My favorite Richard Dutcher movie, one perhaps lesser known than God’s Army or States of Grace, is a thought-provoking film titled Brigham City. It’s a highly suspenseful murder mystery set in a small Mormon community, and it deals head-on with some hard religious questions. The final scene is deeply moving. I won’t spoil it by giving too many details, but I will say that a crucial element of that scene is the question of what it means to be worthy to take the sacrament.
About eight years ago, when I was still a PhD student, I got to design and teach a Master’s-level class on Mormonism at my school. One week, I showed them Brigham City. The group of mostly Protestant students quite liked the movie, but they said something that has really stayed with me. They said that their take on that scene was different than mine had been, because they came from traditions in which there isn’t a worthiness requirement to take communion (or the sacrament, in Mormon lingo); in fact, one of them said that when you feel unworthy, that’s actually the time when you need it the most. I’ve thought a lot about that over the years.
To push that even further, with reference to the sacrament at least, I’m currently reading this amazing spiritual memoir called Take This Bread, by Sara Miles, a lifelong highly secular left-leaning political activist lesbian, who experienced something life-changing upon walking into a church and taking communion for the first time at the age of 46, and ended up converting to the Episcopal faith and doing all sorts of cool things. Unsurprisingly, given her experience, she is critical of the restrictions placed on communion in most contemporary Christian churches (like that you have to be baptized in that denomination, or at least in a denomination friendly to the denomination that you’re attending; or that—in the words of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer—you have to not be living “a notoriously evil life.”) Miles notes the historical shift in which “instead of being God’s freely given gift of reconciliation for everyone—the central point of Jesus’s barrier-breaking meals with sinners of all descriptions—communion belonged to the religious authorities.”1 She describes attending a particular local church which, in contrast, “believed that because Jesus ate with sinners, breaking down the barriers between clean and unclean, offering communion to all without exception, was the ‘one true sign of God.'”2
I’ve been sitting in on Episcopal confirmation classes, and in a recent week we read the familiar story of the Prodigal Son. In coming back to this text yet again, I was struck by the way the notion of “worthiness” functions in the parable. The prodigal son, after “coming to himself,” decides to go back and tell his father, “I have sinned against heaven and earth before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”3 And when he returns, he does indeed make this declaration of unworthiness. But as you all know, it doesn’t seem to matter to the father, who simply wants to celebrate the return of his lost son.
Worthiness is a very big deal in Mormonism, of course. While you’re not required to be perfect to participate in ordinances, you do have to be “worthy.” I have to admit that growing up as a somewhat neurotic Mormon, I was probably overly prone to conflate the two. But I do think it’s a legitimate concern to observe that the strong emphasis on worthiness in LDS teachings can lead to perfectionism and excessive self-doubt. The key question here, of course, is what does it mean to be “worthy?” Ask a random group of Latter-day Saints about this, and I imagine that you’d get a whole lot of different answers—though probably many of them would be along the lines of “doing your best” or “trying to keep the commandments,” which seem to be, at least in contemporary LDS popular culture and discourse, the go-to phrases when it comes to what’s needed as far as human actions that complement that work of grace. But people definitely vary when it comes to, say, the question of when you should or shouldn’t take the sacrament. In my own life, I’ve tended to probably err too much on the side of not doing it even when I technically could (that is to say, I wasn’t on any formal ecclesiastical probation). When I was in a horrible mood and didn’t want to be at church (which happened often), or was harboring lots of anger and bitterness at someone in my life, or just didn’t feel all that committed to religion, I’d skip it. And all the well-meaning talk about how what matters isn’t ultimately what you’re doing, but that your heart is in the right place—a valiant attempt to shoot down at least one strand of perfectionism—fell flat for me, because my heart never seemed to be in the right place.
Out of curiosity, I searched for “worthiness” at lds.org, and the first entry addressed the “personal worthiness” requirement for prospective missionaries. It makes four suggestions: learn about the standards of worthiness, take the sacrament (and repent of your sins before you do “so that the Holy Ghost can be with you,”), obtain and make use of a temple recommend, and talk to your bishop to clear up any issues. One of the things that most strikes me in reading this, as well as other LDS framings of the subject, is that worthiness seems to be something that either you have, or you don’t. It’s a binary: either you’re worthy (and thus qualified for ordinances, as well as the continuing presence of the Spirit), or you’re not. There doesn’t seem to be much room for any possibility of a murky middle ground. Additionally, worthiness is generally described in a static way: it’s a state you’re in (and one primarily defined negatively, by what it excludes), not a process.
I find myself wondering if there are other ways to talk about worthiness that don’t fall into these particular pitfalls. But I have to admit that I also sometimes wonder about the value of having a worthiness requirement in the first place. It does arguably convey, intentionally or not, the message that to really come unto Christ you need to first be good enough—which seems to go against the teaching of 2 Nephi 26, where Nephi devotes five solid verses to repeating the point that God does not turn anyone away, concluding, “Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden.” (v. 28) When it comes to access to grace, all [humans] are “privileged.” They aren’t carefully sorted into “worthy” and “unworthy.”
I’m imagining how people might defend the worthiness requirements in Mormon practice, and thinking that you could perhaps make the case that committed discipleship is necessary for the authentic Christian life, and people need to be held accountable for actions that move them away from this. The same issues would come up, I would imagine, as arise in discussions of the dangers of “cheap grace” (namely, if we preach too much grace, will anyone bother to be righteous?) I do think that in the hands of the right leaders, the ideal of “worthiness” is not a rigid requirement, not a club to beat people down, but an invitation to be better, and a way of calling sinners to turn back. And yet, the more I think about it, the more uneasy I find myself with the notion that you have to be “worthy” in order to take the sacrament, or to have the Holy Ghost as your companion, because it sets up a God who stops offering help when—in the words of my student mentioned above—we need it the most.
The temple poses some particularly interesting questions. From a sociological point of view, I can see some obvious value in maintaining certain requirements for people to be able to participate in the highest forms of LDS worship. It means, for one thing, that the behavioral expectations of the community have real teeth, because there real consequences if you violate them. The worthiness requirements also seem to indicate that purity is a central value for Mormons, even to the point of having exclusive sacred spaces which the unclean are forbidden to enter. (A bit tangentially, I think the use of “worthiness” language about the temple is incredibly unfortunate in the way it gets applied in particular to non-members who are excluded from the weddings of their loved ones. Whatever you think about the theological issues at play, informing people that they won’t be allowed to attend, and then explaining that it’s because they’re not “worthy” to be there is—at least in my experience—pretty much a recipe for terribly hurt feelings and deeply negative impressions of the church.) Somewhat more positively, I can genuinely see the value of having a kind of structure in your life that demands that you take your religious commitments seriously, and pushes you to periodically re-examine and reflect on how you’re doing. But I have my biases around this, and I have to admit that I’ve always found the “secret club for God’s special people” aspect of Mormon temple worship to be incredibly off-putting.
Years and years ago, maybe even the very first time I went to Sunstone, way back in 1992, I heard a debate about the issue of requiring people to pass a worthiness interview to enter the temple. One person made the radical suggestion that we should throw it out entirely, and open the temple to all. Another person responded, so you’re saying that child molesters should be allowed to participate in temple worship? The first pointed out that that was undoubtedly already happening, given that there are people who are simply lying to their ecclesiastical leaders. At the time, for all my forays into unorthodoxy, the idea of a completely open temple with no gatekeeping whatsoever went much further than I was comfortable with. And even now, I’m not one hundred percent sure what I think about the whole thing.
But I will say that in looking at my own life—and this may to be some degree be idiosyncratic, as I am an admittedly neurotic person with strong tendencies toward scrupulosity—I think the notion of “worthiness” has done more harm than good. It’s felt like an ideal I could never achieve, a constant burden of divine expectation from which I could never get a break. Again, this may not be the case for everyone, but I’ve personally found that letting go of constant worry about whether I’m sufficiently “worthy” has actually been a spiritually healthy move.