They Prayed for the Spirit: Inside the PUC Ordination Vote

At the end of the evening, over 400 delegates from the Pacific Union Conference (PUC) had voted 79% to 21% in favor of ordaining without regard to gender. The overwhelming show of support came as a surprise to many. Less surprising was most of what came before.

The special constituency session at the Warner Center Marriott in Woodland Hills, California brought together delegates from five western states and seven conferences to decide on two provisions--the first to change wording in the union's bylaws, the second to ordain without regard to gender. The meeting began promptly at 1:00pm with delegates still filing in to the convention hall.

After a time of worship, including singing, prayers and a video presentation that incorporated Scripture and instrumental music, Pacific Union College president, Dr. Heather Knight offered an invocation during which she prayed, "Give us an outpouring of your Spirit as it was on the Day of Pentecost."

PUC president Ricardo Graham provided introductory remarks and a brief homily focused on the Zechariah 4:6 text in which Zerubbabel, says, "Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord  Graham called the meeting to order, and after selecting parliamentarians, invited General Conference president Ted N. C. Wilson to address delegates. Wilson indicated that he wanted North American Division president Dan Jackson to speak first instead. Jackson duly took the podium.

Reading from a carefully-crafted statement, Jackson spoke to delegates of his conflicting convictions: that women should be recognized for their contributions, past present and future, and that nothing should be done that would in any way damage the church. It was clear that Jackson was walking a very fine line, attempting to speak to concerns on both sides of the issue. He expressed his conviction that women should be recognized as ministers. Jackson took up the oft-repeated statement that this issue could bring dire consequences, but for Jackson, the dire consequences would follow not heeding the leading of the Holy Spirit. "God has placed the future of the church in your hands," Jackson told delegates. "What will you do with it?"

 

General Conference Leaders Speak

After Jackson finished, Ted Wilson took the stage. Wilson's comments very closely followed the same script he used when speaking to delegates at the Columbia Union Conference session on July 19. He expressed his concern for the unity of the church, and he personalized his remarks to delegates by tracing his family history to the Pacific Union Conference. Wilson told delegates that many around the world were interested and concerned the impending vote, which he described as being "unilateral" and "independent from the rest of the body." He predicted ominously that the vote could lead to congregationalism and disintegration of the church.

Wilson issued a strong appeal to allow the ordination study process to "truly function," going out of his way to characterize the study as "gender inclusive." He framed the issue by saying that to vote yes to inclusive ordination would result in the fracturing of the church, and voting no would result in the Pacific Union Conference's "joining the World Church family." Leave the world church family or join it, was Wilson's ultimatum.

Following his remarks, Wilson invited two General Conference vice-presidents to speak: Lowell Cooper and Armando Miranda.

Cooper called attention to the importance of carefully considering how to proceed, calling the occasion a "learning moment." He said that some have treated the GC in Session as the highest ecclesiastical authority in some matters, but not others. This must be challenged, he suggested, indicating that the GC in Session should be considered highest authority in all matters. He pushed for the idea that policy on ordination should only be dictated by General Conference Sessions. Cooper finished his remarks to scattered applause, and Armando Miranda took the podium.

Miranda, speaking at the behest of Elder Wilson (rather than the request of the PUC) began with reports of successes for the Adventist Church in bringing lapsed members back into attendance and in distributing copies of the Great Controversy. Then, Miranda switched gears. "The devil is trying to distract us from ministry and is bringing disunity," Miranda said, implying devilish influences in the move toward non-gendered ordination practice. "The shaking has begun," Miranda said. "If we don't respect policies...it's going to be terrible," he added.

Wilson re-took the stage after Miranda finished, brandishing a copy of the GC Working Policy booklet. He called it dry and wonkish, but asserted that "policies are Christian agreements we make collectively" Wilson took aim at the idea that the working policy allowed for variation in practice for cultural reasons, denying that any such variants could be found. Thirty minutes had already elapsed since he first stood behind the podium, giving GC representatives a large portion of the meeting. As Wilson spoke the second time, several commenters on Spectrum's live blog began suggesting that he was being allotted excess time.  At that moment, a female delegate called point of order, telling the president "We have a lot to get through..." The audience applauded in agreement. Ricardo Graham first commented that the point of order interrupting a speech was allowed for, but asked that Wilson be allowed to finish. Wilson stated that he had asked for an extra ten minutes before the meeting.

Wilson continued to expound the workings of GC policy, and stated that allowing the PUC to change its bylaws as proposed would make the PUC the highest authority in the church. Both Wilson and Cooper repeatedly appealed to the General Conference's authority in matters of establishing policy. Finishing, Wilson said that he asked on behalf of the World Church family--"I beseech and implore," he said. He appealed to all delegates, and to Ricardo Graham, by name, whom he noted was a member of the General Conference Executive Committee. "I beg you not to vote the recommended changes."

 

Ernie Castillo Steals Show

Wilson exited the stage as another man from the same Silver Spring building approached the podium. North American Division vice-president Ernie Castillo spoke next, saying he moved to Silver Spring from the PUC and missed the smog and earthquakes. The audience laughed. And, Castillo went on, after this speech, he might be moving back, he said to more laughter and applause. Castillo addressed his remarks to Wilson, and tackled the idea of rebellion head on. The Columbia Union Conference (which voted to ordain without regard to gender) and the North German Union Conference (which also voted to ordain women) and PUC were not in rebellion, Castillo said adamantly, receiving loud applause. Elder Mario Perez from Southeastern California Conference translated some of Castillo's remarks from Spanish to English as Castillo spoke directly to Hispanic constituents. Castillo continued, stating that the General Conference's move to forbid the North American Division from implementing its E 60 policy (which allowed women to serve as conference presidents) was "poorly managed." Castillo argued that the E 60 policy was a reaction to some forty years of suppression and discrimination against women.

"When we are discriminated against, we are going to react. This is sociology 101," Castillo said to laughter and applause. The audience seemed delighted with Castillo's bold comments, but Wilson glared, nonplussed.

Castillo led the audience in reading a statement from Ellen White in which she said the General Conference is the highest authority unless it is in conflict with the conscience and individual rights. Ricardo Graham interjected, "Easy Ernie, Easy!" Castillo ended with his own appeal to General Conference leaders to "try to be professional enough" to lay aside personal convictions. The audience applauded.

"I've never heard Ernie speak so passionately..." Graham said to applause and laughter, "...in both languages!"

 

PUC Leaders Speak

Southern California Conference president Larry Caviness spoke next, saying that all present were "loyal Seventh-day Adventist Church members," and the audience applauded with agreement.

"We must all stay at table of discussion and not close our ears. We must not break fellowship of Christian love and become adversarial," Caviness said. He suggested that Peter was called to participate in something unanticipated when the Holy Spirit was poured out on Gentiles. And Caviness suggested that something similar was happening today. Caviness then pointed out that no conference would be required to ordain women under the new bylaws, but that each conference would be free to recommend candidates for ordination or not.

Andrea King, senior pastor of Imani Praise Fellowship in Southeastern California Conference followed Caviness, and shared her calling to ministry. King said that she fought it at every turn. At first she did not believe in women ministers, she said, adding that she was eventually obedient to God's call. Through her story of pursuing a career with BET, reluctance to become a minister, and eventual acceptance of her call (and marriage to a minister), King illustrated vividly that God does call women to serve as pastors. She finished quoting E. E. Cleveland: "God can do anything with nothing, meaning me."

Loma Linda University Church senior pastor Randy Roberts took the podium next. He rebutted three objections to the PUC actions.

  • First, he addressed the notion that women's ordination is not biblical. "There is no text that forbids this. Not one," Roberts said. Roberts said women did every imaginable task in the New Testament Church, providing numerous examples. He suggested that Galatians 3:28 should serve as "Ground Zero" for how Christians view one another.
  • Second, he addressed the claim that the action might violate GC policy. He began by reading Adventist Fundamental Belief 14 (Unity In the Body of Christ) in its entirety, emphasizing that all are one in Christ. He reminded the audience that this was voted by the General Conference in Session. Roberts then quoted from GC policy forbidding discrimination on the basis of gender, which he described as "so forceful, I wondered why we are here today." Roberts drove home his second point that the vote would be in harmony with the spirit of GC policy and with church doctrine. The audience applauded.
  • Third, he addressed the idea that such a move will fracture the church. He pointed out that today women can be ordained as deacons or elders, and women can serve as pastors, performing the same basic functions as men, and theses policies have not shattered the unity of the church.

Roberts said to delegates, "If you want unity, fight for equality."

He asked the audience to consider what if: What if Moses, Gideon, David or Paul had waited until all were on the same page before acting? What if Martin Luther or William Wilberforce had waited until all agreed? What if Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy had waited for consensus before enacting racial justice? What if Ellen White in 1888 had waited until every church leader was ready to affirm "Christ our Righteousness"? Closing, Roberts asked whether or not we serve a Christ who says, "there is no distinction," and whether our God is truly no respecter of persons. As he finished, the audience applauded loudly. Some stood to their feet. The standing ovation lasted several moments.

 

Legal Counsel Explains Relation of Votes One and Two

Calling his portion the least significant (which after an extremely close first vote may have been proved inaccurate), legal counsel John Daggett explained the relation to the two votes to follow. Daggett pointed out that there were already differences between PUC bylaws and practices within the union. He noted that although as legal counsel he preferred to see congruity between bylaws and practices, but that they were not legally necessary. He recommended a "yes" vote on the proposed bylaws changes, but averred that the second vote (to ordain women), which he called the greater issue, did not depend on it.*

 

Motion to Change Bylaws

PUC executive secretary Brad Newton followed Daggett with the report and recommendation of the Bylaws Committee. Newton said that during every executive meeting, changes to bylaws are made in order to reflect changing practices in the union. "The current wording does not describe how PUC works, so we should probably change it," Newton said. He offered examples of ways in which bylaws say one thing, but practice differs. He said that adopting the proposed changes would remove ambiguity on voting to ordain women. Following his presentation, Newton moved that the recommended changes be adopted. The motion was quickly seconded.

Ricardo Graham stopped to pray again before opening the floor to comments. "We want to be sensitive to your Spirit, God," he prayed. "Give us divine wisdom."

Delegates streamed to microphones to speak. La Sierra University president emeritus Larry Geraty spoke first, and immediately called question on the previous motion, meaning that debate would be ended. There was a second. Ricardo Graham asked delegates to vote. Sixty-three percent voted in favor of ending discussion, but the move narrowly failed because a 66%, two-thirds majority was needed for passage, Graham said.

Next, one after another, delegates voiced opposition to the bylaws changes. The speeches being made, each limited to two minutes, gave the impression that the motion was headed for overwhelming defeat. Prominent speakers, who opposed the proposed changes, included former La Sierra University trustee Kathy Proffitt of Arizona, and Pastor-televangelist Doug Batchelor of Northern California Conference. Jim Lorenz from the Northern California Conference was one who spoke in favor of the measure, saying that the apostles did not wring their hands over unity when in Acts 15 there was diversity of practice concerning circumcision.

Ramiro Cano of Central California Conference urged the body to "acquiesce to the GC's request."  Cano said delegates would be opening the gate to what could come next though it was unclear what that meant. "Let's not throw the bylaws under the bus," Cano said. Following his remarks, delegates voted to end conversation.

The bylaws vote followed.

After a brief moment during which delegates entered their votes with electronic devices, the results came in. A 66% or 2/3 majority vote was needed; 65% voted in favor. The vote failed by one percentage point.

Newton explained the next agenda item: "That the Pacific Union Conference approve ordinations to gospel ministry without regard to gender."

 

Motion to Ordain Without Regard to Gender

As soon as the measure was moved and seconded, delegates rushed to the mics, forming lines out the conference room doors. One of the first to comment moved to table the motion and refer it to the General Conference. The parliamentarian stated this motion was out of order, and discussion continued.

Azure Hills Church senior pastor John Brunt was among those to speak in favor of the motion. He cited his four female colleagues during his time at Azure Hills. He referenced the story of Peter in Galatians 2. "Some people came from church headquarters came to intimidate Peter," to persuade the apostle to stop eating with Gentiles, Brunt said, and quoted Paul from the passage: "When Peter came to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong." The reference to General Conference leaders seemed unmistakable.

Stephen Bohr and Doug Batchelor, both strident opponents of women's ordination, spoke back to back against the motion. Bohr stated the issue is not equality, noting that the trinity is equal, but each member has a different ministry. Batchelor lamented the fact that those in opposition to women's ordination were not given a greater platform. "What can I do in two minutes," he asked.

Ramiro Cano spoke appeared at the mic again, arguing that delegates could not vote on ordination they did not change the bylaws, and he called a point of order. Graham referred the issue to John Daggett, who reiterated that the union was free to vote policies not provided for in the bylaws.

As discussion time neared an end, Sheryll McMillan from Southeastern California Conference spoke of her 17-year old daughter, who lately has not been attending church. McMillan said her daughter was turned away from the meeting (because there was no room for non-delegates), and told her delegate mom as she was leaving, "That's OK, the church will never change and have room for me."

When the lengthy discussion ended, a woman delegate, Alice Soderblom from Southeastern California Conference, was asked to offer prayer before the vote. Praying for God's spirit, the delegates prepared to decide the second issue of the day.

With electronic voting machines, the tally came quickly, and the margin was overwhelming. Three-hundred thirty-four voted "yes," and eighty-seven voted "no."

Reactions came flooding in right away on our live blog, many celebratory, some disconsolate. Perhaps the best comment came from Bevin Brett: "Well, that vote is lop-sided enough to be really clear - I wonder which Union will next take the plunge. A plea for unity is beginning to sound like a plea for all NAD conferences to ordain women..."

 

Elder Wilson's Predestined Response

Within a very short while after the results were announced, the Adventist News Network ran an official response to the vote from Ted Wilson's office, saying the vote represents a "serious threat" to the unity of the world church. The statement from called the one percent vote against changing the bylaws "a step in a positive direction." Continuing, the statement sounded a note of warning: "...at its next meeting in October 2012 [Fall Council], as indicated in another recent public statement by General Conference officers and division presidents, the General Conference Executive Committee will carefully review the situation and determine how to respond."

The response, replete with dire predictions and thinly-veiled threats is sharper than statements issued after the Columbia Union Conference vote (virtually nothing came out of the General Conference in response to the N. German Union Conference vote). This marks the second time in succession that Wilson's direct entreaties to delegates have been rebuffed, and the second time in succession that those who listened, deliberated and voted, prayed for the Spirit. As many have suggested already, the Spirit may be moving in mysterious ways--reviving and reforming the Adventist Church.

 

More on Bylaws & Ordination Votes

*Since the meeting John Daggett's explanation that the ordination vote was possible regardless of the non-passage of the bylaws vote has been clarified further: Neither the GC Model Bylaws nor the NAD's version limit ordination to men. In fact they include language about ministers both male and female. This point is explained in greater detail here.

Bylaws for a religious organization are instructions for the executive committee, and the officers are expected to follow them until the next constituency session. But if, for instance, the delegates were to vote bylaws that say all corporate buildings shall be painted orange, but then vote to paint the world HQ building green, they can do that, and the executive committee and the officers will have no problem understanding and following the instructions. Of course it would be less ambiguous for the officers to say "In general, all corporate buildings will be painted green..." But this is not necessary.

 

For moment-by-moment accounts of the meeting, visit our live blog.

Archival video footage of the entire meeting also available online.





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