It had been 12 years since Loyd Bulkley had been in an LDS chapel, 10 years since the father of four had divorced and quietly begun a new life as a gay man--and long past time, he finally decided, to leave his church.

So, on May 5, 2000, Bulkley wrote the LDS Church's member records office in Salt Lake City, declaring his resignation. "The only contact I want from the church is written confirmation that my name has been removed from the membership rolls," he wrote.

What the 50-year-old Murray hairdresser says he got was a letter referring him to local church leaders, followed by more correspondence and a telephone call from a stake president urging him to reconsider at the peril of his eternal soul.

Bulkley refused. Then came two more letters, one questioning his homosexuality--something he had never mentioned in his letter--and a second summoning him before a 15-member church disciplinary council.

Bulkley wrote once more, requesting an uncomplicated removal of his name from church records. Instead, the disciplinary council held a hearing without him, and on June 26, 2000, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints excommunicated him.

Bulkley says his family cut him off soon after.

"Thank you very much, Mormon church. For an organization that encourages families being together, they've done a great job on mine," an admittedly embittered Bulkley says today.

Every year, an unknown fraction of the world's 11 million Mormons write resignation letters. Ex-Mormon activists estimate the number is in the tens of thousands--a figure the church says is way too high, while declining to provide more accurate numbers. Some, like Bulkley, resign over the faith's view of homosexual behavior as sinful; others have simply lost their faith, or adopted a new one.

In the past, only a formal excommunication process could sever one's ties to the church. But in the mid-1980s, the church began allowing simple, non-disciplinary resignations, spelling out the procedure in a seven-paragraph section in the handbook given to lay leaders.

According to church policy, the individual must write a letter to a bishop, who then forwards it to a stake president for review. If the member does not rescind the request within 30 days, the process moves forward.

Eventually, the individual gets a letter confirming membership termination.

The process does not preclude contact by church leaders--in fact, the policy says bishops must make sure the member understands the consequences of his or her action. Church spokesman Dale Bills suggests this contact can be misinterpreted by those wanting to leave.

"Because removing someone's name from the records of the church cancels all blessings that accompany church membership, the procedure for doing so is carefully administered," he said. "A caring bishop who visits or calls to verify a member's wishes and attempts to soothe hurt feelings is simply doing what the Lord taught--showing concern for each member."

Bills allowed that "in a few instances" name removal requests may, upon review, reveal serious moral or doctrinal transgressions and "formal church discipline is required."

Beyond a brief statement on the issue, Bills declined to elaborate further.

Most mainline Christian denominations--whether Protestant, Catholic, Episcopalian or Orthodox--follow an even simpler process. A mere request, verbal or written, suffices to be excised from parish or congregational rolls.

Utah Episcopal Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish said membership is an open-ended arrangement in her faith. People are free to come and go without being contacted, she said.

The LDS Church, on the other hand, keeps extensive membership records, which follow members from ward to ward, city to city and across states. That efficient tracking system makes it difficult for people wanting to leave the church to merely slip away.

For some Mormons, such as Victoria McGowan, resigning from the LDS Church has meant months or years of frustration.

The 41-year-old divorced mother of five in Paducah, Ky., says her July 1999 LDS resignation letter ushered in 13 months of delays, unwanted visits from fellow Mormons urging her to recant, and what she interpreted as harassing calls and even a veiled threat from a local bishop.

"He told me that bad things tend to happen to people who try to push this issue, leaving the church," McGowan said.

Finally, she says, she called Gregory Dodge, supervisor of the LDS Church's membership records office in Salt Lake City. McGowan said he seemed genuinely concerned about the purported harassment and her threat of legal action if it did not stop.

The incidents did cease, and last August--13 months after her initial resignation letter--she received a letter from the church confirming she was off the rolls.

Dodge declined to discuss McGowan's or any other membership termination request, citing church confidentiality policies. He referred all further questions to Bills.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus