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Mormon leader Dieter Uchtdorf says church has 'made mistakes'

Speech seen as effort at modernising a growing religion with a history of squashing dissent

An official at the pinnacle of the Mormon Church acknowledged that past leaders had “made mistakes” in their stewardship, an apparent reference to intolerance towards members and scholars who had questioned some of the basic tenets of its teaching which led to their being ostracised or even expelled from its ranks.

Offered by Dieter Uchtdorf, one of two counsellors who advise the church president, at the biannual meeting of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Salt Lake City held at the weekend, the unusual comments appeared aimed at setting a modernising tone at a time of rapid expansion of its global membership.

“To be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the church have simply made mistakes,” Mr Uchtdorf conceded in an address attended by 20,000 faithful crammed into a three-storey arena in downtown Salt Lake and watched by millions more by live television and internet feeds around the world. “There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles or doctrine.”

He urged members to “doubt their doubts” before despairing of Church theology largely drawn from the Book of Mormon. But he added: “We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of church history – along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honourable and divine events – there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question.” He did not say which areas of dissent he was referring to.

Kicking off the two-day meeting on Saturday, the president of the church, Thomas Monson, said the group had achieved a global membership of 15 million. That would put it ahead of the Jewish faith which numbers around 14 million. “The church continues to grow steadily and to change the lives of more and more people every year,” he said. Founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, the LDS is one of the world’s youngest and fastest growing churches.

The LDS sets itself apart in several ways – for example, with a rigorous tithing system that requires members to donate 10 per cent of their income to the church, including  funding of an enormous evangelising programme. Monson, 87, who like his predecessors is given the status of prophet, noted that there are now 80,000 missionaries around the world, up from 58,500 a year ago, following a recent lowering of the minimum age of male missionaries to 18 and female missionaries to 19.

As other churches can attest, the process of modernisation can be too fast for some and slow for others. About 200 female members of the church marched through Salt Lake on Saturday to protest an all-male meeting of the LDS priesthood and the lesser role held by women in the church’s hierarchy.

But Todd Christofferson, who sits on the LDS governing council known as the Quorum of Twelve, cautioned against “feminist” activism. “Some feminist thinkers view homemaking with outright contempt, arguing it demeans women, and that the relentless demands of raising children are a form of exploitation,” he told the assembly. “They ridicule what they call the ‘mommy track’ as a career. That is not fair or right.”