When I converted to Christianity about 15 years ago my dear, late Mother was not impressed. An avowed agnostic, (if perennial fence sitters can be said to be ‘avowed’ in anything) her very first words upon my telling her were: “Really? I thought you were more intelligent than that.” Can you hear the dismissive sniff at the beginning of that sentence? So did I.
That sentence stung me, and has stayed with me ever since; a reminder that doubt, uncertainty and questioning of faith are to be welcomed and not feared. I found myself a church that encouraged me to think rather than just emote, and I have stayed there ever since.
As an aside, I suspect it is easier to be secular, agnostic, atheist, and/ or anti-theist in a country that is now predominantly a combination of all of those things (if religious affiliation figures from the 2013 Census are anything to go by. Churchgoing hails, it seems, from the province of the quaint, the sphere of the irrelevant. In some ways I also think it is easier not to be Christian and Māori (outside of Māori faith communities), when many Māori now see rejection of the Christian message as concomitant with the revisioning and rediscovery of mātauranga Māori. Christianity has become symbolic of the oppression of Māori culture and ways of doing things. a 19% drop in Māori identifying as Christian since 2001 supports, if not proves this observation.
Nevertheless there is one religion where Māori figure very prominently; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, or “Mormons”). Although I can find no figures on the 2013 census, 50% of self-identified Mormons in the 2006 census were Māori. Indeed the Māori identity of the Church is sometimes seen as something of a hindrance to Church expansion:
The Church continues to experience challenges converting Anglo New Zealanders due to lower receptivity incurred by secularism, materialism, and disinterest in organized religion. Public perception that the Church is a predominately Maori and Pacific Islander institution has appeared to also reduce receptivity among white New Zealanders.
I had direct experience of the Church’s appeal in my own life. As an 8 year old growing up in an irreligious household, I looked for other people outside my own home who seemed to sense a God presence in the way I did. I built a relationship with a family whose house I used to pass every day on the way to school. I just started talking to their whāngai son, a boy of my own age, and then I started talking to the rest of the family, and then one day I ended up in their station-wagon on the way to their church, the Church of Latter-Day Saints. I kept going to church with them for the next 8 years. As a result the missionaries became a regular feature at our house. Mum would let them meet with me and teach me, and they would dub me on their 10-speeds up and down the drive and play basketball with me. They introduced me to Air Supply (the 80s, OK?). And they listened to me. And I loved them.
But I knew they had a mission to compete: to get me baptised. My mother was resolute: no baptism until I was 16. That was the age she believed I would know my own mind well enough to make that kind of decision. I knew better of course, and so did the Elders. You see, 8 has always been the age of accountability in Mormonism. That is when children are deemed to know right from wrong, and when they are able to choose the right or wrong path in life. I went to many baptisms, many Testimony Sundays, and while I was always accepted and tolerated I knew I was only ever what the Church calls ‘an investigator’; someone checking out the wares; not willing or not able to commit. Until I baptised I was only partly there, partly integrated. Eventually I drifted away, and by the time I attained the magical age of 16 I no longer cared for the Church, although the cadences of LDS prayer, the hymns, some of the theology, and my sense of deference to male authority figures stayed with me a long, long time. I remain comfortable in Mormon environments, and I married a returned Missionary (now excommunicated). Every so often we have knocks on the door and we invite the elders or sisters in for kai. It’s not hard.
So, Māori Mormonism is a force to be reckoned with, and thousands of Māori turned to LDS teachings in the 19th century, partly because of its focus on Old Testament teaching and a claim that Māori were descendants of the lost tribe of Israel, or as the descendants of the Mormon prophet Lehi, and partly because of the efforts of missionaries such as Matthew Crowley in the 1880s. Sometimes, Māori were just hacked off at how they had been treated by Anglicans and Catholics, and turned to Mormonism instead. See here for an explanation of those particular connections. Or if you would prefer something a little more scholarly, try here.
My residual fondness for Mormons and the LDS church has made all the more appalling the item I read in the newspaper today. The Church has issued new rules on how to deal with LGBT members, and their children. Given Māori membership of the church, these new rules are likely to affect Māori disproportionately. Here is a taste:
The new rules stipulate that children of parents in gay or lesbian relationships, be it marriage or just living together can no longer receive blessings as infants, be baptised when they are about 8 years old, or serve mission as young adults unless they:
- Disavow the practice of same-sex relationships.
- Turn 18 and no longer live with gay parents.
- Get approval from their local leader and the highest leaders at church headquarters in Salt Lake City.
The church views these key milestones as acts that bind a person to the faith and as promises to follow its doctrine.
Just to be clear, now being LGTB is also grounds for excommunication.
Now, lest I be accused of being a pot calling a kettle inky, I belong to a church that does not (yet) endorse same-sex marriage throughout the Anglican Communion, and in view of the enormous schism such support would cause between the African Church and the rest of Anglicanism, that situation will likely remain for a while. I’m open to that charge of hypocrisy. But there has never been such an edict against children that I am aware of in my church, and I’m not sure there ever would be.
I cannot emphasise how much of a cultural death sentence this is for Mormon children of LGBT parents. They are being effectively excluded from the rituals of belonging that punctuate every young Mormon person’s life. Without baptism, Mormon children can’t take sacrament (communion). The young boys cannot receive the Aaronic priesthood at age 12 that allow them to be deacons in the Church. These kids cannot participate fully in the life of the Church and they cannot work towards the high goal of so many young Mormons: serving a mission. Well, they can, provided they disown their LGBT parents. Now, there’s a choice.
And what about the parents of LGTB kids and their communities of faith? Well, those kids are now apostates, if, of course, they admit their sexualities.
One of the most successful aspects of the Church is its ability to create a culture that is attractive and that its people, particularly Māori in this country, seem to want to be part of. Like Catholics, Mormons understand the importance and unificatory power of being culturally, as well as religiously, Mormon.
So this edict is no mere technicality; it is cultural and spiritual exclusion of the highest order for people that are the least equipped to fight or mitigate it: children. I well remember singing this song at church…
I am a Child of God
and He has sent me here
has given me an Earthly home with parents kind and dear.
When I was kid in the Church I always knew I was a Child of God. Because I could get baptised some day. Maybe even soon. Even me, an investigator with an recalcitrant mother. I was worth baptising. Now some kids, likely Māori, will know they are not.