The 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, a regional synod of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, is now meeting in Salt Lake City. It is a city that in a real sense stands as a judgment upon the divided Church of which our synod claims to be a part. The inscription below Joseph Smith’s statue in Temple Square tells the story.
In the burned-over district of upstate New York, the fifteen-year-old Joseph Smith was much perplexed by the conflicting claims of the various churches. His little town, Palmyra, was in 1820 full of people crying out “‘Lo, here!’ and others, ‘Lo, there!’ Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist.”
Palmyra was full of converts to one church or another. But it seemed to young Joseph that when “the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued — priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.”
As he tells it, “the Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.”
This bothered young Joseph. “So great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.” And so, “in the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together?”
Near despair, Joseph reckoned that the only thing left to do was ask God for wisdom. He went out to a quiet place in the woods and knelt down to pray, to “inquire of the Lord … which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join.” As he tells the story, he then received a powerful vision from Christ himself, who said that he “must join none of them, for they were all wrong.” Joseph heard Christ say that “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”
So began the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — with a young man who saw all around him not the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” but instead “the confusion and strife among the different denominations,” people who used “all the powers of both reason and sophistry” to prove the errors of their opponents, “priest contending against priest” until “all their good feelings for one another” were “entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest of opinions.”
Does anything here sound familiar?
It made me wonder, jogging back to the hotel and the convention center after my early-morning run over to the temple. How will the neighbors here see us? When they look at us these next two weeks, will they see a witness to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that we claim with the very clothes we wear and the name we profess?
Or will they just see what Joseph Smith saw growing up in Palmyra, and thank God that the Lord has shown them a more excellent way?
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There are important tasks ahead of us as a church these next several days. There is the enormous task of restructuring and planning for mission in a shrinking church that everyone now knows and says out loud is faced with serious challenges. The doctrine of marriage is on the table, and there is probably no resolution that will not leave some people feeling abandoned by their church, and anxious that the church has been unfaithful to God. There are budgets to balance. There are any number of important issues to consider. And in all of this, we must choose someone to lead us through what may well be a difficult next nine years.
It matters what we do and what we say. It matters, because the gospel matters. People back home are praying for us: “for all who proclaim the Gospel, and all who seek the Truth.” We do not answer Joseph Smith’s judgment well if we leave to one side the truth for which the churches of his Palmyra contended.
But it also matters how we do what we do, and how we say what we say. Words can be sharp and full of conviction, but they need not be darts dipped in the poison of malice and attack.
We are a comprehensive church, or so we like to say. It seems clear that the limits of that comprehension will again be tested this convention, on the matter of marriage. Is there a way to proceed in one church that sacrifices neither truth nor charity?
There must be. For in Jesus Christ, we see that truth and charity are not opposed but united, in the piercing gaze of the One who looked at the rich young ruler and loved him, and then called him to turn his life upside-down (Mark 10:21). Whatever we will comprehend, this convention will only hold together if it finds its center in Christ.
May we bear witness to Christ and his Church amidst our neighbors in the city that Joseph Smith’s vision built. “Which of all the sects is right, that I might know which to join?”
“Join none of them.” Join none but the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.
The featured image of Joseph Smith, Jr., was uploaded to Flickr by Jacqueline Poggi. It is licensed under Creative Commons.