New 'ministerial' church handbook clarifies transgender guidelines, excommunication

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SALT LAKE CITY — A new handbook for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues the organization's move to a more adaptable, "ministerial voice," combines two older guideline manuals, and details several changes.

These include clarification for members who identify as transgender, as well as updates to "key terminology," such as how excommunication is labeled.

The new handbook takes a 'ministerial,' global approach

The church announced earlier this year that it would release a general handbook that would replace two other manuals that provided administration guidelines for leaders in the church. One of the two handbooks was previously only accessible to stake presidencies and bishoprics — top leaders of local congregations.

The new handbook is now public because top leaders in the church “determined that all members may benefit from having access to this information,” according to an FAQ on the new handbook — both of which are available in the church’s Gospel Library App under the section “Handbooks and Callings" and online on the church's website.

"If you look at the evolution of the handbook over the last hundred years, it's been evolving from administrative procedures to a more ministerial voice,” Elder Anthony Perkins, executive director of the church’s correlation department, which oversees the creation of the handbook, said in a news release.

“What we mean by that is previous handbooks had been sort of designed for large units — let’s say Alpine, Utah — and we need a handbook that can be applied even in the smallest units.”

The handbook "will be updated regularly to give it requisite flexibility to help thousands of leaders around the world adapt the church’s various programs, policies and procedures to their circumstances with loving, pastoral care," according to a statement from the church.

Many Latter-day Saint congregations around the world lack the resources to operate some programs found in larger congregations, and "previous handbooks were written with larger units as a primary audience, often causing challenges for leaders of units with fewer resources,” the church explained. The new general handbook “reverses that approach.”

Nine of the 38 chapters have been completely rewritten, and one section of another chapter has been updated. These changes include chapters on subjects like “God's plan and your role in the work of salvation and exaltation” and “repentance and church membership councils.” The new handbook also includes recent updates to policy, like guidelines for baptism of children of LGBT and polygamous parents.

Other chapters will continue to be updated as they are finished. All 38 will be reworked by 2021.

The new handbook clarifies guidelines for transgender individuals

The handbook also includes a new section on transgender individuals. It emphasizes that people who identify as transgender should be treated with “sensitivity, kindness, compassion and Christlike love.” The handbook does clarify, however, that while most church participation is gender-neutral, some roles and ordinances are gender-specific.

“Priesthood ordination and temple ordinances are received according to birth sex,” the FAQ reads. “(The new section) provides guidelines for when members who identify as transgender may or may not receive these ordinances. It encourages church participation for those who identify as transgender.”

Only men in the church are ordained to the priesthood — what faithful members believe to be the power and authority to act in the name of God — and those with the priesthood are the only members who perform certain ordinances, or rituals, in the church. The handbook also clarifies the role both women and men play in carrying out duties of the priesthood.

"All Latter-day Saints, regardless of their gender or Church assignment, exercise delegated priesthood authority when they are given formal service opportunities in their congregations," the church's statement reads.

However, an individual who has completed sex reassignment through "elective medical or surgical intervention requires the approval of the First Presidency" to be baptized, the handbook reads.

"A person who is considering elective medical or surgical intervention for the purpose of attempting to transition to the opposite gender of his or her birth sex may not be baptized," it adds.

The update acknowledges, however, that people "experience feelings of incongruence between their biological sex and their gender identity," though the church does not take a position on the causes of people identifying as transgender, the handbook reads.

Members who choose to undergo sex reassignment, however, may be subject to "membership restrictions." Those who undergo hormone therapy but who are not trying to transition to another gender are "worthy" to receive church assignments and other responsibilities.

In connection with the updated content on transgender individuals, the church's Mormon and Gay website has moved to a new URL that is housed under the church's website. It is detailed as "same-sex attraction" and no longer uses the word "gay," except in the URL.

The new handbook changes terminology related to excommunication

A section of the updated handbook changes some “key terminology" and guides leaders "in a more sequential way" through decisions and actions they must take to "help people repent of serious sin."

“Disciplinary councils are now called ‘membership councils.’ As before, these councils are an expression of love, hope and concern, designed to help Latter-day Saints through their repentance process. Also, instead of being ‘disfellowshipped,’ members are given ‘formal membership restrictions.’ And excommunication is now labeled a ‘withdrawal of membership,’” a news release from the church reads.

The church hopes these changes help leaders through the process and demonstrate that church leaders "understand that when we make a mistake in our life, the Lord is always extending His arms of mercy," Sister Reyna Aburto, of the Relief Society General Presidency, said in the news release.

BYU removes section on 'homosexual behavior' from Honor Code

In conjunction with the handbook update, Brigham Young University also updated its Honor Code to "be in alignment with the doctrine and policies of the church," a news release from the school reads.

The school removed the section on "homosexual behavior" from the code, which stated that "homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code." While "same-gender attraction" is not an Honor Code violation, all forms of physical intimacy "that give expression to homosexual feelings" are, the old code read.

The Honor Code now requires students to abstain "from any sexual relations outside a marriage between a man and a woman," among other requirements that existed before the change.

After the update, students took to social media, wondering if dating members of the same sex was now no longer a violation of the Honor Code since the code only detailed "sexual relations" outside a marriage between a man and woman. The school responded later in the day, on Twitter, saying that there may have been some miscommunication as to what the Honor Code changes mean.

"Even though we have removed the more prescriptive language, the principles of the Honor Code remain the same," the tweet reads. "The Honor Code Office will handle questions that arise on a case by case basis. For example, since dating means different things to different people, the Honor Code Office will work with students individually."

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