Christian fest snubs Mormons

Hard-liners would not attend event with Latter-day Saints

By Lawn Griffiths

East Valley Tribune/Mesa Tribune (Jan. 31, 2000), p1

"Celebrating a common faith in Christ" is how organizers of the Festival of Faith 2000 touted the event held at Bank One Ballpark earlier this month. Forty Christian denominations and 500 congregations were to set aside doctrinal differences and hold the largest ecumenical gathering in state history.

They weren’t completely successful.

Though "Jesus Christ" is part of their formal name and paintings of Christ hang everywhere in Mormon churches and homes, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were excluded from the festival.

Though Mormons had initially been told they would be allowed to take part, hard-line evangelical faiths insisted the church be excluded or they themselves would not attend the Jan. 15 festival. IN all, about 38,000 believers came together at the festival to celebrate Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago.

"They were not invited," said the Rev. Gary Kinnaman, senior pastor of Word of Grace Church in Mesa and a steering committee member. "They want to participate and the want recognition in mainstream Protestantism and mainstream Christianity. Their doctrinal positions on the fundamentals of the Christian faith are radically different from the position of historic Christianity."

The festival, Kinnaman said, was "distinctly Christian event" and he and others did not want Mormons involved.

Broad Christian participation was a goal when festival planning began under the leadership of the Rev. Paul Eppinger, executive director of the Arizona Ecumenical Council, said the Rev. Tom Butcher, a steering committee representative for the United Methodist Church.

Butcher pointed to early committee minutes, dated June 16, 1997. Under the heading "participants," the minutes noted, "We want this to be as inclusive as possible in the Christian commu. . .We intend to expand the committee with representatives invited from the Church of Latter-day Saints and the evangelical churches."

The closer the festival came, the more obvious it became that would not happen, he said.

"Somewhere along the line it became clear we couldn’t have both the evangelicals and Latter-day Saints," Butcher said. "Evangelical groups draw more lines in the sand."

Wilford Andersen, a Mormon stake president and the church’s chief spokesman in Arizona, recalled that during one of the periodic, informal meetings he held with Eppinger, "He asked the LDS to participate in this festival. I said, ‘Great! Send us the information.’ It didn’t come, didn’t come, didn’t come, and then we had breakfast, and I said, ‘Paul, I am sure anxious to help you out wherever I can,’ and he kind, of looked down and was embarrassed and said, The Mormons are not invited.’"

As a first-time event, it was a hard sell to get all elements of the state’s Christian community to take part, Eppinger said.

"Many of us are evangelicals who are mainline Protestants, but more right-wing groups have not been involved in anything related to mainline Protestants or Roman Catholics," he said. "Some of those leaders said if we bring in the LDS churches at this time, they would not be able to take part.

"It is a big step for them to be involved in something with Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants," Eppinger said of the evangelicals. "So, we decided, ‘Let’s take that step first and then sometime we will try to take some other steps.’"

A resigned Andersen gave his own take.

"They kind of have to walk a fine line in the Ecumenical Council so they don’t lose the evangelical groups that take such hard positions against us," Andersen said. "It is so puzzling to me because on social issues, if there is a friend of the evangelical movement on abortion, homosexual rights and all the other things, it is the LDS."

The snub by conservative Christians disturbs one Mesa Mormon, Craig Ray, who has monitored anti-Mormon groups since 1977 and has been a gospel doctrine teacher in five Mormon wards.

"They define who is Christian and not Christian," Ray said. "‘OK, you can go, but you can’t.’ ... Who gives them the right to choose for everybody?"

Eppinger agreed somewhat.

"We are living in the kind of society and the kind of culture where we can no longer afford to cast each other aside," Eppinger said.. We need to understand each other and care for each other and love each other," he said.

"For me, if I as a Christian am threatened by any other group, be that LDS, Jewish or Muslim or Baha’i or anybody else, that means my faith is very, very shallow and very weak," he said. "If my faith is strong in God, as I know God, then I can be with other people, talk and work with other people without it being a threat to me and my faith."

The Assemblies of God does not have a specific position against Mormonism, said the Rev. Stephen Harris, an Assemblies representative on the Festival of Faith steering committee.

But based on teachings that Mormons have, Harris said, "Our Assemblies of God would have had a hard time being involved in the Festival of Faith or any kind of ecumenical thing if they had been included."

Though disappointed, Andersen is not surprised.

"Anti-Mormon attitudes are not new to members of our faith," Andersen said. "We try not to be offended at these things. One could construct a definition of ‘Christianity’ that would exclude the whole world, except themselves. But the exercise itself would be unchristian. That would be the irony of this."