Describing her church as a "grace-based" rather than a "works-based" faith, a member of the Council of the Twelve of the Community of Christ said the church encompasses a broad swath of belief based not simply on scriptural canon or revelation, but on "the grace of God."

Susan Skoor told participants Thursday at the annual Sunstone Symposium that while her faith shares a short 14-year history with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, members vary widely in their belief about the Book of Mormon.

"There are some who believe it's the literal word of God translated word for word by Joseph Smith from golden plates, and see it as inspirational or more so than the Bible ... There are others who say they don't think it's historical or came about in the way the traditional story says."

Many members outside the United States see it as scripture applicable to Americans alone.

"Some don't have much use for it and don't think it's inspired at all," she said. "In fact, they wish we'd burn all the Books of Mormon."

Formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Community of Christ sees itself as part of the historic Christian tradition, she said, with a history "that embraces the Old Testament and Jewish heritage. We own that as part of our heritage, warts and all," including episodes like the Inquisition and the Crusades.

Church members view Latter-day Saints as fellow Christians, alongside Catholics and Protestants, she said, and acknowledge their own founding as a faith through Joseph Smith who was "first called by God in the (sacred) grove, all the way up through the current prophet (Steve Veazey)."

The church has evolved dramatically during nearly 175 years of history, she said, and now incorporates its two main pillars of faith in its name: the witness of Jesus Christ and sharing their personal witness of him; and community building that promotes "communities of joy, hope, love and peace."

"We build on the tradition that the cause of Zion we're called to bring forth is transforming the world into a better place." She said that apart from many other Christian traditions, "we don't negate this world in order to point to the next. We say this is the world God created and pronounced to be good, redeemed and sent God's son into, and this is where he calls us to transform communities with joy, hope, love and peace."

With those foundations and pillars in place, Skoor said, the "roof" of the church's structure embodies peace, reconciliation and healing of the spirit, all a part of the church's mission statement. "President Veazey has called us to become a peace church," she said, noting that mission was not historically part of the church's structure.

"Now we're trying to wrap our arms around all these various people and ideas (about peace), listening and understanding one another and marching forward together," she said.

The church offers three types of ministry: inviting people in; gathering within for sacrament, worship and pastoral care; and outreach, which includes supporting food banks, peace and justice initiatives and other types of community building.

The faith's priesthood offices have names Latter-day Saints are familiar with, but are considered "callings" in the sense that they are not necessarily extended for life, and don't depend on a person's age or gender, Skoor said.

"I don't know how long I'll serve as an apostle. At some point I'll be asked to step down," allowing someone else to serve. Priesthood callings are based on one's "particular gifts and talents" to hold an office that serves a particular function at a particular time, she said.

"We uphold the office of member — that's the basic ministry in the church — all are called as members to bring ministry and to serve," she said. "We recognize that everyone in church has something to offer, and if you have particular gifts in specific areas, you are called to that office."

Women are ordained to all offices of the priesthood, she said, noting there are four women in the Council of Twelve, and a counselor in the three-member First Presidency is a woman. The decision to ordain women several years ago created something of a schism in the church, but gender isn't much of an issue now, she said.

"We're getting to the point where we don't pay attention to whether it's a man or woman," Skoor said. "You're called to that office by the abilities and talents God has given you. There may still be some unspoken political correctness to those selections, but the issue of diversity among cultures has usurped the place that gender once had in our church."

Skoor said the church doesn't ordain practicing homosexuals "but we do ordain homosexuals who are not sexually active.... I hope within another year or two we will have some kind of movement on that particular issue."

In terms of growth, the faith is shrinking in the United States, she said, but is growing in areas like Haiti, South America, Africa and French Polynesia, in part, she believes, because "President Veazey is very intentional about increasing the diversity of language and culture within the World Church Leadership Council's Council of Twelve. We've worked hard to mentor and train people from the grassroots."

Examples include Carlos Enrique Mejia, a Council of Twelve member from Honduras who uses a translator during regular council meetings, and Bunda Chibwe from Africa, also a member of the Twelve, who speaks five languages.

"I have no doubt that we'll soon have on the council someone whose primary language is French," Skoor said.

Input from major areas of the world is actively sought by church leadership, she said, noting the World Church Leadership Council (consisting of the First Presidency, Council of the Twelve, Presiding Bishopric, Senior President of the Seventy and others with oversight of various ministries) meets five times a year. Three of those meetings usually include representatives of "minority ministries" in the United States, as well as international representatives from various nations.

Their input is "changing us, making us think more globally from our narrow, slanted U.S. perspective." For instance, all the representatives were able to agree on a set of shared values, including the "worth of persons" but the reality of what that meant is different depending on geography, she said.

For instance, "in some African nations it's culturally acceptable to beat your wife as a way of showing love and caring," though as a member of the Council, Chibwe has been "trying very hard to change that value. But here's what the women are saying: 'If my husband doesn't beat me, how do I know that he loves me,... When you tell my husband not to beat me, you are robbing me of my worth as a person.'

"That gives you an idea of the kind of conversations we're having as a council as we explore what values we hold and how those are expressed around the globe."


E-mail: carrie@desnews.com