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Trans-European Union Discusses "Unity in Mission" Document During Year-end Meeting

Leaders in the Trans-European Division are united in mission. Watch them in discussions at the dinner table or in committee during their Year-end Meetings in Bečići, Montenegro, and you will see a positive exchange of ideas in progress. Together they are looking for positive ways to share the Adventist Message across the varying cultures that include communities from the extremely secular to the Orthodox, Catholic, or predominantly Muslim.

Lively mission-focused debates occur at the Trans-European Division Year-end Meetings.

Within that context, church members seek to build relationships within their communities and with each other. Equally, with such diversity, they find themselves working in radically different ways in different countries.

That cultural diversity affects not just mission but also the way the church leads and operates. This became clear in discussions held during TED Year-end Meetings focused around the document "Unity in Mission: Procedures in Church Reconciliation" recently voted by the Seventh-day Adventist World Church Annual Council on Tuesday, 11 October 2016.

In consultations, held both with the Presidents’ Council and with the larger Executive Committee, Raafat Kamal, TED President, noted that there is a positive spirit and desire within the TED that they are, and want to remain, part of the World Church, that they rejoice in the unity that the Church has together in Jesus, but that there are particular issues and circumstances within Europe that need sensitive understanding from the larger body of Adventism

Several clear issues were presented during the debate. The first was that the document, while good in intention, was open to misinterpretation. “The name of the document is ‘Unity in Mission.’ I do not know of any document with a name that has produced such disunity,” stated Reidar Kvinge, President of the Norwegian Union. With serious issues of equality legislation in his own country, his team has been looking for a way forward that will give gender equality of employment that satisfies government regulations but that fits in with the spirit of Church Working Policy.

As President of the Church in Denmark, Thomas Müller agrees, but he finds his membership far more concerned with the ethical and conscience issues than the challenge they have in being out of harmony with Danish employment law. He pleaded that “this needs open discussion and some need for adaptability.”

Both Kvinge and Müller emphasise that it is not the document itself, but the issues that surround it, principally that of credentials for women in ministry and church leadership, that are causing some difficulties for the church in their areas. They are struggling with how to balance, not just equality legislation, but the cultural expectations of their youth and young adults where the norm is one of gender equality. They see this as an issue of fairness not theology.

Supported by her Union president, Wim Altink, Frieda Souhuwat-Tomasoa, a lay-representative from the Netherlands, appealed for greater understanding and sensitivity. As members in Europe reflect the diversity of thought seen around the Adventist World, she agrees with Müller that we need to learn to co-exist with a variety of opinions. “Can we find a third way? We need to listen. We need to consult, and we need to come back together.”

History may give us a somber lesson in that regard. Robert Csizmadia, Executive Secretary of the Hungarian Union, recounted how the church in Hungary split forty years ago because, in his words, “both sides were right.”  As a result discussions got bogged down, and trust was lost. He pleaded, “Brothers, I accept that this is not about ordination. It is something more. How do we listen to each other when we are both right? We do not have 40 years!”

That resonated with Hilde Huru, a lay-member from the Norwegian Union. She sees this as an issue not just of equality but of conscience. She confessed that, along with many of her fellow members, she struggles with what she sees as inconsistent church policy that allows the ordination of woman as elders and deacons yet holds back from that same privilege for paid pastors. She pleaded that she had been waiting, hoping, being very patient for 15 years, hoping that this inconsistency would be removed. Quoting the prophecy of Joel 2:28 that “your sons and daughters will prophesy”, she said, “I have stayed patient for the sake of unity. I can no longer do that. We cannot stay united unless we allow for diversity.”

Listening is seen as an important point for Pastor Kamal, including the listening and prayer principles outlined in the unity document. This must be not just during the discussion but also as part of the route for finding a way forward.

Djordje Trajkovski, president of the South East European Union, represents one of the more traditional Unions within the TED. A mild mannered and gentle man, he expressed that while issues of compliance and, in particular, gender equality, may be of more significance in some parts of Europe than others that, nevertheless, we need to stand together as leaders with a common voice. “We need to respect each other,” he said, while also voicing the hope that this would not be an "all-consuming issue" for the next four years.

Müller urged the leadership of the World Church to be more pro-active in trying to find a positive solution. “We want to be together in this,” he said. “We want unity. We should navigate towards solutions.”

One of those solutions looked again at Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council -- a passage highlighted in previous TED discussions on the subject of unity. As a model for finding win-win solutions for two groups that are both "right," the Council was highlighted again, noting that Jewish Christians continued with their tradition of circumcision while the gentiles were allowed a variation.

A way forward was suggested by Göran Hansen, President of the Swedish Union. He suggested that leaders work positively toward solutions and then reconvene a full Executive Committee in February 2017. He suggested that giving more time to discuss, to listen to each other, to consult with the policy experts, would help the TED to move towards a consensus. The suggestion gained wide approval.

Wim Altink, Netherlands Union president, added that in preparing for the February meeting TED Officers, including the Executive Secretary, should draft a careful and well-reasoned TED response to the "Unity document" to be discussed, amended and accepted.

In concluding the discussion, Kamal thanked committee members for their positive, constructive spirit. “Such a spirit is the way we must move forward,” he said, noting that “we cannot rush this. I’m appealing for calmness about this, to take time to take this process forward in a calm and dignified way.”

Kamal stated, “We will not ignore what was voted at Annual Council. We will take positive steps to address this, and I emphasise positive. We need to find a constructive solution.”

It was clear in the room that there were those who were hurting. Despite the fact that the World Church President, Pastor Ted Wilson very clearly stated that last year’s "no vote" on the subject of Divisions authorising the ordination of women “does not change current policy,” people experienced that female pastors, elders, and leaders have been given a difficult time since the vote. Others, and particularly young people, have become discouraged with a church that does not seem to be speaking their language. They want to belong but struggle with what they see as inequality.

Kamal emphasised once again that the entire TED leadership believes and supports women in ministry and in leadership. “We have made statement after statement on this issue,” he said, noting in particular TED releases made following the vote in San Antonio, during the 2015 Year-end Meetings, and more recently, immediately following the vote enabling the Unity document. “We are part of the world church, but we need the world church to understand our issues within our culture. We have made very open commitments to our values in the empowering of women in ministry and leadership. We have to find a way forward to see how the Division can work within the unity of the world church and policy.

Discussion and consultation will now take place across the Division, based on the ‘Unity in Mission’ document. This will lead up to a special Executive Committee that will convene in the early part of next year.

Victor Hulbert is director of Trans-European Division News where this story was first published.

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