In Europe it has long been the custom when the king dies to hear someone yell out “The King is dead! Long live the King!” I have always thought this was the silliest thing to do. Why would you say, “Long live the King if you just announced he was dead?” It is actually quite sensible. I was just slow to catch on.
Succession in the royal line was an all-consuming obsession with royalty. If there was any gap, even hours in duration between one king leaving the throne and the next stepping up to it, that was enough time for someone to make their move and usurp the crown. So it was all-important to have someone lined up ready to wear the crown as soon as the old king died.
So when the old king died they announced, “The King is dead!” And just as quickly they assured the realm that the kingdom was not left unprotected and unguarded by announcing that there was already a king on the throne to take the old king’s place, so, “Long live the King!” How comforting to the subjects to know that there was no break in the order of their everyday lives. The rulership was passed from one person to another and the country went smoothly on its way.
A new prophet
The Lord wants to assure His subjects as well that when the prophet dies there is no question as to who will be His next voice on the earth. For this reason there has been established a very clear pattern in the succession of the priesthood responsibility among the Apostles. In this dispensation it has been well ordered that the Apostles are ranked by seniority. It is all based on when each one was ordained to their position as an Apostle. When two or more Apostles are called at the same time, they are ranked according to who is ordained first.
When Spencer W. Kimball and Ezra Taft Benson were ordained Apostles on the same day, Spencer Kimball was the first to be ordained, and therefore when the day came that he was the senior apostle and the prophet died, he became President Kimball. After his death Elder Benson became President Benson. It is a very clean and orderly pattern.
Just as the senior apostle becomes the next prophet, so too does the second in line become the president of the quorum of the Twelve Apostles. If the current prophet calls the second in seniority into the First Presidency to serve with him there then the third in line becomes the acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve.
When the prophet dies the quorum of the First Presidency dissolves and the members slide back into their positions of seniority in the the body of the Apostles. Because they, as a quorum have authority to guide the Church in the absence of the prophet, they set apart and ordain the senior Apostle as the next Prophet. He then chooses counselors and a new Quorum of the First Presidency is formed.
Once this presiding quorum has been reassembled, the second in seniority (assuming he isn’t in the First Presidency) takes over the leadership of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The Prophet then calls a new apostle to fill the vacancy in the Twelve, and the Church continues forward without missing a beat.
Admittedly, it wasn’t this easy when the Church was first organized at the beginning of this dispensation, but through the years the Lord made His will known to His prophets, and the pattern was established, and has continued to the present time.
Bishops and Stake Presidents
The only offices in the Church that is controlled through life and death of the members of a priesthood quorum is that of the Apostles and the Prophet (and he is the senior Apostle). All other offices, except Patriarch, are callings with eventual releases. So what is the pattern for succession in other callings in the Church?
The pattern is pretty much universal for all callings, not just priesthood-related callings. But I will use the calling of a Bishop/Stake President as an example. Keep in mind though that it is the same for the calling and releasing of nursery workers, Sunday School teachers, and any other calling in the ward and stake.
When the priesthood leader determines that it is time for a change, names are gathered and submitted. Interviews are conducted, and a priesthood leader determines who the replacement should be. In the case of the Stake President or Bishop it is usually a member of the Seventy who determines who the new leader should be for the Stake, and usually it is the Stake President who determines who the next Bishop will be for the ward.
The calling is made, counselors are selected and called, and then, and only then is the change made public. This is one of those “The King is dead! Long live the King!” moments. No one is supposed to discuss the callings, so no one should know who the new Bishop is and who his counselors are, except for the Stake Presidency, and those to whom callings have been extended.
Those who are being released should have had an exit interview. In this short interview the Stake President calls in the Bishop to let him know he is being released. He is thanked for his service, his time as Bishop is briefly reviewed, and counsel is given by the Bishop’s priesthood leader. Keep in mind this is the basic process. There are many variations on how this is done, but this is the gist.
When someone is being called to a new position, no one should be told about the calling until it is announced over the pulpit. The only ones to know should be the family members of those to whom callings have been extended. And I am sure those who are being released have also told their family members of the upcoming change.
Keeping the change out of the public arena helps to curb the input of public opinion where it is not appropriate to be given. It also helps those who are preparing for their new calling time to prepare for shouldering their new responsibilities.
I’m sure we have all seen breaches in the protocol of callings and sustainings. I’ve seen a Bishop release his own counselor and sustain someone else in that position having forgotten to let the counselor know that it was going to happen. He was just released and called to another position in the ward. Complete surprise! It isn’t supposed to be done this way, but it does happen. Fortunately, it never happens that way with the Prophet and Apostles.
The point to all of this is that the Lord is organized. Much of our peace as members of the Church comes from the knowledge that there are patterns and expectations as to how things work and how the Church is run. There should never be any administrative surprises in the Lord’s kingdom.
When there are changes in leadership it happens quickly, confidently, and with reverence. There is no wrangling, jostling for position, campaigning, voting to see who can muster the most support, none of that. Like the Article of Faith says, “We believe that a man must be called of God, as was Aaron.” It is done through the priesthood through the promptings of the Holy Ghost. And there should always be great respect in both releasing someone and sustaining them. This is the Lord’s way of changing His leaders.