For Elbert Peck, the profound irony of his 15 years at the helm of the Sunstone Foundation is that the independent, often controversial voice of LDS intellectuals became anathema to the very church it sought to understand.

"Sunstone is people sharing information, experiences and perspectives, growing, stretching and changing," said Peck, who resigned as managing director and editor/publisher of Sunstone magazine in early June. "It was never intended as an attempt to change the LDS Church or Mormonism."

Still, Sunstone became inextricably linked with such hot-button issues as the roles of gays, blacks and women in the church, the historicity of the Book of Mormon and even the veracity of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith's recorded visions.

Now, with the departure of Peck -- described by friends and foes alike as a charismatic, creative and organizational genius -- Sunstone's future as a unique forum for critical Mormon thought appears in limbo.

The question: Can Sunstone, seen by church leaders as a purveyor of faith-eroding inquiry, once more attract the conservative and moderate Mormon scholars who wrote for Sunstone magazine and spoke at its symposiums alongside their more liberal, even edgy, colleagues?

Indeed, is there still a need for Sunstone?

Peck, who allows that ongoing tension with the church -- along with exhaustion -- led to his "burnout," is both hopeful and skeptical. As long as Sunstone remains an open, unrestrained forum, he doubts it will ever be tolerated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"There is an exercise of control [in the church] very much against the open discussion principle," Peck said. "When you get called in by a bishop and told, 'This is not helpful to the church,' a lot of [Mormons] salute and say 'OK, my first allegiance is to the church.' "

It was not always so. Founded in 1975, Sunstone enjoyed mostly cordial relations with the church during its early years. So, when Peck left a job as a Maryland urban planner to take Sunstone's reins in 1986, he envisioned a "Big Tent," the consummate arena for historical, philosophical, artistic and cultural views in the LDS universe.

But LDS leaders grew increasingly suspicious. When Peck arrived, the church was already piqued by symposium sessions devoted to sensational, faith-challenging finds by a Salt Lake City dealer of historical documents, Mark Hofmann.

Later, Hofmann was convicted of the pipe-bomb murders of two people in 1985 to keep those documents and others from being revealed as forgeries. Sunstone, one of many of Hofmann's dupes, was embarrassed; so was the LDS Church, which had purchased several of his purported discoveries.

Things only heated up when Peck came on board. Though Sunstone's bread and butter remained social and cultural issues in Mormondom, symposium sessions on feminism, homosexuality, secret temple rites and the veracity of LDS scripture furrowed church leaders' brows.

In 1989, apostle Dallin Oaks cautioned against "alternate" views, and on Aug. 23, 1991, the ruling First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles exhorted the faithful to stay away from anything, including unidentified "symposia," that might undermine their beliefs.

Sunstoners knew exactly what leadership was talking about, however, and Sunstone immediately found itself hard-pressed to enlist moderate or conservative Mormon scholars, especially from church- owned Brigham Young University. "There developed a virtual absence of BYU faculty," said Peck, a BYU graduate. "Sunstone was labeled an evil thing."

The church's next shot at Sunstone was not across the bow, but a broadside: In late 1993, five Mormon intellectuals were excommunicated and another disfellowshipped.

"They obviously had targeted individuals who participated in Sunstone," said historian D. Michael Quinn, an excommunicated member of the so-called "September Six" now living in Southern California.

Lynne Whitesides also linked her being disfellowshipped to her participation in Sunstone, but has no regrets. "My involvement in Sunstone helped me to wake up to where I was with the church, God and Mormonism," she said.

Keeping Sunstone's critical edge while seeking balance is one goal of Peck's successors.

"Among the people trying to keep Sunstone going, there is no intent to make it an organization focused on being hostile to the church," said board Chairman J.F. "Toby" Pingree. "We are busting our backs to get faithful, conservative church members to also respond."

Current board member and former Chairman Stan Christensen, who admired but periodically clashed with Peck, suggests greater vigilance against what he sees as the radical fringe.

"An open forum does not mean the creation of a venue where anyone can say anything they like," he said. "We have been very clear that presentations . . . should not attack church leaders or the fundamental doctrines of the church."

For some time, Christensen said, he and other Sunstone trustees have been "in frequent communication with the brethren," but he denies those contacts have undermined Sunstone's cherished inde- pendence.

Former board member Kent Frogley is not so sure.

"Sunstone could end up standing for nothing, its appeal so blunted that it would no longer be compelling," said Frogley, who stepped down in 1996 after 12 years as a Sunstone trustee. "There used to be room for faith and doubt to live side by side. Today, if you doubt, you're out."

The LDS Church itself would not discuss Sunstone, and requests to several BYU professors for comment went unanswered. However, a hint of how overtures to conservative Mormons might be received came from Scott Gordon, president of the LDS-affirming Foundation for Apologetic Information Research.

"There is a place for scholarly work to benefit the church and its members, and inasmuch as Sunstone accomplished this, we really salute them. But if they ever detracted from this, we would welcome a change," he said. "Maybe this change [of leadership] will provide an opportunity for greater partici- pation."

New editor Dan Wotherspoon plans to return the magazine to bimonthly publication (only two issues have come out in the past year and a half) and develop a new Web site (www.sunstoneonline.com). He, too, wants balance.

"In trying to recruit moderates and conservatives, we have heard of specific [church] directives not to participate with us," he said. "Or, we've sensed from their tone that the price would be too high [in terms of] reputation, feelings of family and colleagues."

But Sunstone has not been completely abandoned by the Mormon mainstream, a category in which Salt Lake City attorney Blake Ostler puts himself. A frequent contributor, Ostler sees his works as faith promoting, countering the occasional "religious bigotry" he says surfaces in the symposiums.

"I have a lot of friends at Sunstone who I personally assisted with their journeys of faith. If I hadn't been there, I couldn't have done that," Ostler said.

But Armand Mauss, a retired sociologist and chairman of Sunstone's sister publication, Dialogue, says the need for Sunstone is matched by its own, sometimes self-inflicted, image woes.

He points to a recent Sunstone symposium in San Francisco, where one paper compared the church's 1995 "Proclamation on the Family" -- a manifesto supporting traditional marriage -- with Nazi propaganda. Sunstone later rejected the paper, but the publicity it generated was damaging.

"The problem is, what is Sunstone for?" Mauss asked. "If what emerges is a vision of Sunstone primarily as a private program for criticizing the church and 'keeping the brethren honest,' then I think the enterprise is dead."

On the other hand, he said, "There will always be people who value their church membership but have questions they want to talk about and read about."

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