Popular Mormon blogger and podcaster Gina Colvin has been called in to face a disciplinary council in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Although the hearing will take place at 6:30 p.m. on December 20, that’s in New Zealand time; Utah Mormons can send a prayer Colvin’s way at 10:30 p.m. tonight Mountain Time.
Colvin herself won’t be attending, as she explains below. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I should add a personal note here that I am not a neutral observer; I have long appreciated Gina’s unique voice and courage. She has interviewed me on her podcast and I’ve had the privilege of meeting her in person a couple of times. She is bold and unflinching in not only naming injustices, but doing what she can to put them to rights. If the Church does excommunicate her tonight it will be the institution’s loss. — JKR
RNS: How are you feeling?
Colvin: I don’t know how I’m feeling. Anticipating a church discipline, I feel simultaneously saddened and enraged. I feel like saying, “How dare they? How dare they judge my life, which I feel has been a life of profound Christian practice and seeking, and turn it into something that’s sinful or unworthy?” It really bothers me out of principle.
How do I feel? I’m cross-hatched with a lot of feeling. Mostly I feel tired. To be honest, I try not to think about it much.
RNS: So I’m really not helping with that, by asking you to do this interview.
Colvin: Yeah, thanks, Jana!
RNS: Why do you think your bishop is doing this?
Colvin: I think he’s under direction from the stake president to do it, who assures me that he’s not under the direction of anyone else. I have to believe that because it’s what he affirms, even though I’m suspicious.
The trip wire was that I received a baptism in March and made that public. I think local leaders were willing to allow me some latitude, as long as the locus for my spiritual activity continued to be the LDS Church. The minute I took the locus of that authority away from the LDS priesthood, that tripped the wire and led to them assembling a dossier of charges against me.
I also think that local people had been complaining about me for years, and the stake president always felt that if there was some hope in my continued adherence he should hold off any action. But he understood this baptism as ending that possibility—that I was somehow ending my affiliation with the LDS Church.
But for me the baptism was never joining another church and going off in a different direction. As somebody who has been studying theology for a few years, I had a real desire to be a member of the larger body of Christ, which my LDS baptism does not allow me. In Protestantism, a baptism is a passport into many avenues of service and worship. At heart I am deeply ecumenical.
In the LDS Church I’ve been a Relief Society president, Young Women president, Primary president and Gospel Doctrine teacher, etc. I firmly believe that to give service is just part and parcel of Christian life. But in Mormonism I’m being made constantly to feel like a contaminant and my roles and status have been reduced. But, other communities have expressed a great desire to get me involved. They trust me and I just think, “Well, LDS Church, if you don’t want me, other people do.” Other communities have been profoundly embracing of me, which surprised me.
RNS: It doesn’t surprise me. You have a lot to give.
Colvin: For the last five years I’ve always hedged myself spiritually: the thing I do not want to lose is my desire to be a disciple of Jesus. I’ve been mentored by Baptists and Anglicans and Presbyterians. My spiritual director is a Roman Catholic Sister of Mercy. Everyone has been insightful and kind and they have never once raised a voice of criticism against the LDS Church. That’s the irony. In the LDS Church I’m criticized for my love for the Christian faith, but not the other way around.
In terms of my baptism, it was never supposed to be either-or. I made that very clear in May when the subject of my discipline was raised in a meeting with my bishop and stake president. I intended both things to sit closely together. I’m not going to give up this safe spiritual refuge where I’m not confronted on a weekly basis with the idolatry of the church and Russell Nelson.
RNS: Explain what you mean when you use the word idolatry.
Colvin: What I mean is that in Mormon worship services, it seems to be more important to affirm the truth of the church and the prophetic role of Russell Nelson than the gospel of Jesus Christ, properly exegeted. It almost feels like there’s prooftexting from scripture in order only to affirm Mormon truth claims.
I’m a theologian, not a dogmatician. Theology is a living, breathing, recontextualized conversation over time that we have with many others in the tradition. I don’t even know what to do with doctrine. Doctrines are not porous; they’re just dropped down on us from Salt Lake City. And we are asked to believe them because someone in higher authority believes them. That’s not about spiritual growth, that’s about slavish obedience. So, how do you deal with a tradition where the nature of God is explained to you, rather than something that you discern?
RNS: And what are you saying about Russell M. Nelson?
Colvin: As somebody who has long been concerned about spiritual abuse, the power posturing that has become such a feature of the Mormon faith is not spiritually forming; it’s spiritually diminishing. There’s far too much emphasis on authority and control and discipline rather than pastoral practices that allow for the people to feel spiritually free. This means that there’s always the possibility that a president might be seen as more spiritually important or even a substitute for Jesus Christ Himself.
Sometimes in our meetings “Jesus” and “the prophet” are used without distinction, in the same way that “The Gospel” and “The Church” are not differentiated. That to me is theologically and spiritually problematic.
RNS: You wrote on your blog that the person you’re most worried about in this is your husband, who is very committed to the idea of a temple marriage. The excommunication, if it happens, will dissolve your temple marriage and sealings to family members as well as remove you from the rolls of the Church.
Colvin: This is what Mormonism sets up, right? It sets up an eternal expectation of togetherness. And this has always meant a great deal to my husband. A lot of people ask me, “Why don’t you leave the church, and just leave it alone?” They might as well say, “Why don’t you leave your husband?”
My heart is here; my heart is in this church. I won’t resign because the membership means more than just me as an individual; it means me as a wife, as part of six generations of a family.
It is also very dear to me. It began my spiritual formation and drew me into a relationship with the Divine. I grew up in a church that seemed to foster our inquisitiveness, a tradition in which prophets and presidents and General Authorities were secondary to our godly conversations. Maybe that’s because I was raised a Mormon in Christchurch, New Zealand. I’m terribly disappointed in how spiritually small my church has become.
RNS: You’re not planning to attend the disciplinary hearing. Why not?
Colvin: I made that decision on principle that this isn’t my show. I don’t want to be interpolated and constructed as the subject. Because it’s not about me. It’s a patriarchal conversation where my worth and belonging is picked over by a group of men with a rule book.
Furthermore, when you’re a woman, all it takes to get excommunicated is that a bishop can have a knee-jerk reaction to a member of his ward. My bishop doesn’t know me; he’s from out of town. He has a knee-jerk reaction to the way I’m presenting myself. Before he even collected evidence, he was telling me that I was up for church discipline. Then he collected the evidence, and he’ll convene and preside and be jury at a church disciplinary council that he called. That is not the definition of a “council” if you have one man as investigator, judge, and jury. I can’t go on principle, because I can’t support it.
According to the Handbook I’m entitled to ask that my case be taken to the stake level, where the stake council would decide. But a man doesn’t have to do that; a man’s case goes to the stake automatically. So why should I have to petition for that?
RNS: If you’re not going to attend the hearing, what will you be doing instead?
Colvin: I’m having a group of friends over, because it’s Advent. So they’ll come by from my LDS tradition and my Anglican tradition. We’ll take the Eucharist together; there will be a priest there. So I’m having an ecumenical Eucharist! And afterward we will have an evening of intentional spiritual nonviolence—all of those good things about Advent that bring us joy and peace and love. And the word “Mormon” will not cross our lips.
RNS: Is it possible that your excommunication may not already be a foregone conclusion? That maybe the bishop will change his mind?
Colvin: The bishop has said on several occasions, “Don’t worry; it could be disfellowshipment.” I think he is concerned about Nathan [my husband]. But disfellowshipment is what you get when you have sinned and need space and time to repent before coming back. I have no intention of repenting, because I haven’t done anything wrong. So I would rather they excommunicate me entirely or just drop it.
I really hope they leave me alone. It would be so great if they left me alone.
RNS: How are your sons dealing with all this? [Colvin has six sons ranging in age from 12 to 25.]
Colvin: You can ask them; they’re home on break. Boys, do you want to come in and tell Jana what you think about my church discipline?
[Bedlam ensues, followed by a 14-year-old coming to the computer to say hello, and another son just off camera.]
Colvin, to son: Do we talk about it much?
Son #1: No. Only you and your friends on Skype . . . but it’s kinda unfair.
Son #2: It’s sad.
Colvin: We don’t really talk about it much with the kids, actually. [The kids head off.]
Excommunication is a horrible thing to have hanging over you. It’s so barbaric. I think a lot of Mormons console themselves that at least the Catholics still have excommunication, but Catholic excommunication is nothing like this.
I mean, I’m not surprised this is happening. When I started this gig as a blogger and podcaster, I knew the deal going in that excommunication could happen. But it’s spiritually immature and theologically shallow. It shows the LDS Church’s issues in dealing with distance and doubt. Excommunication is just an indication of an overblown autocracy and patriarchy and the vagaries of an unformed lay ministry.
High-profile excommunications may harm Mormon retention rates in the long run