Mormonism’s Three Churches

Many discussions about Mormonism are frustrating to me because of the vagueness of the phrase “The Church.” I think there are at least three ways that “The Church” is used, which overlap and intersect, but also have distinct qualities and features. I’m focusing on different bodies of people can be understood to be “The Church” rather than some of the other ways that the phrase is used to refer to the culture and teachings and ideologies of those bodies. That is also a necessary discussion, but to me is more tied to the ongoing and, for me, rarely productive conversation surrounding the definition of “doctrine”

All that said, here are the three ways that I think of The Church being used:

C1: The Institution

C2: Local Congregation

C3: Family and Friends

Each of these groups has equal claim to being The Church and they undoubtedly are intertwined and influence one another. Without C1, you cannot have C2 or C3 (at least within Mormonism, as reflections of Mormonism). By the same token, without C2s and C3s, there is no C1. For the Institution to perpetuate, local congregations, families, and friends must continue to affiliate.

The ways in which these Three Churches interact with and influence one another are likely not unique to Mormonism. I suspect that every organized religion has some variation on these Three Churches. Even political parties and any other organization that has a national or other broad level of authority along with more local groups will bear some of the marks of what I’m looking at. (When I floated this idea in a very stripped down form on twitter, a friend remarked that I was channeling Charles Taylor. This was unintentional, but since I read his A Secular Age last year, he’s been bouncing around my head, so it’s likely inevitable. I hope I can make my case here with a tad more concision than he made his, but time will tell.)

C1: The Institution

The Institution of the Church could likely be made even more precise, given the large bureaucratic apparatus that exists in SLC and surrounding areas. But, that’s for another time. I tend to think of the Institution as Church headquarters, so the Church Office Building, the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the Auxiliary presidencies. This group has the largest consolidation of power in most traditional senses. They create the manuals and give the talks in General Conference and are the public face of the Church.

The Institution is responsible for any sense of doctrinal purity (however fruitless that errand ultimately is). The Institution is responsible for shaping the broad strokes of the narrative of my Mormon experience. In many ways, I cannot exist as a Mormon, that attends Church, without being touched by their influence. They determine what is in the manuals that are used in Sunday School and other general guidelines for what occurs on a weekly basis (and to some extent on other days throughout the week). The Institution determines in broad strokes what offenses should be met with which punishments.

The Institution also must compete with the spectre of its past. The Institution has existed in some form or another since 1830 (or the dawn of time depending on how you interpret teachings of The Restoration). The Institution then is constantly haunted by what has been said and done by every other previous manifestation of The Institution. The Spectre of the Institution is used in a number of different ways by people all along the ideological spectrum and perhaps it’s this spectre that motivates some of The Institution’s behavior (also I think it was David Holland that argued that Prophetic Authority is actually the weakest line of authority within a Mormon theological construct, as compared to personal revelation/the Holy Ghost and scripture, which may be why The Institution emphasizes it more than the others, to rhetorically even the scales).

Anyway. I am least interested in and least moved by The Church as The Institution.  

C2: My Local Congregation

The primary way that I think about The Church is as my local congregation, the people that I worship with every Sunday. This is where most of my lived experience as a Mormon takes place. This is where I participate in rituals and church services, this is where I serve, these are the people I see and wrestle with in the Gospel.

I have largely had very positive interactions with my various local congregations (all over Provo, Washington, D.C., London, northern England, and even to some extent Lithuania). In most of those places (Lithuania being the exception), I have been open about my experiences with faith and doubt and how I believe that doubt is essential to faith and that questions are good, that I don’t “know” things, but I “believe” them, and a number of related, semi-fringey positions. Without exception, I have people come up to me (often surprising people) and thank me for sharing my thoughts and remarking that they resonated with what I said. I have never been censured or called out (well, except once perhaps during an EQ lesson I taught with my brother about Race and the Priesthood).

All of that is to say that my experience has been very good in my local congregations. Not that I go purely to change hearts and minds. I go because they are my people, my spiritual community. I don’t feel complete in my worship without them. I learn from them, even when I disagree. I learn by being in fellowship with them.

Obviously, the local congregation is influenced by The Institution. But it’s also quite different. Even with somewhat standardized lesson materials and topics, the content and tone of those lessons varies widely. Someone’s experience with The Church as a local congregation may be radically different than their experience with the Church as The Institution.

For example, I think The Family: A Proclamation to the World is a, to put it lightly, problematic document that reflects and embodies certain sexist and homophobic ideas. The Family Proclamation is almost definitely a part of The Institution, and at least is frequently referenced by members of The Institution. However, I could go months in my ward without hearing people talk about it, which makes those two Churches quite different in relationship to categories of sexism and homophobia (though both are present at both levels, at least implicitly given structural considerations).

C3: My Family and Friends

I am Mormon, I was raised Mormon, and have lived my life up to this point surrounded by Mormons. The C3 Church helps to account for this group of people. Practically my entire family for generations, including my in-laws and their family for generations, is Mormon (Cec and I both come from about as Mormon stock as you can find). The vast majority of my friends are Mormon to some degree or another.

These people are The Church.

The robustness of this group will vary largely by individual, though the internet seems to allow for more connections than would be possible previously.

This body may be the most troubling (in a sorta Judith Butler sense) for definitional purposes and for a standard narrative or description of The Church. Everyone’s experience here is going to vary widely. This is also true at the C2 level, but there’s still enough Institutional power over local congregations that the differences among them are often of a lesser degree than the differences among the C3 Churches that people experience.

People tend to congregate with other people like them, which means that the Church at a C3 level is probably more homogenous than the C2 level, but that the different C3s have striking diversity among them. I mostly interact with similarly fringey Mormons (though my family members are largely quite traditional, orthodox, and conservative, so the make-up of my family and friend C3s is quite different).

Anyway, this iteration of The Church matters because it is one of the ways we understand and describe what The Church is capable of, or not. Like, my C3 Church is largely very on board with progressive politics surrounding LGBTQ+ issues, so I have a skewed sense of what Church membership broadly feels and thinks about them.

This becomes a sort of “found” Church, one that is self-curated. As I entered fringey Mormon spaces just after my mission, they challenged my understanding of what The Church could be. They opened my eyes to ways in which C2, and even occasionally C1, was different and more expansive than I’d previously considered. C3 seems to me to be the place where Mormonism is most interesting and potentially most alive, especially when welded with engagement in C2.

I’m a strong believer in the communal emphasis of Mormonism and for me, finding various C3 communities to be a part of (digitally and in person) has been instrumental in making my local congregation habitable. I realized that there were likely others like me to one degree or another in my congregation and I could do some work to claim and make space for me and others there.

The danger of a pure C3 communal space is that it lacks the diversity of thought and experience that I think is necessary for a truly healthy, welcoming, and sustainable community.

Obviously, without C3s, you cannot really have functioning C2s and the C1. This is partially why I believe so strongly in people (re)claiming Mormonism. We can shape what The Church is in a large sense, at least at the C3 level. There’s no formal hierarchy or gate-keeping (though in some C3s you may find plenty of informal elements of both of those). My experience with C3 Church is at its best when it has as little concern for The Institution (C1) as possible, though others’ mileage may vary on that point.

Breaking The Church down into these three categories is helpful for me in describing where my disagreement or problem or struggle or love or admiration is in relation to various elements of Mormonism. Some may span categories, which is fine and to be expected, honestly.

Understanding these distinctions and being more precise in our language I think can improve our discourse about The Church and our various frustrations or admirations. Or maybe it’ll just help me.