President Veazey Reflects on
 Conference and Section 164

President Stephen M. Veazey recently took time to visit with Apostle Linda Booth, the church's director of communications, about Doctrine and Covenants 164 and the experience at the 2010 World Conference.

          

The following article from the July 2010 Herald presents excerpts from the above video interview with Steve and Linda.

Linda: Steve, we’ve seen a World Conference that was quite historic, and about 2,200 delegates have gone home to their nations to tell the testimony of what they experienced. How would you describe the World Conference experience?

Steve: I would express it in the words “It was great,” especially when you go through all the planning and preparation for months and months and then have such a successful experience with the delegates from throughout the world. It’s just really a cause for joy and celebration.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on what really happened at Conference. What’s the meaning of the experience that we shared together? In some ways I’m still looking for the words, and images, and phrases to adequately describe it. I’m tending to use phrases I’m hearing the delegates use. And they say, “We were blessed. We felt the Spirit moving in our midst not just on occasion, but just a constant presence with us.”

Decorum, unity, careful listening to one another, respectfulness among people who have differences, strong differences of opinion—there was a sense of unity that just was woven throughout the whole experience. I think we can take a great of deal hope from that as a people that God is with us.

…God has promised us that if we will bring ourselves together in a certain attitude in humility and preparation that we will be blessed in that way. In my Conference sermon I concluded after sharing the illustration from our history with the phrase “forward or back, can’t stay where we are,” and I basically said it was up to the church to decide.… I think the church gave a resounding “forward,” and that’s the spirit of the Conference.

Linda: There was a tenderness in our midst, a sweet tenderness. And it is hard to put into words when the Divine is in your midst.

Steve: I’ve begun to refer to it as our Pentecostal experience or Pentecost experience with unity, and peace, and reconciliation, and healing. That’s just as important to the mission and witness of the church today as it was to the early Christian fellowship when they were challenged to go out with their witness of Jesus Christ.

Personally, I experienced the Spirit in new dimensions of my life that I hadn’t experienced before. When I was away from the Conference assembly and waiting for the Conference to consider and take action on the words of counsel, it was a time of complete peace for me. I found myself resting in the experience.… It was almost like, “This is OK. You rest, and the Conference is doing its work, and you don’t need to be anxious or concerned. Just let that unfold.”

Linda: Before and after World Conference, international leaders gathered for significant Bible study, reflection, and consideration of questions. How do you think that gathering…impacted World Conference?

Steve: The International Leaders Meeting is always an inspiring and joyful experience. Just the joy of being in each other’s presence begins the experience. After a time of study of the scriptures, we began to discuss the issues of Conference, and I was concerned about how that would occur, knowing the intensity of feelings around some of the issues and uncertainty and anxiety.

As we entered into those sessions each evening, the spirit of openness and peacefulness, a tenderness, and sensitivity that characterized the World Conference, actually began to bless us in the beginning day of the International Leaders Meeting. And that’s when I began to sense that a similar blessing would be coming to the World Conference. Many people have now verified that was the case.

As people dialogued with each other, there was this deeper or higher level of spiritual sensitivity—however you want to describe it—that became obvious, and it was working across cultures. People who spoke different languages, with the help of the translators, were understanding at a deeper level. We can only say that was the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our midst, preparing us to share the witness of the gospel with the world just as the scriptures promise.

After World Conference the International Leaders Meeting continued, and there were still a lot of questions: What do the decisions of the Conference mean? How will we live those out? So we continued to have Q&A, but the Spirit continued after the Conference.

And then in the multination groups we had a closing Communion service in the Temple Sanctuary. Same Spirit of peace, confidence in the future of the church, hope, people recommitting themselves.

The African and Haitian ministers…presided, they prayed, they provided direction, and…served the Communion to the whole group. When I saw that happening and realized…the depth and maturity of ministry that was being expressed…in terms of the emergence of these leaders, the Spirit witnessed to me that this is pleasing to God, and we should take joy in what was unfolding.

Linda: You know their preparation was combined with the preparation of the church for World Conference because we heard the testimonies and witness of many people whose congregations had gathered to pray for and to consider the words of counsel. But even at World Conference there was an infusion of opportunities for not only going deeper in spiritual practices, but also Spirit-filled worship. So what do you see God trying to do with us as a people? Are we learning the power of preparation, and discernment, and what it means to be in lifelong, whole stewardship?

Steve: I think so. And if I could just put it very bluntly, I think God is saying, “See, I told you so.” Because if you look back in multiple sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, there is this invitation from God, again saying if you will prepare yourselves through study and through spiritual discipline and openness, if you’ll come together in love with your eyes toward the purposes of the kingdom, there will be this outpouring of my Spirit, and it will be obvious.

And that’s exactly what happened at World Conference through the careful preparation around the discernment of Conditions of Membership, which included a heavy emphasis on spiritual practices, prayer, meditation, but also discussion and dialogue….

I think releasing the counsel to the church in January was in part made possible by the preparation of the people that had already occurred.

I think the key now is to learn from that and not stop doing it. It has to happen at every level of the church and…to continue to emphasize these kinds of practices and disciplines so that we will continue to enhance the spiritual condition of our faith community. I think we will be blessed as we continue to do that.

Linda: You’re talking about all levels, and I know leaders are committed to practicing daily spiritual-discernment practices. But where else do you see it individually, and how do you see that being played out in the church?

Steve: It always has to begin with the individual. Even though I felt I was prayerful prior to this kind of preparation for Conference, the process of preparation called me to explore some new spiritual disciplines and practices and to spend more time doing that. So we all have to start with ourselves first.

But I think it really is an area for congregations to begin to give more attention to. I think with a lot of the issues—the relational issues, maybe the tensions, sometimes sense of anxiety about the future or what I called “missional malaise”—we don’t know exactly what to do. Those issues would be addressed as we more spiritually root ourselves and deepen ourselves in the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ….

Linda: On Sunday night you presented a sermon, which was a high point for me personally, and I’ve heard many people talk about that. It was entitled, “We Share a Vision,” which, by the way, is printed in the May Herald and can be read or viewed on the church’s website.

It started with you reflecting and celebrating some milestones: for example, 25 years since the first women were ordained and 150 years ago the Conference of Reorganization, where Joseph Smith III accepted his call to be a prophetic leader of the new church movement. While the church focused briefly on the past, it really was more about moving forward in God’s mission. So, what is the unique interplay of our church’s heritage with God’s call for us today?

Steve: Well, it was a challenge and an opportunity at Conference to both be aware of and respectful of our heritage because we had reached a certain milestone. So the question is one that we wrestled with through our Conference preparation….

What I discovered was that our…history is a rich source of story and illustration that is not just an account of what happened in the past. It continues to guide us into the future because they are stories of faithfulness. They are stories of courage of being willing to risk in response to God’s call. Of being open to the new thing God is doing. Those stories come out of our heritage, and they are companions on our journey into the future.

I have a deep, deep appreciation for our history and heritage as a church, the whole history of the church. I remember my grandmother once walking me through a cemetery near the campground, Foundry Hill in Tennessee, where I grew up in the camping/reunion programs of the church.

I now refer to it as my Heritage Walk because my grandmother took me through the cemetery, and she pointed out the generations of my family who had been church members. She was instilling within me a sense of heritage and my place in it. But I also know she was pointing me to the future, and that was the interplay.
It was kind of like, “Now, what are you going to do as a faithful disciple and church member?”

When the actor portraying Joseph Smith III came on the rostrum Saturday night with the gavel that President Smith had used for so many years and handed it over to me, I was so overcome with a sense of appreciation for heritage, joy in the moment, and responsibility for the future of the movement.

When the portrayer of Joseph Smith III—who really looked like Joseph Smith III—said how pleased he was to see how the church had gone from a small, fairly loosely knit group to an international fellowship that spans the globe, I actually sensed the joy of our faith ancestors in the nature of the movement today.

I just wish more people could experience that aspect of what we are all about. It’s respectful toward heritage, but we’ve learned we don’t worship our history.
So as the saying goes, we have deep roots but also have wings. That’s the nature of this faith movement.

Linda: It is, and you keep referring to us as a movement, which means that it’s not static; it’s dynamic, it’s moving forward…and open to God’s lead.

Steve: And that’s the key.

Linda: Section 164 recognizes the baptismal covenant.… It really does move us forward in understanding in a very profound and perhaps a very life-changing way for us as a faith movement. So Section 164 recognizes the baptismal covenant of those who were baptized in Christ in other denominations, and it gives them the opportunity to live out their discipleship in this faith movement through the sacrament of confirmation. So, what do you believe will be the impact of this new understanding?

Steve: Well that’s a question I’m sure we’re going to continue to live as we go into the future because we may not be able to see all of the blessings and enrichments that will come to the church.

I think we are now at a place where we can have a strong, clear sense of identity. We can have a normative or standard understanding and practice of baptism in Community of Christ: baptism by immersion, full immersion by priesthood, the appropriate priesthood, and someone is at least 8 or older.

We can have a normative practice without categorically excluding the experiences of others and recognizing that God’s grace is not limited or confined to our understanding or practice, but our understanding and practice is very much within God’s will. We can actually do both, and that’s the witness of the Spirit.

There are people who have been waiting for this opportunity to affirm their original commitment, who feel called to express their discipleship in Community of Christ, and they will now move forward and make that fuller commitment to membership through confirmation, and we will receive their gifts. We will receive how they enrich the faith community and empower our mission.

So, that’s the initial impact that I see happening…and it will be a blessing to us. Now, people are going to hear me in the future continuing to emphasize that Section 164 is not just about how we relate to other baptized Christians. If we look at it carefully, it actually says perhaps our greatest concern should be, “are we living the meaning of our own baptism daily in our lives?”

The call is for each one of us to continue to grow in our understanding and meaning of baptism. All other sacraments of the church help us do that. So I see it as just an added enrichment to the church that says that we’re confident in who we are, but that doesn’t mean we have to deny the experiences of others.

Linda: At the World Conference’s overwhelming support of Section 164, the First Presidency made a decision that about 20 pieces of legislation related to human sexuality would not be considered by the delegates. So, indeed, paragraph 7 in Section 164 allows for field or national conferences, which provides a new way for the church in different places to address issues that are a priority there.

So, in the future that may mean that policies in one nation may be different than other nations. What will the impact of this new way of addressing issues and possibly setting different policies in different nations mean to us as a people?


Steve: Well, some of that remains to be seen, and I’m not going to try to predict what all it means. Here’s my perspective at this point. I believe as a result of the church’s approval and support of Doctrine and Covenants 164 that we have been blessed by some additional wisdom that’s very relevant to…today but will also continue to be relevant in the future, when we are dealing with issues that we cannot even begin to imagine today.

Section 164 basically says the World Conference needs to really focus on foundational principles that are understandable and operative throughout the world. And 164 gave some of those principles, and the World Conference did come to consensus around them.

Now those principles can guide church leaders, who are dealing with particular issues in particular cultural, and political, and social, and religious settings to figure out where the church is in its development.

Many (people) who could never even dream about coming to World Conference—much less get there—will have an opportunity to be involved in the discussions. And so that’s an even-better expression of the principle of common consent that we try to live out at the World Conference.

Secondly, the provision for national and field conferences allows creativity according to the condition of the church in various parts of the world. In some parts of the world there is much more experience with democratic, common consent, consensus-building processes. In other parts…there is no experience with that. People look to the village chief, the pastor, the elders to make those kinds of decisions.

So we have created opportunity and space for appropriate models of conferencing, reasoning, making decisions together to emerge in different parts of the world that will actually be better and healthier for those parts of the world.

So, that’s the excitement that I sense in terms of the provisions within Doctrine and Covenants 164.… It will be even-more important to be clear about what holds us together. And so we look again to the We Share document and look at our vision. We look at our mission.

The Enduring Principles are essential to that. They bind us together. Our church seal is a powerful, unifying symbol that is part of the life of the church throughout the world, especially our sacraments.… Our basic beliefs hold us together.

When I looked at the World Conference assembly this time, hundreds of delegate seats were vacant. That wasn’t because people didn’t want to be there. They desperately wanted to be there. They were not allowed visas by the US government to enter the country, so they were disenfranchised from the decision-making at World Conference. We have to find some new ways of balancing the prerogatives of the World Conference and involving as many people as possible in the decision-making. That’s what 164 provides for.… Fundamentally it is the Holy Spirit that binds all of this together.

Linda: Another powerful moment for many of us…was the introduction that you made to the Presiding Bishopric’s presentation of the budget. You talked about the challenges of funding an international church in mission. Could you please share again…how we are called to deepen our discipleship through the generosity of our lives?

Steve: That was a very personal statement for me. As I said, typically the Presiding Bishopric would provide commentary as we were introducing that legislation, budget projections, and so forth. But I felt a sense of urgency to speak…because I think this is an area where we are going to have to go deeper in our understanding.

Our generous response, our giving, our offering is how we most appropriately receive and respond to God’s grace within our lives. But is there a gap between what we profess and our habits, and attitudes, and the disciplines of our lives in terms of our giving that is critical to the future of the church?

There is no separation between being a disciple and being a steward who generously supports to one’s capacity, whatever that may be. In some parts of the world people have great capacity, and in other parts of the world people give their ground nuts, and their eggs, and their chickens. But they’re giving according to their capacity to support—and this is the key part—the local ministries of the church, congregationally and mission center, but also the worldwide ministries of the church.
So it is about budgets and funding. But if we stop there we miss the point, and we miss the meaning. God throughout the generations has given us the principle of tithing to help us to know how to respond to God’s grace and God’s gift in Jesus Christ. We have to get that into our minds and our hearts.

So, my statement was to say this is important. It’s important to me and my family. We will increase our ways of giving and our capacity for giving. I’m calling on the church to do that, calling on everyone at Conference to go back and be the voice for that. Because there is a direct link between our tithing contributions to local and world ministries and the ministry that we are able to provide, that God is calling us to provide.

So if people are giving generously out of growing capacity, the ministries of the church expand. If they are not, they contract, and that responsibility rests on all of us.
I also said it is now our clear expectation that the priesthood of the church…are expected to give to both local ministries and world ministries.

If there is not better response and broader response in the church, then the ministries contract. They don’t go away—we’ll continue to do what we can do—but they contract. So the services, the resources, the ministerial personnel, the missionary projects are all impacted by that. It’s a personal responsibility of how we understand discipleship.

It’s a spiritual issue. It’s not just a financial or budgeting issue; it’s a spiritual issue, and we’re going to have to do better.

Linda: In your sermon there were two questions that…challenged me each day. The two questions were: What kind of church do we really want to be? But more importantly this is the question that really haunts me: What kind of church does God want us to be? So, how will our answers impact our ability to respond to God’s call to join with God in mission?

Steve: Well, I’m glad it had that kind of impact.… For me, it’s really a third question: What is the degree of gap or alignment between the church we really want to be and the church God really wants us to be?

If that is becoming aligned—which I think it is—then I believe the experience that we are beginning to have is that we are becoming the Community of Christ that God is calling us to become. A community that reflects the passion of Christ, the message of Jesus Christ, the personality of Jesus Christ…a congregation that is experienced by others as the faces of Christ, if I could use that metaphor.

They encounter the Christ in that congregation, just like the early followers encountered Christ, who were in his actual presence. That’s the kind of alignment I’m talking about. And that will be a community of love, of reconciliation, of inclusiveness, of celebration of giftedness, of recognition of the sacredness of human lives and relationships.

As that community emerges, we will begin to understand the great passion that Christ had for proclaiming the coming reign of God in creation. The peaceable reign of God. The kingdom of God. The Zion of our hopes.

It is not a departure from the church we have been; it’s a fulfillment of the church we have been becoming all these generations.

The We Share document clearly articulates a vision of that in all of its different aspects.… The question is, do we have the courage and the faith to align our lives and the lives of our congregations with that vision?

Linda: Section 164 points us outward. It’s from us to others. Are we going to move forward in our divine call and the vision that God has given for this faith movement? So, where do you see God’s divine call and vision for the church leading us?

Steve: Well, I see it leading us into the fulfillment of the heart of the Restoration movement as I understand it. Because the Restoration movement is about recovering in each generation the clarity and passion of Christ and the first communities of disciples, the first communities of Christ, if you will.

They were noted for their generosity, their unity in their fellowship—even in the midst of very difficult issues that are comparable to the issues that we are dealing with today.

But that fellowship was also noted for its witness, its outreach. It was counter-cultural. That is, it stood out from the mainstream politically, socially, and culturally. And that’s what I see Community of Christ becoming.

But it’s nothing to be feared. I know there are voices of dissent who are trying to raise alarm. In Section 164 that’s what is partially referred to when it says “competing loyalties.”

Is our loyalty to God, or to the world and voices around us? We have to choose now. My hope is that we will choose our loyalty to God, who has been very clear in God’s calling to the church. As we move into the future it will be a time of greater joy, meaning, and fulfillment.

We caught a taste of that at World Conference. We learned that issues do not have to be the primary agenda. The mission of Jesus Christ is what matters most.… I think it’s more joy, more love, more hope, more healing, more reconciliation that awaits us in the future.