The biggest news of the 189th General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may have been a policy change that happened before the event even began.
The church made news Thursday by announcing it was rolling back a controversial policy that restricted LGBT parents from baptizing their children. Church leaders didn’t mention the policy adjustments during general conference weekend.
But officials quietly elevated an African American man to a top leadership position in the church, for the first time.
First Counselor to the President of the church, Dallin H. Oaks, announced Saturday that Elder Peter M. Johnson will become a General Authority Seventy.
“Seventies” are called to serve as special witnesses of Christ, proclaim the gospel and build up the church throughout the world. They work under direction of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
According to a biography on the Church’s news site, 52-year-old Johnson is originally from New York. At the time of his calling he had been serving as an Area Seventy and Member of the Sixth Quorum of the Seventy in the North America Southeast Area.
He has degrees in accounting and has worked as an associate and assistant professor of accounting at several universities. He has served in a number of church callings, including full-time missionary in the Alabama Birmingham Mission.
Also Saturday, Elder Neil L. Anderson focused on reinforcing traditional ideas of marriage as a sacred union between a man and a woman. He praised a gay friend who he said has been true to his temple covenants, which require celibacy outside heterosexual marriage.
“One friend of nearly 20 years, whom I admire greatly, is not married because of same-sex attraction,” Anderson said in his address to the crowd on Saturday afternoon. “He has remained true to his temple covenants, has expanded his creative and professional talents, and has served nobly in both the Church and the community.”
The LDS Church teaches that same-sex attraction is not a sin, but acting on it is. It opposes same-sex marriage and treats it as a serious sin.
Ahead of the conference, the church rolled back a 2015 policy that restricted baptism of children of gay couples and called the parents apostates. It was a welcome change for the LGBT community. Though critics say the church should apologize.
Jordan Sgro, who grew up LDS, said the while the policy change was welcome, more needs to be done, including an apology for excluding LGBTQ members. She added that real progress would come with genuine acknowledgement of the pain and suffering sparked by the policy and accountability for the impact it had.
“It’s confusing and I think it brings up a lot of anger and emotion,” Sgro told KUER after the Thursday’s announcement. “People are looking for that acknowledgment of, ‘Hey, I’m sorry that we put you through so much. We’re sorry for the lives that were lost, and the countless families that fell apart, the hearts that were shattered into pieces because of this.’”
Still, Sgro, who works for Encircle, a group that provides counseling for LGBTQ youth in Utah, said the changes make her hopeful.
As members arrived Sunday morning to the General Conference, demonstrators held a silent protest to remember those LGBTQ people affected by the controversial policy, including those who lost their lives by suicide.
This year, plans were announced to build new temples in American Samoa, Japan, Honduras, Chile and Hungary. Two more are planned in the United States, including in Tooele Valley, Utah and Moses Lake, Washington State. The church also said it also planned to renovate temples in Salt Lake City and St. George.