Note: This post has been updated with a report on the First Presidency's press conference and answers to questions about women in the Church, LGBT issues, and diversity among top leaders; scroll to the end for more on that.
It’s a new era for the LDS Church, which announced this morning that Russell M. Nelson, 93, has been set apart to be the president of the nearly sixteen-million-member denomination.
This change in leadership was completely expected, as Mormon tradition dictates that the most senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve always assumes the mantle of the prophet. The former leader, Thomas S. Monson, passed away on January 2.
The news that everyone was waiting for was the identity of Nelson’s two chosen counselors in the LDS First Presidency. These counselors assist the president in running the church and can have a profound influence on its direction.
Those choices were not terribly surprising, either, but will be met with appreciation on the part of many Latter-day Saints. The First Counselor will be Dallin H. Oaks, 85, who like Pres. Nelson was ordained an apostle in 1984. Oaks is next in line to lead the denomination after the death of President Nelson.
The Second Counselor will be Henry B. Eyring, 84, who has served in the First Presidency twice before, most recently under President Monson.
So the announcement reflected both continuity and change: Eyring can offer continuity with past First Presidencies, while Oaks represents a bridge to the future.
What was most historic about the announcement, in fact, was not the choice of the counselors but the fact that it was broadcast live to the entire membership of the Church—a first in Mormon history when counselor selections have been decided—and that it took nearly two weeks for the new president to be set apart.
According to the Deseret News, that is the longest “apostolic interregnum” since 1889. During these two weeks, the Quorum of the Twelve has continued to run the Church, and incoming President Nelson has been signing all new mission calls so that prospective missionaries would not have to wait.
It was also interesting that Pres. Nelson chose to broadcast the announcement from the annex of the Salt Lake City temple, especially since his brief remarks to the faithful focused heavily on the importance of temples. “The ordinances of the temple and the covenants you made there are key to strengthening your life . . . and your ability to resist the attacks of the adversary,” he told his listeners.
He also indirectly addressed the issue of people who have chosen to leave the Church or otherwise drifted away from its teachings. “Whatever your concerns, whatever your challenges, there’s a place for you,” he said. “Return to the covenant path.”
Updated Tuesday afternoon following the LDS press conference:
At the subsequent press conference, President Nelson fielded some pre-selected questions from journalists, and enjoyed acknolwedging the several reporters he knew personally. Their questions were not all softball ones, despite these existing relationships. For example, Tad Walch of the Deseret News asked what the Church is doing to speak to Millennials, a third of whom do not affiliate with a religious group.
In response, Nelson emphasized the fundamentals: "The best way I know is to help them to understand what it really means when we sing and say “'I am a child of God.'” Eyring, also responding to this question, acknowledged that while "you read a lot in the press" that Millennials as a generation are more doubting, that's not what he sees when he meets with young LDS missionaries. "There’s a power in this generation, and greater faith than I can remember," he said.
Oaks added that "this is a time to say a word for marriage," since young men and women who marry "are a companionship that the Lord has ordained." When they are together in that capacity, "many of the things the world cites as the problems with Millennials disappear."
The fundamentals were also on display in response to another question, from Brady McCombs of the AP, who asked how the Church plans to address LGBT issues going forward.
Nelson's immediate response was to advance the idea that "“God loves his children, and he wants them to have joy." Oaks followed up on this by noting that there is a balance between "the love of the Lord and the law of the Lord," and that God "has given us a plan" for how individuals can receive the highest blessings. The subtext of both men's remarks, though not stated outright, seemed to be a reiteration of the Church's position that homosexual behavior is in violation of God's commandments, but that all people are loved.
Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune asked the men what they planned to do going forward to implement more diversity in the all-white, all-male leadership of the Church.
Nelson indicated on the one hand that the Church's leadership is not intended to be a representative democracy: "The Twelve and the Seventy are not a representative assembly of any kind." That would be impossible, he said, given that the Church exists in 188 countries. "God’s ways are not man’s ways," he emphasized.
On the other hand, he also said that "we’ll live to see the day when there will be other flavors in the mix," referring to the diversity of the Church's top leaders. He pointed out that there is greater racial and ethnic diversity among the Quorum of the Seventy than there is among the apostles.
"What about women?" Stack pressed on, since the gender part of her question had not been answered.
The leaders' primary response to this question was to focus on the tremendous good that women accomplish as mothers. Nelson credited his first wife with raising their nine daughters to become women who are "strong in faith, strong in capacity." He also stated that women's voices are important in the councils of the Church. He did not address the issue of women's ordination or other leadership roles, beyond them offering opinions in some of the Church's council meetings.
Other questions focused on specific issues pertaining to the LDS Church in Mexico and Brazil, the rising tide of apostasy, and how Nelson plans to engage with young people, given his age.
"I think you were saying, in essence: how can the youth follow an old man?" Nelson joked after being asked how he would relate with them. He then replied that his age was a great advantage in giving him leadership experience in helping to direct the Church, and that "a well-educated person never stops learning."
The mood of the press conference was upbeat on the part of the leaders, who seemed to enjoy taking questions. That in itself is a move forward, as this has not occurred much since the days of President Hinckley. However, it's unlikely that the new First Presidency's responses on questions about women, minorities, LGBT Saints, and disaffiliation among young adults will be very satisfactory to Mormons who have ongoing questions about those issues. These will be issues to watch in the months going forward, as the new First Presidency defines its mission and eventual legacy.