Why can’t ordinary members read the Church Handbook of Instructions?
Three things got me to thinking about this question. First, in the discussion following Vada’s recent post on people getting endowed before serving a mission or getting married, Mark IV helpfully quoted from the Handbook to clarify the Church’s official position. Although the Handbook may not always be the last word about how Church policy works out on the ground, it’s at least a very good starting point.
Second, in the discussion following Margaret Young’s post “The Haircut” at BCC, several commenters matter-of-factly noted that her bishop was going beyond the Handbook in requiring her son to get his long hair cut before being ordained a priest. It’s great that they knew this, but I’ve never been in a calling where I get to see the Handbook. How would someone like me know if my bishop is going beyond the Handbook? But at least I was raised in the Church, so I have some sense of what Church policies are; how does a new member know if her bishop is going beyond the Handbook?
Third, in a recent Teachings for Our Time lesson, my elders’ quorum discussed a talk Elder Ballard gave last Conference about the Bible, in which he said,
The Dark Ages were dark because the light of the gospel was hidden from the people. They did not have the apostles or prophets, nor did they have access to the Bible. The clergy kept the scriptures secret and unavailable to the people. We owe much to the many brave martyrs and reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Huss who demanded freedom to worship and common access to the holy books.
Now I know the Handbook isn’t scripture, but I still think the comparison has some merit because the Handbook does influence our Church experience, perhaps even more directly than scriptures do. Christian reformers wanted widespread access to scripture so that common people could act as a check on the clergy doing whatever they wanted and claiming it was what God wanted. (Isn’t that some of what the Reformation was about?) But while we praise the reformers who made the Bible accessible, we sue people who make the Handbook accessible.
And just a brief extension of this point: It’s rare, but the Handbook has occasionally been referenced in General Conference. For example, Elder Nelson did in 1985, President Packer did in 1988 and 1991, Elder Oaks did in 1987 , 1993, and 1994, Elder Perry did in 1994. This seems truly bizarre to me. The point of referring to a source is to appeal to authority, to say, in effect, “You could look it up.” So why would speakers in General Conference refer to a document that they have explicitly made sure that most members cannot look up? Doesn’t this kind of defeat the purpose of putting in the reference at all?
I’m sure there’s a rationale for not letting us all see the Handbook. I suspect that this rationale is printed in the Handbook itself, which is why I haven’t seen it. So who will enlighten me? What’s the reason? And do you find it convincing?