Sunday, December 14, 2008

Exploring The Controversy Surrounding The LDS Church's "Handbook Of Instructions"; It's Nothing More Than A Procedural Manual For Church Leaders

One of the issues generating significant grist for the propaganda mills of anti-Mormons is the "Handbook of Instructions", periodically published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Because physical distribution of this resource is limited to Latter-day Saints in leadership positions, and because the LDS Church has suppressed its indiscriminate online publication due to copyright issues, anti-Mormons seize upon this as an excuse to maliciously portray the Church as secretive and abusive. Anti-Mormon sites exploiting this issue included the LDSFreedom website, the ExMormon website, and the Utah Lighthouse Ministry.

The most recent mainstream media coverage of this issue was posted in May 2008 by the Mormon Times.

Just what is the Handbook of Instructions? Wikipedia provides an explanation. The Church's Handbook of Instructions is actually divided into two volumes. The church only distributes copies of the handbook to individuals that fill certain leadership callings within the church hierarchy.

Click HERE to view a 198-page truncated version of Part 1 of the 1999 Handbook of Instructions in PDF format. Perhaps the Church allows Wikileaks to continue hosting this version is that it is NOT the most current version (2006), and that all charts have been removed from it. Despite the limitations, it will still provide the reader with a good idea as to what this book is really all about - and there's nothing sinister, underhanded, or secretive about it.

Book 1 is subtitled "Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics". It's provided to stake presidencies, bishoprics, mission presidencies, district presidencies, and branch presidencies (presidencies/bishoprics are defined as the principal and his two counselors). Other officials receiving copies include members of a stake high council, temple presidents and their counselors, general authorities, area seventies, and church clerks and executive secretaries.

Topics addressed include guidelines involving general, area, and regional administration; stake administration; ward administration; interviewing and counseling; performance of ordinances; callings and releases; church meetings and worship services; temples and marriage; missionary service; church discipline; single adults and students; the Church Educational System; Perpetual Education Fund; military relations; records and reports; church finances; physical church facilities; creating and changing church congregations and other units; and general church policies on administrative, health, and moral issues.

Book 2 is subtitled "Priesthood and Auxiliary Leaders". It's provided to every quorum president and auxiliary organization leader at stake, ward, district, and branch levels, as well as most of the individuals who receive Book 1. Counselors to quorum or auxiliary presidencies and other members receive smaller booklets that excerpt only those portions of Book 2 relevant to their specific church position.

Topics addressed include guidelines involving the Melchizedek priesthood; the Aaronic priesthood and Young Men Organization; Relief Society; Young Women Organization; Primary; Sunday School; member missionary work; spiritual and temporal welfare; temple and family history work; church activities; church curriculum; printed church materials; meetinghouse libraries; music; and teaching in the church. Book 2 also contains some of the general church policites on administrative, health, and moral issues that are contained in Book 1.

In scanning through the Handbook, I found absolutely nothing than can be construed as sinister, underhanded, or secretive. It is exactly as advertised - a procedural manual for Church leaders - nothing more, and nothing less. However, I did learn a very interesting fact; namely, that the Church has more than one type of temple recommend. In addition to the standard Full Recommend, the LDS Church also offers Limited-Use Recommends. These are provided to "unendowed" Mormons (those who have not undergone the full endowment ceremony), allowing them to access a temple solely to perform proxy baptisms and confirmations for deceased individuals.

The significance of this discovery is in its potential further application. The LDS Church is experiencing a growing public relations problem by its refusal to allow non-Mormon guests and even "Jack Mormon" guests to witness the temple weddings of devout Mormons. The concept of the Limited-Use Recommend gives me an idea on how the Church can consider resolving this issue, which I will discuss at greater length in a future post.

Yet the LDS Church has pursued litigation against those who have published or who have hosted copies of the Handbook in the past. The most notable targets include the Utah Lighthouse Ministry, LDSFreedom, and Wikimedia. It appears, though, that copyright issues are not the only concern. Some are concerned that the Handbook could be exploited by anti-Mormons (which is already occurring). But one other concern expressed in a comment on Jeff Lindsay's Mormanity blog is the possibility that LDS members could use the Handbook to promote second-guessing of the leadership. Bishops probably don't want to deal with a constant bombardment of "you didn't do this quite right" or "that's not what the handbook says" when, in fact, they have the keys to tailor the policies to the situation and need.

These are valid concerns, and technically, the LDS Church should be held accountable to the same standard as other denominations in regards to the distribution of procedural manuals. However, the LDS Church has been preferentially targeted over its participation in the Yes On 8 campaign in California, and this has been used as a springboard by anti-Mormons for further misrepresentation and defamation of the Latter-day Saints. Consequently, some extra transparency may be in order to effectively combat the upsurge in anti-Mormon bigotry.

If the LDS Church doesn't want to post the latest version of the Handbook of Instructions online, that's defensible. But at the very least, the LDS Church should allow Wikileaks to keep hosting their dated copy of the Handbook of Instructions as "historical" reference material the public can use to combat anti-Mormon bigotry.

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