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New church handbook is online and available to all. Here are some of the changes

The Church Office Building of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is pictured in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020.
The Church Office Building of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is pictured in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a new handbook of instructions for leaders and members on Wednesday and made it available to any who want to see it on ChurchofJesusChrist.org.

The church previously published two handbooks, one seen only by the leaders of congregations and those who preside over them. On the faith’s Gospel Library app today, the image-links to those handbooks are covered with the word “obsolete.”

In their place is the new guide, titled “General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” It combines the two previous handbooks and also reflects the faith’s recent emphasis on ministering and home-centered gospel living and teaching. It also defines transgender policies for the first time.

Additionally, the book changes the name of disciplinary councils to membership councils, with their purposes — they may be necessary to help a person repent, the handbook says — and procedures explained across 65 pages in Chapter 32.

In all, the digital-only handbook is about 800 pages long. It has 38 chapters, the same number included in the now-obsolete Handbook 1 and Handbook 2. However, some of the old chapters have been deleted, such as “The Perpetual Education Fund.”

The new General Handbook is still under construction. Nine chapters have been completely rewritten or added, including “Ministering” and one on supporting individual and families that places additional large swaths of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” in the handbook.

The other 29 chapters will be updated by the end of 2021, according to an email the church sent to members Wednesday morning.

The email said the purpose for the new handbook was “to help leaders and members care for one another with love in a growing, worldwide church.”

The original plan was to wait to publish the new General Handbook after all of it was rewritten.

“The First Presidency and (the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) felt that the updates were important enough to release as soon as possible,” said Elder Anthony D. Perkins, executive director of the church’s Correlation Department, in a video released by the church.

Another example of a change that reflects recent church emphases: A previous chapter called “Temples and Marriages” now is spread across three expanded chapters.

There also are additions to the section on policies related to what the handbook terms moral issues in Chapter 38. This includes direction for members on abortion, in vitro fertilization and euthanasia.

“The church condemns female genital mutilation,” one entry reads, for example, reflecting the global nature of the church. “Additional policy direction is forthcoming.”

Chapter 32 is on membership councils. It no longer uses the terms excommunication or disfellowship. Instead, it uses “withdrawal of membership” or “formal membership restrictions.”

“The idea behind these terminology changes is to ensure that we understand that when we make a mistake in our life the Lord is always extending his arms of mercy,” said Sister Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency. Sister Aburto is involved in the creation of the new handbook, including its translation into 51 languages in coming months.

“The three purposes of membership restrictions or withdrawal are as follows,” the handbook says. “1. Help protect others, 2. Help a person access the redeeming power of Jesus Christ through repentance, 3. Protect the integrity of the church.”

Membership councils are designed for use by bishops and stake presidents to help members who commit serious sin, the handbook states. That process can include restricting membership privileges or even membership for a time. Those actions are not intended to punish, it says.

“Rather, these actions are sometimes necessary to help a person repent and experience a change of heart. They also give a person time to prepare spiritually to renew and keep his or her covenants again.”

Leaders act in a spirit of love, it says.

The General Handbook includes guidance instructing leaders to use care when interviewing children and youth and about how to detect and deal with cases of abuse. Advice on abuse is included in three different sections.

“Abuse cannot be tolerated in any form,” it states. Abuse is listed as one of the sins that require a membership council.

Previous handbooks included abuse help lines in the United States and Canada. The General Handbook includes help lines for the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia and New Zealand.

“Stake presidents and bishops make every effort to counsel those who have been involved in abuse,” it states. “Victims of abuse often suffer serious trauma and feelings of guilt. These victims are not guilty of sin. Leaders should be sensitive to them and give caring counsel and support to help them overcome the destructive effects of abuse. Leaders also give assurances of God’s love.”

A new section is titled “transgender individuals.”

It states that transgender people face complex challenges, are welcome at church meetings and activities and should be treated with “sensitivity, kindness, compassion and an abundance of Christlike love.”

It also defines gender.

“Gender is an essential characteristic of Heavenly Father’s plan of happiness,” the handbook says. “The intended meaning of gender in the family proclamation is biological sex at birth. Some people experience feelings of incongruence between their biological sex and their gender identity. As a result, they may identify as transgender. The church does not take a position on the causes of people identifying themselves as transgender.”

The handbook directs leaders that priesthood ordination, which the church reserves for males, and temple ordinances are received according to birth sex.

It also directs leaders to counsel against elective sex reassignment surgery or procedures and against social transitioning, including changing a name or pronouns or “presenting oneself as other than his or her birth sex.”

Those actions are cause for church membership restrictions, the handbook states.

The handbook states that if a member decides to change his or her preferred name or pronouns, “the name preference may be noted in the preferred name field on the membership record. The person may be addressed by the preferred name in the ward.”

The handbook guides church leaders and members seeking additional understanding on supporting transgender individuals to a new webpage titled “Transgender” on ChurchofJesusChrist.org.

Separately, it specifically calls for special compassion for those whose sex at birth is not clear. Questions about the membership records, priesthood ordination and temple ordinances for those born with sexual ambiguity are directed to the Office of the First Presidency.

The new General Handbook is simplified and remains principles-based. It is divided into four sections — doctrinal foundation, church organization, the work of salvation and exaltation and church administration — which have a new tone.

“If you look at the evolution of the handbook over the last hundred years, it’s been evolving from administrative procedures to a more ministerial voice,” Elder Perkins said.

It says the purpose of the church is “to enable individuals and families to do the work of salvation and exaltation.”

The church and its leaders do that by providing “priesthood authority and keys, covenants and ordinances, prophetic direction, scriptures, gospel learning and teaching support, service and leadership opportunities (and) a community of Saints.”

The digital-only nature of the new handbook makes it more flexible, because it can be updated easily and frequently.

“And that means, in a phrase, that the church is true and living. It can change,” Elder Perkins said. “Having a handbook that is largely digitally delivered allows us to update it as new revelation is received as the church goes in new directions as part of its worldwide growth.”

He also said the digital General Handbook includes what will be a growing number of embedded instructional videos, including several that show how to carry out priesthood rites.

The church release said 20% of the new handbook’s material is new. Much of it is in the nine new or rewritten chapters, which are 1: God’s Plan and Your Role in the Work of Salvation and Exaltation, 2: Supporting Individuals and Families in the Work of Salvation and Exaltation, 3: Priesthood Principles, 4: Leadership in the Church of Jesus Christ, 15: Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, 18: Priesthood Ordinances and Blessings, 32: Repentance and Church Membership Councils, 36: Creating, Changing and Naming New Units, 37: Specialized Stakes, Wards and Branches.

Also heavily updated, as noted above, is section 38.6: Church Policies and Guidelines.

The handbook dates back to 1899, when a guide was introduced for ward and stake leaders handling tithing funds, according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. The term “handbook” was used first in 1928. Leaders added to it until 1939, when Elder John A. Widtsoe rewrote it and it was published as a study manual titled “Priesthood and Church Government.”

“So it’s not completely unprecedented to make it public,” Nathan Oman, a William & Mary law professor, said in a recent interview.

What became “The General Handbook of Instructions” by the 1970s was split in two in 1998.

“Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops” detailed church policies and procedures and outlined the responsibilities of bishoprics and branch presidencies who lead congregations and stake and district presidencies who oversee geographic groups of congregations. Its distribution was limited to those leaders and the church’s General Authorities.

“Handbook 2: Administering the Church” had been publicly available for years. It presented the responsibilities of all other leaders in branches, wards and stakes.

The church operates 30,500 congregations gathered in 3,400 stakes in more than 180 nations.

The Hannibal Branch of the church in Hannibal, Missouri, regularly had used the church handbooks to answer questions about church policy, said President Fredrich Cruse, an attorney who serves as branch president.

For example, his branch of about 250 members is preparing for the baptisms of two 9-year-olds. The missionaries serving in the areas asked Cruse if one child, once baptized, could serve as a witness for the baptism of the next. Cruse reviewed Handbook 1 on his smartphone.

“The answer was no,” he said. “The new policy that allows all church members over the age of 8 to serve as witnesses for baptisms made that clear. A person is not a member until they are both baptized and confirmed. The confirmation will be held the following day in church.

He knew the new General Handbook was coming, but when he looked for it last week, he saw it hadn’t been posted yet. He downloaded it in the Gospel Library today, along with the adjacent Frequently Asked Questions document. He said he will review the nine new chapters listed there first.