To begin with, we offer our love to Sister Kelly. It is a hard, and sad, and sobering thing to lose a member of the church. The power of fellowship and universal opportunity to serve is central to the experience of being Mormon, and the loss of one is a loss to all.
Excommunication is not an extreme practice or unique to the LDS church; most Christian denominations and some non-Christian traditions have long-standing provisions for formalizing a discordant relationship between an individual and the church. Throughout Christian history, the aim of excommunication has been not to punish or cause pointless suffering, but to spur reconciliation.
Catholicism has lately suffered its own turmoil over the propriety of excommunication; Pope Francis recently reaffirmed that individuals who encourage abortion and euthanasia should not receive communion, despite ongoing criticism from some Catholics as well as some non-Catholics.
Religious language like “apostasy” is very loaded in our culture; it can bring to mind caricatures of pitchforks, torches, and witch-burnings. Most Mormons don’t see it that way in this case; apostasy would be better expressed as breaking faith with the community of members. Personal opinions and hopes regarding church doctrine and practice vary widely in the church, and expressing and exploring disagreement is acceptable. But it crosses the line to act and teach in ways that will threaten others’ faith in the church and its leadership.
This is a crucial point. Sister Kelly has said that she fervently believes in the church’s basic truth claims, and I am happy to take her at her word. But even if she feels secure in her own belief, her actions and teachings have led others to reject those beliefs. One cannot teach that church leaders are unable or unwilling to seek the Lord’s will on a crucial matter, without expecting that some who hear will conclude the leaders are not inspired and not even basically decent people in important ways. Her actions have broken faith with the community of members by encouraging disunity and threatening the spiritual welfare of those whose beliefs are less firm.
Seeking and questioning is central to religious faith; public accusation and fomenting disaffection is not. Sister Kelly has allied herself with others who have made blatantly untrue, flawed, and biased accusations against the church under the guise of benign “questioning.” She is part of a movement that may offer commiseration to struggling members but also feeds a false narrative that the church and its leaders’ actions can best be understood through the lens of cynical politics, and that God does not guide the church, if indeed He exists.
For all this, Sister Kelly’s leaders expressed as kindly as possible their conviction that excommunication is necessary. Their letter made it clear that she is not being cast out or shunned or forbidden from the church. The letter forthrightly invites her to continue to attend church, and practically begs her to return to full fellowship.
A faith community bound by loyalty to an inspired organization and leadership can reasonably conclude that loud public antagonism, destructive to that loyalty, requires discipline to preserve the overall health of the community. We hope that sorrowing church members and outside observers can understand that truth. Above all, we hope that regardless of present pain, friends at first will one day be friends again at last.