Monday, August 8, 2022

The General Handbook is not scripture…

The General Handbook refers to an instruction and reference manual originally published by the Church in 1899. The “Instructions” were revised and updated annually for the first decade of its publication. Subsequent editions were released as policies and procedures were added, modified, or discontinued.

Prior to
2020, distribution of the Handbook was limited to those in leadership positions within the Church and was not made readily available to the general membership. Its intended use has always been as a guide for Church leaders when implementing programs, policies, and procedures within the organization. Since the Church spans the entire globe, leaders are given the flexibility to adapt these guidelines as needed to accommodate local circumstances.

When only printed copies of the Handbook were issued to Church leaders, it was rarely a topic of discussion among the general membership. The limitations placed on its accessibility were not rooted in secrecy, nor are its contents considered “sacred”—at least not more so than the scriptures they might reference. However, the information and instructions it contained were certainly treated as confidential—to the degree that the Church has taken legal action against those who unilaterally made portions of it available to the public.

These actions have been viewed by critics of the Church—including some members—as evidence that the organization is secretive and vindictive toward anyone who would reveal its inner workings to outsiders. It should be noted that the legal action referenced above was not about the unlawful divulgence of confidential information nor a violation of any agreement of non-disclosure, expressed or implied. Having released sections of the Handbook on the internet without prior consent, the defendant was sued for copyright infringement.

There are always going to be those who argue that the specifics of the proceedings are irrelevant and that the fact that any legal action was taken at all “proves” that the Church has it out for anyone who would “betray” them. I am not interested in jumping down such speculative rabbit holes.

In 2020, the General Handbook was made available to all Church members and the public through the Church’s official website and its reference apps. The accessibility of the Handbook does not change its purpose as a tool for those called to be leaders in the Church. Nevertheless, since it has been made available to anyone that wishes to read it, I’ve observed that some members of the Church have been pouring over it, studying it—or, at least those topics they are most interested in—as if it’s a new volume of modern revelations. I’ve heard people referencing it in class discussions and even quoting selections from it in sacrament talks. Every time that I see this happen, I’m reminded of the phrase: Counsel is not commandment, opinion is not doctrine, and policy is not prophecy.

While it does contain administrative instructions, official policies, and guidelines regarding Church practices that are informed by scripture, the General Handbook itself is NOT modern scripture like the Doctrine & Covenants. While the most recent edition is publicly available, it is NOT listed among the Standard Works of the Church, which includes the Bible and the Book of Mormon e.g. it is NOT CANON—nor should it be treated as such.

When it comes to the Standard Works, the publication of new editions, which may include revisions to its formatting, punctuation, or text—including the correction of typographical errors and updating spellings—and especially the addition of new documents to the canon, do not happen very often. The same cannot be said of the General Handbook—more than two dozen editions have been published over the last century. Revisions have to be made periodically because programs, policies, and procedures are all subject to change.

Since the Church's restoration in 1830, programs have been implemented and discontinued. Procedures have been defined, revised, and discarded. Policies have been established, clarified, and rescinded. When viewed from the perspective of anyone tasked with the administration of a diverse group of people—even the membership of Christ’s Church—such changes are not only to be expected, they are inevitable. It is also possible that errors in judgment will result in systemic deficiencies that require corrections to be administered. Serious damage and harm can also occur, and amends must be made—preferably sooner than later.

Changes to Church policies and procedures—including those reflected in the General Handbookmay be the result of new revelation received by the General Authorities of the Church. However, they’re often simply the result of administrative necessity to accommodate geographic and demographic changes in the organization and its members, advances in technology, the establishment, amendment, and repeal of secular laws, and/or the need to address inevitable evolutions and fluctuations of societal and cultural norms. Whatever reasons that presage the need for such adjustments, revisions to the Handbook are only made when the General Authorities of the Church agree unanimously to enact them.

While it is generally understood that one’s stewardship should always be undertaken prayerfully and be informed by doctrine, members of the Church often forget that all Church leaders retain their free agency and are given a great deal of discretion and flexibility in how they conduct the affairs of the Church at all levels of the organization. This includes the freedom to experiment with different modes of operation to determine what policies and practices will best serve the membership in different areas and at different times in history. This flexibility also allows for the faults and weaknesses of the mortal souls called to be leaders, from those overseeing the smallest of classes, quorums, and congregations to the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. All are fallible. All can and do make mistakes—sometimes collectively. This alone does not invalidate their worthiness, nor does it preclude anyone from sustaining them in their callings.

The views and opinions expressed in this treatise are those of the author, Joseph L. Puente, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other individual or organization that may be named herein and is not intended to disregard, invalidate, or malign any community, ethnic group, religion, association, organization, company, or individual.

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