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Analysis: The Use of General Conference Working Policy in the Case of Unions that Ordain Women

Why would anyone try to reinvent the wheel when a perfectly serviceable example lay in plain sight?  To do so would seem to indicate either a remarkable ignorance of the existence of the available wheel or more likely a desire to construct more than just a wheel.

Consider this proposition in light of the kerfuffle occurring last week over the efforts originating among the General Conference officers to have the GC Executive Committee, in its Annual Council, to approve a policy for dealing with union conferences deemed to be out of harmony with General Conference policy concerning ordination. It would appear that a "wheel"a policy prescribing what to do in that exact situation already exists. Witness the following excerpt from the General Conference Working Policy:  

B 95 05 Discontinuation of Conferences, Missions, Regions, Field Stations, Unions, and Unions of Churches by Dissolution and/or ExpulsionIf a situation arises where it is determined by the higher organization that the majority of members of a conference, a mission, a region, a field station, a union, or a union of churches are in apostasy, or that the organization refuses to operate in harmony with denominational policies and constitutional requirements, and is in rebellion, the higher organization has a responsibility to act for the protection of its loyal members, and the good name of the Church. Every effort should be made to avert the need for dissolution by counseling with the leadership and members, seeking to bring healing and reconciliation, and to preserve the organization as a witness for God and His saving truth. If conciliatory efforts fail and discontinuation appears to be the only solution, the higher organization shall have authority to act as set out under B 95 10 and B 95 15. 

B 95 15 Dissolution and/or Expulsion of Unions/Unions of Churches—If, in the opinion of a division administration, a union/union of churches appears to be in apostasy or rebellion, and the procedures outlined in B 95 05 have been followed, but have proved unsuccessful, the following steps shall be taken: 

1. The matter shall be considered by the division executive committee at a duly called meeting of the committee, at which time all the relevant data shall be shared. The division executive committee shall then determine whether or not the union/union of churches is in apostasy or rebellion. 

2. a. In the case of a union mission/union of churches with mission status: If the division executive committee determines that a union mission/union of churches with mission status is in apostasy or rebellion and should be dissolved, it shall take an action to dissolve the organization, and shall recommend to the General Conference Executive Committee the expulsion of the unit from the world sisterhood of unions. 

b. In the case of a union conference/union of churches with conference status: If the division executive committee determines that a union conference/union of churches with conference status is in apostasy or rebellion and should be expelled from the world sisterhood of unions, the division shall refer the matter to the General Conference Executive Committee with the recommendation for expulsion from the world sisterhood of unions and the reasons for it. 

3. The General Conference Executive Committee, in consultation with the division, shall use its discretion to decide whether another union conference constituency meeting should be called and, if so, at what point in the procedure. 

4. The General Conference Executive Committee shall consider the recommendation of the division executive committee at its Spring Meeting or Annual Council. If it approves the proposal for expulsion, the General Conference Executive Committee shall refer the recommendation to the next regular or specially called General Conference Session for consideration. 

5. If a General Conference Session concurs with a recommendation to expel and votes to expel a union from the world sisterhood of unions, the division shall exercise direct responsibility for the conferences and/or missions/regions/field stations affected by the expulsion and shall, through its executive committee, take an action to attach them directly to the division until a new organization can be established or a rearrangement of territorial boundaries effected. Disloyal conferences/missions/regions/field stations shall be dealt with in harmony with the principles set out under B 75 10. In the event that a union of churches is expelled from the sisterhood of unions, the division executive committee shall vote to take into the care of the division all churches of the union of churches until reorganization or a redistribution of boundaries can be arranged. The division executive committee, functioning in place of the expelled union of churches constituency, shall have authority to disband any local churches which prove to be disloyal and to redistribute remaining churches by territorial adjustment and/or reorganization. 

6. In the event of the dissolution of a union mission/union of churches with mission status and/or the expulsion of a union/union of churches with conference status from the sisterhood of unions, audits of the financial records of the union conference/union mission shall be conducted. All assets remaining after all claims have been satisfied shall be transferred to a legal entity authorized by the division, or dealt with as specified in the expelled entity’s constitution and bylaws or operating policy. 

7. If, with the passage of time and efforts toward healing and restoration, it seems desirable for the nurture of the members and for the mission of the Church to reorganize the union/union of churches, the process outlined under the relevant section of B 65 shall be followed. 

Now why, instead of initiating a near crisis, did ‘the brethren’ not simply reference this existing policy and proceed to implement it? Let’s return to the above-cited possibilities. Was it an incredible ignorance of the existence of this policy?  Given the cumulative knowledge of policy matters in among the GC Secretariat, that really does seem incredible. The more likely answer would seem to be that B95 wasn’t exactly what the initiator(s) of this episode wanted to do. Evidence pointing toward that answer is in B95.  Note: 

B 95 15 If, in the opinion of a division administration, a union/union of churches appears to be in apostasy or rebellion, and the procedures outlined in B 95 05 have been followed, but have proved unsuccessful, the following steps shall be taken: 

1. The matter shall be considered by the division executive committee at a duly called meeting of the committee, at which time all the relevant data shall be shared. The division executive committee shall then determine whether or not the union/union of churches is in apostasy or rebellion. 

Note that the procedure must begin at the division level, and that the language is mandatoryit shall be done following this procedure. If the division committeenot just its officersdecide a union should be disciplined, it refers the matter to the GC Executive Committee with a recommendation for further action. The GC Committee shall consider the recommendation at either a Spring Meeting or Annual Council. If the decision were to be for expulsion/dissolution, the matter shall go to the next General Conference Session. Note also that B95 makes no provision for what happens if the division committee decides that no problem exists.

B95 is mandatory, and its provisions are clear. Perhaps the problem is that it leaves little room for unilateral executive action other than informally making a division aware of a perceived problem—that, and the fact that the procedure mandated would take more that a bit of time to carry out. 

Perhaps the lack of attention to B75 reflects a little-discussed attitude: that GCWP is to be used to regulate the actions of “subordinate” organizations rather than the GC itselfand its officers. Over the past decades, two realities have been observed. First, discussions of policy conflicts often eventually lead someone to observe that ‘there’s policy, and then there’s policy,’ meaning that some policies are more important than others. As a practical matter, that’s true. But it also reflects the reality that the use of policy to influence the outcome of a discussion is optional, to be done if policy furthers the case of the person citing it.

The second observed reality is that although GCWP is the closest thing we have to a law code, it is not given that weight. When practice is seen to be in conflict with policy, the organization simply changes policy to reflect practice, when change in policy should rightly precede change in practiceat least if policy is as important as it is on occasion claimed to be. GC officers more than once have chosen to ignore policy if it seems the best thing to do, as though policy is optional, not mandatory. This is a bit like Richard Nixon’s position that if the president does it, it isn’t illegal. In hindsight, that was a most unfortunate argument. It still is, and not just in the setting of civil government.

SEE ALSO: Unions and the General Conference - What Happens Next?

Mitchell Tyner is retired Associate General Counsel to the General Conference.

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