The Salt Lake Tribune
Date: 02/26/2000 Edition: Final Section: Nation/World Page: A1
Story type: profile-interview Keywords: Religious Leaders; Mormon Church; UT
Subject: Religion and Belief Matter: Churches (organizations)
Hinckley Marks 5 Years as LDS President
Says church will continue to speak on moral issues, push to be recognized as Christian; Hinckley Marking LDS Anniversary
BY PEGGY FLETCHER STACK THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
To one side of LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley's desk is a picture of church founder Joseph Smith, to the other an image of Jesus Christ.
But square behind that burnished walnut is a portrait of Brigham Young, the Mormon prophet and colonizer, gazing directly down on his 13th successor at work.
"I look at him every once in a while and listen," Hinckley says.
And well he might, for the two share the kind of pragmatic resolve that sent Young across the plains with a handful of followers to build a Mormon heartland and around the world to tend to the faithful whose numbers have grown to nearly 11 million.
On Wednesday, Hinckley reflected on his five-year anniversary (March 12) as president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a wide-ranging interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, he said the church will continue to speak out on "moral issues," is gaining in its fight to be seen as Christian and has no plans to add to its canon of scripture or change the status of women in the faith.
Burgeoning growth is stretching the church's leadership and financial resources, he said, while still exuding optimism for the future. He called the church's 170-year history "a miracle."
With characteristic humor, Hinckley smiled and said, "Treat me kindly. I'm an old man."
True. But in many ways, just three months shy of his 90th birthday Hinckley possesses the vitality of a 20-year-old.
During his tenure, he has dedicated 24 temples, including several of his own innovations: the smaller temples serving far-flung populations. Among other efforts, he has placed millions of the church's genealogical records on the Internet, issued the faith's definitive "Proclamation on the Family," and built a massive conference center across the street from Temple Square.
Of all his accomplishments, however, he said his singular ambition was "to get out among the people of this church across the world."
And he has done that with gusto, visiting more than 100 nations where the church has members. Today, he leaves for Mexico to dedicate two more temples. Chronic jet lag, constant exhilaration.
"Wherever we go we see local leaders of various nationalities speaking various languages with different skin colors all acting as if they've been in the church for 50 years," Hinckley said. "It lets them see we are one with them and we're all one great big family working together for the same common cause."
The 'Constitution of the Church': That common cause is grounded in Mormon belief that the church is the vessel for the restored Christian gospel and that Smith was the conduit for its doctrine. LDS presidents are considered by the faithful as "prophets, seers and revelators" able to add divine revelation to the canon.
While President Spencer W. Kimball's 1978 revelation that admitted black men to the priesthood was made part of the faith's Doctrine and Covenants, the church has no plans to add its Proclamation on the Family or recent Testimony of the Apostles.
"We've never considered it," Hinckley said.
In general, Hinckley said, church doctrine has changed little since he was born in Salt Lake City in 1910. "The doctrine stands as the constitution of the church, so to speak."
However, "procedures, practices and programs are somewhat adjusted according to need," Hinckley said.
In 1980, for example, the services that once bracketed Sunday mornings and evenings were combined into a three-hour block known as the "consolidated meeting schedule."
Hinckley said there is no truth in persistent rumors the Sabbath schedule would be shortened or Sunday school eliminated altogether.
"It's not a serious problem to go for three hours," he said. "If you are at a university, you are in class after class all day long, five days a week in some cases."
Hinckley also sees no need to change the organizational roles of women, such as giving them the priesthood now held only by men.
"They have their own organization, their own offices, their own board," he said, referring to the women's Relief Society. "Those women sit on other church boards, they sit with us in other deliberative bodies and they make a tremendous contribution. Now, are they in second place to us? No, I don't think so. We walk side by side."
The three-man First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles will remain as they are, he said. But the church will not hesitate to add quorums of Seventies to the current five quorums (Hinckley established the third, fourth and fifth in 1998) to help provide oversight and training for its lay clergy.
"The church is organized in such a way we could go on expanding the Seventies limitlessly," he said.
Public Presence: As a seasoned public relations practitioner, Hinckley long has been concerned about how the world views his church. And since the early 1980s, the church has focused on convincing doubters that Mormonism is a genuine Christian faith, not a cult.
To that end, it added the subtitle "Another Testament for Christ" to The Book of Mormon and changed its logo to emphasize the words, "Jesus Christ." Church leaders have repeatedly stressed the faith's Christian nature from the pulpit.
Such efforts are paying off, Hinckley said.
"More and more people across the world have come to recognize that we are a Christian organization. We may be different in the way we look at some things, but they cannot deny us the substance of having Jesus Christ as the central figure of our theology."
The church also has built alliances with other Christian denominations to, for example, oppose same-sex marriages and defend religious liberties.
"What's a church for if it isn't to fight for values, to take a stand and face up to these moral issues?" Hinckley said emphatically. "But we do it as part of a coalition. We're not out there alone."
Mormon leaders evaluate taking such positions before going public, he said, but do not worry about criticism. "You have to know that this church is not run by polls," he said.
Indeed, the church came in for a barrage of complaints when it bought a block of Salt Lake City's Main Street to create a plaza between Temple Square and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Hinckley was not surprised.
"It was discussed up and down by the mayor, the City Council, and the city attorney drew the contract," he said. "It was all above board, but I think none of us doubted there would be some outcry."
Still, he and the others believe that when it is completed, the block's landscaping and walkways will be "a wonderful addition" to the city.
How does he do it?: Unflappability and wit have become Hinckley's signatures, whether he is bantering with journalists or conducting delicate political negotiations or speaking off the cuff at the church's general conferences.
Breaking from the interview, he pulled a face at a photographer and demanded, "Who's this interloper?"
Then he murmured to himself, "Well, straighten up, look your best: smile on your face, part in your hair."
Hinckley's easy style and mock gruffness can disarm world leaders as well as callow missionaries, and his office is filled with their gifts and mementos.
A replica of the Nauvoo Temple. Several eagles. A brass sculpture of his pioneer grandfather cradling his infant daughter at his wife's grave on the Great Plains. A bronze of Lincoln. A football signed by Brigham Young University's 1984 champions; a basketball signed by Utah's 1998 NCAA Final team.
A railroad bell, a photo of Hinckley presenting Mormon scriptures to President Ronald Reagan, and a sculpture of 12-year-old boys squirming in their pew.
On Wednesday, Hinckley opened his latest gift -- an 1834 first edition of Charles' Dickens' Life of our Lord, a beloved book he often quotes.
"This is very much appreciated and very precious and wonderful," he said quietly. But, he said, "my days of collecting are behind me. I'm giving them away."
Hinckley will turn 90 on June 23. Any special plans? "Yes, but I'm not going to tell you.
"I'm a man who doesn't need anything. On my birthday, I'm going to try to give something to the people of the community."