SALT LAKE CITY — Not everyone who tunes into the twice-yearly conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a faithful member of the church.
Some who watch – and take copious notes – are among a group of mostly excommunicated Mormons who meet annually to critique what they hear from church leaders.
“It’s not meant to be totally negative, but to talk about what the talks mean, how they fit into the church structure and how it relates to the overall church message,” said Janice Merrill Allred of the Mormon Alliance, which hosts the critique in a meeting room at the Salt Lake City library.
Mormons gather in the spring and fall for two days of faith-promoting speeches from church President Gordon B. Hinckley and others. Held at the church’s downtown conference center, more than 100,000 members attend the proceedings in person, while the rest of the 12.5 million church members can listen to television, radio or Internet broadcasts.
Many critique participants arrive for the discussion with pages of notes and observations on everything from the “syrupy” tones of voice and “unnatural” facial expressions of speakers to which church elders spoke on what topics. They closely monitor how speeches are correlated to the faith’s central text, the Book of Mormon, or to pronouncements from the church’s upper tier of leadership, known as the First Presidency.
They look for overall themes, trends in the message and even look for expressions or phrases not heard before. “Gender confusion,” for example, was referred to more than once in speeches last weekend, raising questions about whether church is taking some new approach to talking about homosexuality and other gender issues.
“We could spend a lot of time wondering about what’s going on in their heads,” said Lavina Fielding Anderson, another alliance member who, like Allred, was excommunicated years ago.
It might seem odd that those who have been forced out of the church or who have fallen away would listen intently to leaders whom they question. But Mormonism, like many other faiths, has a strong cultural aspect to its practice.
“It’s in your blood, it’s in your DNA,” said an 81-year-old review participant, who didn’t want her name published for fear of offending her Mormon family.
The critiques began in the mid-1990s, not long after the alliance was formed in July 1992 to assist church members who feel their status in the church has been threatened. The alliance hopes to foster better conversations between church leaders and members, especially in instances where disciplinary action is taken.
The alliance is not recognized or sanctioned by the church, and church spokeswoman Kim Farah declined to comment on the group Wednesday.
Early critiques featured a panel of four that gave presentations and answered questions. Over the years, it’s become a more informal discussion group facilitated by Allred or Anderson.
The number of participants fluctuates each time, with a core group of up to a dozen who attend regularly. Not all have been excommunicated. Some are active church members, while other describe themselves as believing Mormons who no longer want to attend church.
What they seem to share is a deep love of the doctrine and history, mixed with an intellectual curiosity that compels them to question church leaders.
“There is a tradition in the Mormon church that you can worship with your mind,” said Anderson. “There’s been some veering away from that, but the spiritual satisfaction of good scholarship and analytical thinking may be what the conference critique is keeping alive.”
Longtime critique participant Paul Swenson, a freelance journalist and part-time journalism instructor, said the event is not what some might expect.
“What’s amazing to me is that it it’s not just a gripe session, it’s some really serious discussion about what is meaningful to people and what they’ve identified with during conference,” Swenson said. “It’s actually a form of worship.”
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