On a recent Friday at the University of Utah, a group of Mormons met to talk about pornography. Down the hall, another group was exploring resurrections and the spirit world as described in LDS scripture, while in yet other rooms, people discussed the role of LGBT people within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the taboo subject of Heavenly Mother.
No, it’s definitely not General Conference. The Sunstone Symposium began in 1979 as an independent, open forum for the discussion of Mormonism. Over the years, it has been one of the most diverse conferences on Mormonism, with speakers from Brigham Young University, fundamentalist and polygamous groups, the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), thinkers excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, non-Mormon scholars, and intellectually and spiritually curious Mormons from various traditions, all exchanging ideas about the religious movement started in 1830 by Joseph Smith.
The 2013 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium, held July 31 through Aug. 3, focused on “Mormon Bodies: Literal, Metaphorical, Doctrinal.” A City Weekly reporter attended Sunstone over three days, looking at key issues that emerged in the conference, including diverse ideas about Mormon women, LGBT Mormons, pornography and naked bodies, and the church itself.
According to lawyer Kate Kelly, a panelist in the Ordain Women session, the church has reached “peak patriarchy,” meaning it’s no longer viable for men to have authority over women and make decisions for the entire body of the church. Kelly, who created OrdainWomen.org, also announced that supporters of women’s ordination to the priesthood plan to attend the October 2013 Priesthood General Conference session, currently limited to men only.
Another panel discussed the opposing views held by the church, on the one hand, that men and women have separate, complementary and equally important roles; and the more radical, activist view on the other that women need and deserve ordination to the priesthood.
Neylan McBaine, founder of The Mormon Women Project, said that the problem isn’t that women don’t have the priesthood. “Mormon women have a crisis of purpose, not power,” she said, adding, “With purpose comes a sense of responsibility and a sense of belonging that is not being tapped into now.”
She said that blame for women’s unhappiness cannot be placed on the church’s power structure but on the women in it. Women in the church aren’t doing enough good works, she said, or adequately soliciting the opinions and advice of their male leaders on how to run the Relief Society.
The December 2012 Wear Pants to Church Day was discussed in several sessions. Historian Tamara Taysom said that with Pants Day, “Active LDS women challenged the power structure of the church by changing their clothes” and thereby “appointed themselves as agents of social change instead of social preservation,” the role usually reserved for them.
Talking about responses to any protest over gender, prominent LDS feminist Margaret Toscano said that because the church seems benign compared to, say, the Taliban, “it’s easy to feel that critiques of the church are exaggerations.”
Ellen Decoo, who is writing a master’s thesis at BYU on changing attitudes toward gays and lesbians, noted that there were fewer LGBT sessions this year than 2012, when the theme focused on Mormonism and political issues and both Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act had not yet been struck down by the Supreme Court.
The film Families Are Forever—about one family learning that their adolescent son is gay and coming to terms with this fact within their extended family, community and church—was screened Wednesday night, the first night of the symposium. The film was followed by a panel discussion of the issues the film explores.
But that session and others “lacked any call for radical change and activism, which was especially noticeable when contrasted with the many sessions discussing women’s ordination,” Decoo says.
Pornography & The Body
In “What’s the Big Deal With Porn-ography?” presenters Jeremy Irvin and Kimberly McKay, both psychology graduate students, explored the difficulty of defining pornography and suggested that that may be one reason the church almost never does define pornography and instead merely condemns it as evil.
This ambiguity can leave people unsure about whether they’ve actually viewed porn, Irvin and McKay said, and fails to acknowledge the gradations of pornography, some of which can be part of healthy sexuality.
The definition problem was also explored in a session about nude photography. Photographers Katrina Anderson and Paul McMullin defended their work as both art and spiritually meaningful explorations of humanity. “Nude art is the way I have come to understand and have compassion for others,” said McMullin, whose Humanity Project can be found at McMullinPhoto.AllYou.net.
Anderson said that she began MormonWomenBare.com in response to increasingly rigid and shaming statements about female modesty. Not only are young women criticized by Elder Dallin H. Oaks as “walking pornography,” but very young girls are told they cannot expose their shoulders without being immodest.
Anderson said that her work is not primarily for men but for women: “To see that other women are not perfect and yet are absolutely stunning is immensely affirming.”
Several sessions also explored issues of belief and activity in the LDS Church. Amber Price recently conducted a study that determined that as people learn more about Joseph Smith and the church’s history—especially the “uncorrelated” parts that aren’t part of official church history—their belief in church teachings declines, along with their participation.
The yearly session “Why We Stay” features, according to the program, “the stories of those who have chosen to remain active, dedicated Latter-day Saints even in the face of challenges to traditional faith.” But this year, only two of the five panelists were conventionally active Latter-day Saints.
One panelist, Jana Riess, who writes about Mormonism at Blog.Beliefnet.com/FlunkingSainthood, acknowledged tearfully that she cannot in good conscience pay tithing, which means that she cannot hold a temple recommend. She still pays 10 percent of her income to the church, but as a “fast offering,” which goes to feed the hungry, not to general funds supporting church operations. She said her decision was largely in response to the church’s support of Proposition 8 and its construction of City Creek Center.
Another session asked, “Is There a Faith Crisis in Contemporary Mormonism?” Robert A. Rees, who teaches Mormon studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., argued in his position as moderator of the panel that the crisis is not one of faith but of reason.
“Many of those who experience a crisis of faith are guilty of reactive rather than projective thinking,” reacting to perceived inaccuracies or discrepancies with fact in church teachings, he said, rather than leaving themselves open to imaginative spiritual thought.
But Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, who holds a doctorate in counseling psychology, said that a faith crisis within the context of an intellectually and hierarchically rigid institution forces people to choose between their own integrity and membership in the group.
Others who encounter someone in a faith crisis often “can’t imagine empathizing with dissenters and retaining their faith,” Finlayson-Fife said. “If we are in the business of creating mature, spiritually grounded people, we have to confront truth.”