Because I have polygamous pioneer ancestors and am therefore related to an immoderate number of other Mormons, and because I grew up in Utah, attended BYU, and spent two months in the MTC, I’ve experienced more than my fair share of General Authority sightings. None were spectacular or even particularly personal, so “encounters” would be too strong a word.
For instance: my childhood ward included a GA’s daughter, and her father periodically attended to assist at the blessings of her children. Over the years the ward and stake were variously configured to include the children and grandchildren of past prophets and current apostles. I don’t recall any strange incidents resulting from these connections, but a few years ago President Hinckley attended my in-laws’ ward to set his grandson apart as bishop, and evidently as soon as word got out half of the valley fell all over themselves to attend, while the regular ward members had trouble getting in. I found myself uncomfortable with some of the excessive and absolutely sincere discourse that emerged from that occasion. (Is the sacrament more efficacious if blessed in the presence of the prophet, I couldn’t help but wonder?) Similarly, at BYU I once had a meeting with a professor preempted by a GA, and the secretary who called me to cancel suggested we all hang around the office door to catch a glimpse of the poor man and let his special blessings radiate out onto us.
When I was at the MTC, I never had much desire to stand in line and shake the GAs’ hands after they spoke at Tuesday-night devotionals. Partly this was a matter of personal reserve; I don’t particularly enjoy brief, superficial interactions with anyone, no matter how interesting that person might be on longer acquaintance. I think it would be fascinating to sit down and have an extended, heartfelt conversation with a General Authority, and I’d definitely have some questions to pose, but simply standing in line to shake someone’s hand has never much appealed to me. For one things, I like my space and privacy, and I tend to assume others do as well. Refraining from mobbing someone seems to me a fairly basic way of respecting him or her.
I respect the prophetic and apostolic offices, and I believe in appropriate expressions of that respect. But I also have to wonder if it’s right to treat the prophets and apostles with greater respect and deference than we do our ordinary brothers and sisters from whom we have no hope of spectacular spiritual outpourings. It seems to me that there’s a strain of latent idolatry in the way we sometimes treat GAs–as if they themselves were magical and infallible, rather than the human bearers of prophetic mantles. Such a view seems both deeply unfair to the General Authorities themselves, who surely don’t want to be people’s idols, and ever more problematic in our increasingly worldwide church. How many Mormons may ever only see a prophet or apostle once in their lives? Are they therefore less blessed by God than Utahns with greater access to the church hierarchy?
Many of us know of people who elbow their way to the GAs for extra-special blessings. A number of years ago I attended girls’ camp as part of my YW calling, and a woman got up at the evening devotional to explain that when she learned she was infertile, she insisted on flying out to Utah to meet with a member of the Seventy to get a blessing that had, so far, resulted in three children and (she just knew) was about to result in a fourth. I cringed, not least of all for the stake YW president sitting right beside her whose infertility had not been spectacularly healed by a high church official. Similarly, I’ve known of situations in which, for example, a CES employee was able to arrange for a mentally ill child to meet with a member of the Seventy. But what about all the infertile women, mentally ill children, variously troubled Mormons the world over who have no hope of access to a GA? Does God honor the blessings of GAs more than those of ordinary local priesthood holders? Are these distant Mormons simply relegated to a less blessed state? That unhappy conclusion seems an inevitable consequence of a certain magical view of General Authorities.
I do believe in the power of prophetic authority, although I don’t have an intellectually coherent view of precisely in what, that authority consists. (I’ll leave such questions to our resident scholars of religion Lynnette and Kiskilili). But I instinctively dislike the elitism and the fawning that inevitably seem to accompany the magical conception of prophethood.
Doesn’t the gift of the Holy Ghost make God equally accessible to us all–black and white, bond and free, male and female, close to or far from the magical GA?