began to explain that. Sometimes a person can be an outsider-insider.
But yes, President Smith brought me a handwritten document and asked me to type it. This was out of the blue. I had no idea. The First Presidency had been on a retreat together, but I hadn’t been present. When I subsequently had that role as Church president, there were a few times when just the three of us would go away on a retreat. In Wallace B. Smith’s presidency, sometimes they might take the Church Secretary along, but mostly they didn’t. This was just for them to spend time together in their roles. It was after one of those times, where they clearly had talked about this issue at that retreat. I think the document had been in formation at that time.
Greg: With contributions from all three?
Grant: I guess so, but I’m not sure about that.
Greg: But at least with the knowledge of his counselors.
Grant: Yes, and discussion of the issue. So when President Smith brought that document to me, it was because they needed to get the text formally put together and begin to talk about how to move it forward in the conference. That was quite a moment for me personally, because I was young.
Greg: How deep into the text did you get before the lightning bolt hit you?
Grant: I got to paragraph nine. I knew that it was a document that he was going to present to the conference, but that was all he told me. He just asked me if I would type it, because he didn’t want to give it to the secretarial staff to do it. So I sat and read it first. I came to that paragraph on the ordination of women, and I just thought, “Oh, my gosh!” I was moved to tears. I was profoundly moved–and I’m still moved to think about it. I had no problem with the ordination of women; I was completely supportive of their ordination prior to President Smith’s document. I could not understand why women, whom I had seen perform tremendous ministries in nonordained capacities, could not be ordained. There was no argument that made any sense to me at all as to why women could not be ordained ministers.
After I typed it, I walked down the hall toward his office, and I was wondering “What am I going to say to him?” I laid it down on his desk. He looked at me, and I just said, “It’s a pleasure working with you, sir.” He said, “Well, it isn’t always easy.” I said, “I can’t even imagine, but I understand how that must be so very true.” And then I said to him something that was going to resonate with me in a way I had no idea. I didn’t say, “Oh, my gosh, I’m going to have to frame this in my own life,” or even, “Oh, my gosh, I just can’t imagine what kind of conference we are going to have.” But what I said to him was, “We are going to spend a lot of time getting this put in place, but ultimately the most important thing in this document, to me, is the sentence that says, ‘The temple shall be dedicated to the pursuit of peace.’ That will transform the Church.”
Little did I know that, in the years to follow, the temple would be built, but it would become my responsibility, as Church president, to say, “Now that we have built this temple, with its strange design of a spiral to the heavens, this is what it means to be a people who build a defiant building like that, and declare themselves to be dedicated to the pursuit of peace.”
Greg: Is that transition still happening?
Grant: Sure, and I think it will continue always to be one of those dynamic things that keeps redefining us, forcing us to look again and again at what this means. As issues in the world change, as issues come upon us, how do we confront those? What is our position as a Church, or as a disciple of Christ? It’s important to stay current on how the Church speaks to the culture and the society. Otherwise, we have no worth. There is no point to the Church if we don’t have something to say to our own time. That needs to be alive.
Greg: How much advance public notice was there prior to the World Conference?
Grant: None.
Greg: This was held really tightly, then. Was it basically four men who knew it?
Grant: Yes, pretty much. I don’t really remember whether some of the key leaders were brought into it, like the members of the Twelve. But it was held very tight. I actually believe that even the Twelve did not know.
Greg: That, in itself, is an amazing feat, for something of this magnitude to remain under wraps.
Grant: I happened to be sitting in the office of President Bud Sheehy, one of the counselors to President Smith, prior to the World Conference, when President Emeritus W. Wallace Smith walked past the door, headed into his son’s office. President Sheehy said to me, “President Smith is going to tell his father about the document.” So as I was sitting in President Sheehy’s office, this conversation between father and son was going on. I would have loved to be privy to that conversation. I don’t think his father would have imagined that that would be done, but he was supportive. I don’t have any idea what they said, but he supported the move.
Greg: I listen to this story and I keep thinking about Spencer Kimball, who by all accounts would have been the least likely person to change any paradigm. His son Edward characterized him as the best follower in the Church. What you are saying about President Smith and the ordination of women sounds so similar to this, that it comes out of a direction you would never suspect.
Grant: Yes. To me it is sort of like it was so unexpected, it must be true. You wouldn’t expect it as a natural thing.
Greg: Yes. It’s like verses in the Bible, whose legitimacy is sometimes ascertained by their inconvenience and awkwardness. In other words, it would have been so easy to get rid of them that the very fact that they remain suggests strongly that it’s the real stuff.
Grant: That’s right. That’s a good point. I’ve often thought about that. President Wallace B. was never a person whom you would see as confrontational. But he had no misunderstanding about how significant this was and what it was going to be like, and that there would be a lot of things said.
Greg: Maybe it was because he had lived in a different world–that he had already had to deal with justice and not dogma.
Grant: That would be true. The other part of this, that I think is a little hard to get one’s arms around, is that I think he lived a bit uncomfortably in the Smith family legacy. I want to make sure I say this right. He was a contemporary man, and being in the Smith family as it was understood in the Latter Day Saint tradition–that deference to all members of the family, the way in which Mormon leaders treated him–it was uncomfortable to him. He didn’t want to be treated that way just because he was a Smith. He wanted to go beyond that.
Greg: Was he happy to be practicing medicine?
Grant: He was. He came reluctantly to the role of prophet. He knew that the expectation was there. He grew up knowing that the day would come when he was going to have to face that role. He said publicly, “Some of you know I kind of ran from this for a long time. This wasn’t really what I wanted for myself and my family.”
On a number of occasions subsequently, we would talk about issues like the Book of Mormon. I can remember at one time one of the key Church leaders said, “I think the people can accept new understandings of the Book of Mormon, that they are willing and ready to do that.” I remember that President Smith said to that person: “That’s easy for you to say. Your name isn’t Smith.” In saying that kind of thing, he was not disagreeing with the principle. He was just wanting it to be clear that it was more difficult for him, because what the Book of Mormon was says a lot about what Joseph Smith Jr. was. So that relationship, that family connection to Joseph Smith Jr., who was his great-grandfather, was still very much alive for him. He knew in his heart that many of these things were right, but he kept telling people, “Your name isn’t Smith.” Now, I never heard him say that publicly; but in private conversations every now and then, he would acknowledge, “If you’re a Smith, you look at this a little differently, because it has to do with your own family; it’s not just some obscure doctrine or principle.” It had to do with the authenticity of his own family, at least in the minds of many. That was something I never had to deal with, but he certainly did.
But to get back to the resolution to ordain women, included in the subsequent discussions was the strategy of how to approach this. There were questions like, for example, “What if the document is rejected? What does that say about the role of the president of the Church?”
Greg: And the future of women.
Grant: Yes. But one thing we had never faced was the possibility of the rejection of a document that was brought to the Church as inspired counsel by the president. Would the act of rejecting a document of inspired counsel also be a rejection of the person? He said–and I agree–that if that happened, you would have to at least think about whether or not that was a no-confidence vote. When people thought about it–and there was some discussion in some of the caucuses about it–that was really a difficult thing. They didn’t want it to be a personal rejection. They still loved President Smith as a person.
Greg: He and his father were both very well regarded, weren’t they?
Grant: They were highly regarded. They were good people, made of good stock, and people knew that. But I know that he was pretty open to the notion that, if this document went down, it might very well mean that the Church needed to seek other leadership. I don’t know how that would have played out.
Something that I think he would have accepted–this was never made known to the people directly–was that if we had hit the wall and there was a move to postpone consideration of this for another inter-conference period, I think he probably would have been open to that. But you don’t announce that as a strategy. You don’t want to give people that road, but you have to be prepared for that possibility if, in fact, it comes. The problem is that the next two years would have been turmoil for the Church, because everything would be focused on the next conference and people who were running for delegates would be required to vote a certain way. There would be a lot of political shenanigans going on around it. So a postponement wasn’t really thought of as all that helpful, although you had to be open to that possibility.
For the conference, as I indicated before, there were two issues in one document: one, the ordination of women; and the other, the building of the temple dedicated to the pursuit of peace. So you had this thing to rip you apart, and you had this thing that supposedly brought you together. There were a lot of discussions about strategy; but when conference came, we just had to move forward and see what the people wanted to do.
Greg: Did the document go to the other presiding quorums before it got to the floor?
Grant: It did. It used to be that it was presented to the other presiding quorums in confidence; no written document was released. It was read to the quorums and then they would discuss it and vote on it. It was not publicly released. People might come out and say, “It says this or that,” or, “I wrote down a note about this.” There were all kinds of speculation about what it actually was. Eventually we got to the point where the documents were read to the whole body prior to the consideration by the quorum, so that there wasn’t a lot of that kind of speculation. Then, the quorums would have a document in front of them to take action on.
We have had some experience since of releasing documents ahead of time. I did this with the first document I brought to the Church–releasing the text ahead of time so that it could be thought about. By ahead of time, I mean in the Herald two months before conference.
Greg: But when was this one made public?
Grant: This one was made public as the conference convened. It was presented to the quorums, and then brought to the floor at the conference.
Greg: Had word leaked out by then?
Grant: By the time it got to the floor, sure. Once you’ve presented it in the quorums, there are going to be people talking about what it says, even if they don’t have the text. In fact, that’s the problem. You’re better off giving them the text than dealing with all the confusion of “I think it said something like this,” “No, I think it was this.” You get some craziness based on individual memories. So you either need to keep it boxed up real tight, or make it available to everybody.
And that’s pretty well what happens now. President Steven M. Veazey released in January 2010 a document that he is going to present to the Church in April. It has been published; it is on the Church website; it is in the Herald; it will be fully available to people. It is fairly long and extensive (now Section 163). But that process has opened up over time. It used to be quite secretive. Monday morning people would expect it, and they would all go to the quorum meetings in the expectation that something would be coming. Sometimes it didn’t; you didn’t have documents every conference.
Greg: So what was the reception when Section 154 got to the floor?
Grant: It was tough. There were people strongly opposed. When you think about it, unlike a lot of issues that get talked about in religious circles, the ordination of women changes not only the Church, but even families become different. It’s about husbands and wives. It’s about friends. Priesthood had this aura about it.
Greg: It turns vertical into horizontal.
Grant: Exactly. It’s a whole different thing. So it’s not just some obscure, doctrinal, theological issue; it’s very personal, and it has to do with people you relate to. When I talked to you about taking the vote on the Sora tribes in India, we voted and then the issue went away, because none of the people sitting in the conference were ever going to be in the Sora tribes. It was an exercise based on a theological principle.
But the ordination of women is a whole different thing, especially where you have these small congregations, in which, for many years, one person or a small group has provided most of the leadership. Many times it was the women, behind the scenes, who were actually running those congregations. The pastor was the titular head, but not realistically. Sometimes those women were among the most vigorous opponents of the ordination of women. It was almost as if their role as the behind-the-scenes leaders of the Church was being threatened. And their relationship with their husbands was different. A lot of family dynamics get into something like this.
Because of all those things, it became a little bit more confusing for people to deal with. “Is this a religious principle? Am I really thinking about it? How does my life change?” Women, all of a sudden, are beginning to think completely differently. Overnight, in one, single step, women, who never thought of themselves as being ministers because that was just not the culture–that changes. The next day, after that first reading–women have a whole different thought process involving their own lives and their own sense of ministry. It’s a very powerful thing, a hinge event on which a door swings open.
There was a time in the World Conference, a few years prior to all this, where a delegate had moved from the floor that the Church conduct a study on the role of women in the Church, including the question of ordination. At the time, women’s ordination was not a question that a lot of people were talking about. There was a kind of gasp. You can hear it on the tape of the session. Then, a venerable old guy who was well known around the Church, got up. He had a booming voice, and he said, “Mr. Chairman, I move that this resolution be placed on the table indefinitely!” There was kind of an applause that broke out.
The lady who was the leader of the Women’s Department of the Church at that time–we don’t have a Women’s Department anymore–was a very thoughtful person. She got the tape of that session; and for women’s retreats, she would play those particular elements of the tape. People would listen to it, and then they would say, “I’m not in favor of the ordination of women, but I guess I don’t really understand why the mere discussion of it would be laughed at, or why, when that guy got up and made that booming statement, it would result in applause. It doesn’t seem to me to be unreasonable that we could at least talk about that.” That was the seed-planting going on at that stage.
In our Church, these things can be presented from the top–in a single, sudden motion. They don’t have to work their way up from the grassroots, although many times they do. They get discussed and it works its way through the discussions for a few years and becomes more acceptable for the leadership. But because the leadership of our Church is different from the seniority system of the Mormons, people can move into leadership roles at young age. When you have younger leaders who have different ideas, it’s different than a system where people are well along in their years and quite fixed in their understandings, generally speaking. That’s why something like President Kimball’s 1978 announcement that worthy black men could now be ordained to the priesthood came, as you said, from someone you would not have predicted. But with younger leadership, these things would happen more frequently. Maurice Draper went into the Council of Twelve when he was twenty-six. That’s very unusual.
So it’s a multi-faceted thing when you talk about the ordination of women. You can’t even really segment it. I really believed, as I listened to it, that the real issues were the personal, social kinds of issues–far more than the theological issues. I think it wasn’t, “Well, Paul said women should be silent in the churches, therefore they shouldn’t be in the priesthood.” There are ways in which those kinds of things can be easily responded to. But far more difficult was the personal and social dimension of it, the transformation of roles that were seen, for all of those years, as being male-dominant roles. Of course, it’s consistent with the fact that the roles of women in the society had changed. That debate was not lost on the Church.
Our people are not theologically trained and don’t even think that way. They think more in terms of “this is what I believe.” But what they say they believe is often not carefully examined. So they can go through a lot of theological things, like closed communion and so forth, with far less of an impact than this, which now is not just “my Church,” but “my family, my husband or wife, my social relationships.” They changed, because for many Church people, the Church is their world.
Think about a guy like me. My friends tended to be mostly members of the Church. The social circle in which I ran tended to be members of the Church. I went to the Church-sponsored college. My career was Church related. The circle is pretty small when you really think about it. So all these things flow together in a way that is pretty consuming.
Greg: Did it ever appear that this was in any danger of being voted down?
Grant: I think there was some risk of that. You go through a long process and a lot of things are going on, and the discussion takes on a life of its own during the week of conference. At the end of that week, you’re going to be deciding an awful lot of important things. Part of the conference business is the callings that are changing the leading quorums and other bodies. Those are decisions about who the current leadership of the Church is going to be. You’re going to be deciding when you’ll pass resolutions in favor of gun support, for instance, or make budget decisions about what kinds of projects to support in the United States and internationally. And then there’s this huge issue. In one week, are you going to be willing–without any preparation besides what’s taken place among individual delegates, not knowing that this was going to be a conference issue–to ordain women? That’s a huge change.
And yet, it was like the name change. On Sunday night, April 6, 2000, I, in my sermon, proposed that the name of the Church be changed. There was silence. Some people were thrilled, but others were scared to death about it. We wrestled it through for a week. All kinds of things occurred when we wrestled it through. We didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. That’s the point. I think people realized that one possibility was a big protest. Half the people could walk out. Or they could vote down the document, and then maybe the Prophet would leave. Were they willing to accept that? All those questions were in people’s minds. I don’t know that this was necessarily a good thing. You might say it would have been better to propose the question and let people talk about it for two years, then decide. That process has its own down-side. So we just took it on in an environment of real uncertainty as to whether the vote would be favorable.
Greg: Was there behind-the-scenes maneuvering at the end of every day?
Grant: Maneuvering and strategizing? Politics in a Church? Come on, Greg, surely you jest!
Greg: I apologize–but I don’t retract the question.
Grant: There were all kinds of maneuvering going on. Say what you will, the presidency are presiding over the conference, and it’s their responsibility to try to strategize how you move the agenda forward in the best, most effective manner. Sometimes you solicit help in some of the quorums. You say to some key people, “Can you give us some help here or there?” You try to leverage what you have.
As it turned out, we didn’t have a counted vote; we had a hand vote, as I recall. The vote was around 80 percent support.
Greg: That’s interesting, because that’s about how much of your membership you retained.
Grant: That could be.
Greg: Didn’t you lose around 20 percent?
Grant: We don’t know. Some say a third left, a third became kind of inactive, and a third remained active. Bill Russell and I have argued about this for years. I don’t really know. It’s just hard to count. There were people who were very active who might have become less active because they didn’t like this. But when the vote was finally taken there was good support, 80 percent, which I considered very good.
Greg: So you lose some people. But the people who stay, how do they react to it? Do they just embrace it and run with it?
Grant: No. I wish they had. President Smith’s document was passed and became Section 154 in April 1984. The date was set for November 17, 1985, when the first women’s ordinations could occur. The reason for establishing a buffer zone of a year and a half was to put into place a process to help build an understanding of it with the people, to get people connected to the idea, to sort of let the shock shake out a little bit. If you’re not at the World Conference and somebody calls home and says, “We just got a revelation that women are going to be ordained,” and you are in a little congregation in Idaho, you can just imagine what would be going on all around the place.
So delegates got home and people would say, “What were you thinking about? What happened out there?” The answer often was, “I don’t know exactly how to explain it. You almost had to be there to experience it.” It was very hard for the people who voted for it–or voted against it, I guess–to go back home and explained what had happened, because what happened wasn’t just, “We had a meeting and took a vote.” It was all this stuff, all these conversations. You were sitting at dinner and talking to people about what was going on all week long. It was a holistic experience that you just can’t describe. The minutes of the conference don’t describe what happened. The reality of what happened was entirely different from the record of what happened. And the same thing with the name change, although the name change was a far more redemptive process than the ordination of women, where the debate got pretty nasty. Some people were so angry.
Greg: I want to talk about two more things. One is the next paradigm shift, where Wallace came to you and took the presidency out of the Smith lineage. And then the final one is how the process of revelation worked with you.
Grant: I don’t think that Wallace B. has said anything in a definitive way about this, except that he had, over the years, left open the possibility that the Smith family legacy would be forever the mode of succession. There was nothing in our canonical literature that specifically required it. It was more of a tradition, and of course it became a very strong tradition because the early Church used it to differentiate the Community of Christ from the Mormon Church. So I think a lot of people kind of wondered about it, but it didn’t generate a lot of speculation. President Smith was still fairly young and vibrant, and I don’t think people were spending much time worrying about where we would go next. But it was not lost on people that he provided for the ordination of women and that he and his wife, Rosemary, had three daughters and no sons. That was never a factor for him. I know that directly from conversations with him. But other people would look at it and see that kind of thinking.
When I was called into the First Presidency, he didn’t talk to me about the aspect of succession. He told me later that, at that time, he had in mind that I might be the person who would be brought into that leadership role, but he didn’t share that perception with me. It was not part of the conversation about coming into the presidency.
His father had set the precedent by becoming president emeritus. When he decided that retirement was a possibility for him, he came to me and laid out his plan. His purpose was to give me plenty of time to think about it and to talk to my family about it. I think he knew that for all of us it was going to be a difficult adjustment. It wasn’t anything we were ever anticipating. But he was gracious enough to provide me that opportunity. If I had said, “I just can’t do it,” he would have understood that.
But for me, I had to go through a whole lot of reflection about that, and to think about, “What does this mean for me. What is that role?” I was quite uncomfortable with some aspects of that. They call you “prophet, seer, and revelator.” I even talked with him about it. “Is that language necessary?” His feeling was that, when you make that kind of transition, the language is a part of the process. Using the traditional language reframes the issue a little bit. It changes it from being personal, centered around a person or a family, and makes it a principle; and the principle of “prophet, seer, and revelator” is extended to whoever may be in that role, whether that individual is a member of the Smith family or not. This was his argument.
Greg: It’s a good argument.
Grant: Yes. I had to succumb to it. Then, once I had succumbed to it, I had to decide how I would live with that, how I would connect to that concept. I thought, if that was the role, I still had a right to live with that role in a way that worked for me. It was very important to me to reconceptualize the Church from being an organization with a prophet to being a prophetic people. That concept was very important for me. It helped me begin to define what the Church could mean. I had a lot of time to think about it, and that time was especially helpful for me. I was able to think about it, and to talk to Wallace about it quite often. He was able to share with me some things that he felt were necessary to him in his situation but which could be different to me in my situation. I think he understood the need for some reframing of that role. As I said, he wore part of the role–being a Smith–uncomfortably. He understood completely what I was talking about, because he, himself, in a different way, had wrestled with that issue.
So the issue was brought–not immediately to the whole Church–but seven months before our World Conference during a meeting of the Order of Evangelists, the senior ministers of the Church. That was the first time that I had to walk into a room and meet with people who now knew that I was being proposed as the president-designate.
Greg: Had President Smith’s other counselors known about it in the interim?
Grant: I think they did not know about it for the full length of time. I know they were informed at some point, right ahead of the public announcement, but I think President Smith pretty well kept his own counsel. I think they didn’t have a lot of lead time, and I was struggling with it for a long time when they didn’t know. I think it was somewhat of an issue for them because of the relationships within the quorums. There were dynamics that occurred that I could not have imagined. But I can remember that the reception by the Order of Evangelists was very affirming. I had wondered at the wisdom of having it announced during that meeting, because I thought it would be really tough being in the midst of that group, but it turned out to be absolutely the right thing to do. It provided a sounding board for how others might respond.
Greg: So it moved forward pretty smoothly?
Grant: It did. There were virtually no hitches of any consequence, and only a handful of votes of the conference delegates against it. I, frankly, was surprised. I expected there to be, if not more opposition, at least more questioning and searching, because it was such a big change. But I think that sometimes when you are in a leadership role, you are in a cocoon. Sometimes you don’t have a good feel for where the people really are. You may think you do; but what I have found, especially in recent years, is that the people have a lot of wisdom that sometimes exceeds the wisdom of the leaders. I can think of times when I have actually underestimated the capacity of the conference to deal with certain difficult issues.
The issue of communion was one. Traditionally we’ve had closed communion; you had to be a baptized member to take communion. Those who wanted change argued for open communion–open to anyone who accepted Jesus as his or her Savior. On the leadership level, we were basically saying, “Let’s postpone consideration of this issue, because we’re not quite ready to tackle it.” But the people basically said, “No, we don’t need to postpone. We’re ready to talk about it.” We spent a long, hard day talking about it, and then an action was taken, and the transition was made. It needed to be cleaned up a little bit in terms of details and logistics, but it got done. I didn’t think we leaders were quite there. But the people were. They were ready, and as leaders we underestimated their capacity.
I think the same thing was true of the discussion of ordination of women. I bet if you had taken a vote on day 1 of World Conference, before this issue was introduced, “How many of you would support the ordination of women?” you wouldn’t have an 80–20 break. Research that we had done, scientific sampling of women’s roles in general a year or two prior to that, demonstrated that at best, the Church was evenly divided on the question of ordination of women. It would probably have been less than a full majority. But when the vote came it was 80–20. To me that said that you take a vote in a vacuum and it’s 50–50 because it’s only theoretical; but at the end of the day, when you really have to take a vote on whether this is going to happen or not, people come along, especially if they feel they are being led properly and if they have respect for the leadership of the Church.
Greg: So now, you’re the president emeritus. Looking back, what is the most important change that you effected, and how did you get there?
Grant: Thank you for asking that question, because that’s something that I have tried to think about a lot. To be perfectly honest, in what retrospectives have been done since I left, I have a different view of what I thought was important, and what I think a lot of people have. Of course, I shouldn’t be the one to define my own legacy–to say “this is what was important about the time I was president.” But here is what I think the most important things were.
The task of becoming the president of the Church at just about the time the temple was finished, and then being in the position of leading the conversation about what it means to be a people dedicated to the pursuit of peace and building this defiant symbol in the center of Independence, spiraling into the sky–saying that this building was built for the pursuit of peace, well, what does that mean in terms of discipleship, in terms of worship, in terms of the self-understanding of our people? President Smith’s statement, I believe, was inspired. It said, “The temple shall be dedicated to the pursuit of peace. It shall be for reconciliation and for healing of the spirit.” Those principles are revelations to me. That’s President Wallace B. Smith’s prophetic leadership to the Church, those powerful two sentences.
So I had to take that and try to begin the process of defining what shall we be. And that culminated in the new name. There’s a lot of affection for the traditional name: the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. We’re proud of it. We’ve been beaten over the heads with it all our lives from the time we were kids. But at the same time, you gradually realize that our name does not define who we have become. To me, “Community of Christ” captured the twin principles of the centrality of Jesus Christ and the building of community. There were some who said, “It seems like we are running away from our past.” But I said, “No, we are not running away from our past; we are embracing our past as we have come to understand it through the call to the Church to become a people dedicated to the pursuit of peace, and as we have explored our discipleship and have begun to redefine and understand our mission.” This name captures, for now, what has become an important understanding that is not reflected in the previous name.
We are not embarrassed by our former name. Nor are we trying to get away from being confused with the Mormons–although that’s a side benefit of sorts. I’m not going to deny that, because every time you were asked, “Which Church are you?” you had lead with “Not the Mormons.” It’s a real benefit to lead with who you are instead of who you aren’t. When you are able to step back from that, I think it gives you the opportunity to feel within yourself that sense of identity, rather than be off on this little historical game we play about why we are different than everybody else.
So the name, to me, was the most important thing. And really, it was the process of changing the name that was as important as the result, because we really had to ask ourselves who we were going to be. It was a search to pinpoint our core identity, to articulate our most basic values. We did a good job on that. I’m very proud of that. I’ll say it frankly. We didn’t just run right out there and paint new signs on all the buildings. We wanted to wait until we clearly understood how we were doing this and what it meant–that it was deeply related to our mission, and not just a public relations gimmick.
Greg: So it was a process more than an event: revelation-as-process.
Grant: Absolutely. Certainly there was an event–April 6, 2001, was the day we chose to change the name. We had the sign outside the temple changed. We had a cover over it, and we unveiled it at a big event. In business terms, this was a branding process that we were going through. But we put our people through a forty-day period of reflection and meditation and provided resources leading up to the name change. It didn’t just mean that we would start talking differently and change our letterhead; this had to do with changing our very sense of self.
I felt that the effort to explore more carefully the idea of a prophetic people was extremely important. I wasn’t the one who did all that, although I initiated parts of it. But the name-change process was an across-the-boards leadership issue. It got into a lot of logistics. Signage was important. We were very explicit in telling our people: “We want you to use this same signage, because we want to build an identity for the Church.” Our Church has had this crazy notion that you can buy cheap land, far from major thoroughfares, and so people never could find the Church because it was hidden away in some neighborhood. People didn’t even know where it was. But you have signs around the country and around the world that have some branding to them.
Our Church seal became a misstep along the way. The consultants looked at our Church seal and said, “That’s old-school stuff. It’s not the kind of thing that people look for today.” Our seal had a lion, a lamb, and a child. And it was an old style of logo. They tried to redo it. It was one of those times when my gut said, “This isn’t right. I don’t like it.” But we were at a point where we had to move forward and make a decision, and we made a decision to keep the seal. People just went, “Uggh!” We ended up pulling it back, and saying, “You know, they’re right.” I just wish that I’d had the fortitude to say, “You know, it just isn’t right.” I passed the new design around the meeting of the Standing High Council. Emeritus President Smith was there, and he was very silent after he looked at it. Then he said, “You know, I just can’t stand it.” I thought, “Oh, my gosh! The battle is lost.” And yet, I looked at it and I didn’t like it either. Why didn’t I just say that? That was the only thing he voiced an objection to.
So we ended up getting rid of the new seal and continuing to use the traditional seal. To heck with whether the consultants liked it or not. We kept trying to tell them, and they kept saying, “No, you’ve got to make the break.” But that was a break we didn’t make. People can still see it on the signage; but we carefully selected the font we use. If you look at it closely, there’s a cross in there and some other subtle symbols of community. The font that names the Church has really become, in a way, the logo. It is both words and graphic.
So in terms of what I thought was most important, the other thing that I will probably always be identified with is Transformation 2000. In 1997 we had been working on a strategic plan for the future and called in pastoral leaders for a meeting that summer. I gave an address outlining some fairly large changes. That address was probably the most significant of any that I had given in a Church leadership role, to call people to this new Transformation 2000 effort, which had as its goal a three-year period during which we would really focus on what it meant to become a people dedicated to the pursuit of peace, reconciliation, and healing of the spirit. That was the goal. We were going to bring new people on to expand the outgrowth, make youth programming a high priority, and a number of programmatic things. But there was something pretty powerful about the process. People felt empowered to begin to think differently about themselves and about their relationship to the Church. A lot of good things emerged out of that.
So I would say calling the people to a new understanding of being a prophetic people, bringing the Church to the point where a change in our name became not just a public relations gimmick but a transformation of our very sense of self, and putting together the framework of a programmatic approach to that transition through Transformation 2000. Those would probably be the most important things.
Greg: And defining yourselves now by what you are, instead of what you aren’t.
Grant: That’s right. That was really the heart of so much of that struggle that we went through over the years that came to this. So I see that as a convergence of things that started long before I was in this role. What I had to do was to bring it to wherever I could see that we could go.
We have opened the discussion on homosexuality, but I don’t think we are at a place where we can claim, with any accuracy, that we’ve got that figured out in our own movement. But we are more open, and we are dialoguing about it, looking for different approaches to it. It’s going to be a big issue at upcoming conferences. I’ve looked at the legislative load that Steve Veazey is going to have to handle and thought about the long nights of strategic planning that will be required.
I’m sure I could say it more elegantly if I thought about it, but those would be the major things that I feel were important in my time. Most of it came to me unbidden; it wasn’t because I thought of it—it’s just where we were, and we had to take an approach to it that would work.