Mormon church appoints 93-year-old ex-surgeon as president

2018-01-17 13:38
President Russell M Nelson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints answers questions from the press after he was announced as the 17th president of the Mormon Church on January 16, 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (George Frey/Getty Images/AFP)

President Russell M Nelson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints answers questions from the press after he was announced as the 17th president of the Mormon Church on January 16, 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (George Frey/Getty Images/AFP)

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Salt Lake City — The 93-year-old former heart surgeon named on Tuesday as the new president of the Mormon Church signalled his intention to make few changes in policy regarding the role of women and LGBT issues — two topics that the faith has grappled with in recent years.

Russell M Nelson's remarks to reporters after he was officially chosen to become the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reaffirmed an expectation that he will likely uphold traditional church teachings.

Speaking about his approach to LGBT issues, Nelson said he understands there are "challenges with the commandments of God, challenges to be worthy".

"God loves his children and we love them and there's a place for everyone," Nelson said. "Regardless of his challenges."

The church at times has expressed empathy and told members to be welcoming to LGBT people while also strictly defending opposition to same-sex marriage and all homosexual relationships.

Dallin H Oaks, one of two men Nelson chose to be his counsellors, added that leaders have the responsibility to teach love but also God's commandments.

"We've got the love of the Lord and the law of the Lord," said Oaks, a member of church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles leadership body.

Nelson called doing so a "balance".

Nelson succeeds Thomas S Monson, who died January 2 after leading the religion for nearly a decade. Church presidents serve until they die.

He took the post following a longstanding succession plan that aims to keep the faith on course with a minimum of upheaval.

Diversifying church leadership

Nelson is now considered a "prophet, seer and revelator" by Mormons. He is second-oldest man to assume leadership of the 16-million member LDS church.

He will share responsibility for the faith's religious and business interests with his two top counsellors and members of the Quorum.

Nelson did not mention changing any roles for women, instead emphasising their importance within the current church structure that includes an all-male priesthood. "We need their voices, we need their input and we love their participation," Nelson said.

That echoed sentiments he made during an October 2015 speech that came during a period of intense discussion about the role of women.

The church faces some pressure to diversify leadership to add women, non-whites and people from countries outside the United States. 

All the Quorum members are white and were born in the US, except for Dieter F Uchtdorf, who was born in Czechoslovakia and is a naturalised US citizen.

Nelson said the "Lord is in charge" of picking top church leaders and acknowledged that its highest leadership councils are not a "representative assembly".

"We'll live to see the day when there will be other flavours in the mix, but we respond because we've been called by the Lord," Nelson said.

Tuesday's announcement came two days after Nelson was anointed during a private meeting in the Salt Lake City temple, per church tradition that makes the longest-tenured member of the Quorum the new president.

Nelson's selection of Oaks, 85, and Henry B Eyring, 84, as his counsellors means Uchtdorf, 77, goes back to the being a regular member of the Quorum after he served as one of Monson's counsellors.

Eyring was also a counsellor for Monson, while this marks the first time Oaks will serve as a counsellor to a church president. Oaks is the next-longest tenured member of the Quorum, making him next-in-line to become the next president.

'Conservative' chain of presidency

His selections could be due to his familiarity with Oaks and Eyring, but it underscores the expectation that his presidency won't include major reform since Oaks and Eyring share Nelson's "traditionalist strain" while Uchtdorf was considered a bit more centrist, said Patrick Mason, a Mormon scholar and associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University in California.

"The reality is that this presidency will be more conservative than the previous one," Mason said.

Fellow scholar Matthew Bowman, an associate professor of history at Henderson State University, said it's important to remember that the church is led through consensus and committee so even though Nelson and Oaks will have more power, the same leadership core remains intact just without Monson.

"The same people are sitting around the tables, just in different chairs," Bowman said.

Nelson fits the common profile of his generation of church leaders as someone who was successful in the private sector before leaving behind his career to help guide the faith.

Born in Salt Lake City in 1924, Nelson converted to Mormonism at the age of 16. He was a doctor by 22. He served a two-year Army medical tour of duty during the Korean War before resuming a medical career that included being director of thoracic surgery residency at the University of Utah.

Another challenge Nelson will face is adapting to the increasingly global nature of the church, which was founded in 1830 in the United States and now has nearly six in 10 members living in other countries.

Still, the rate of growth overall in membership has slowed in the past few decades, despite efforts to spread the faith including the lowering of the minimum age for those serving as missionaries.

Nelson called on Mormons to stay true to their faith and declared there's room for everyone in the religion even if they have strayed from the faith.

"Whatever your concerns, whatever your challenges, there's a place for you in this, the Lord's church," said Nelson.

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