The 60th General Conference Session of Seventh-day Adventists, held in San Antonio, Texas from July 2 - 11 was by any measure the biggest Adventist news story of the year.
With an expected 65,000 visitors from 200 countries, the Session was the largest convention ever held in the City of San Antonio.
Perhaps the most significant subtext of the Session was the ordination of women (which it turns out was not actually an issue on the agenda, as such. More on that down the page). From the outset, the proverbial deck was stacked against women.
As these graphics demonstrate, while the Adventist Church by membership is 57% female, 43% male, the delegates at the General Conference Session were 83% male, 17% female. The nominating committee that helped to select top church leaders was made up of 86.5% men and 13.5% women. Young Adventists (those under 40) were also dramatically under-represented in both the delegate count and the makeup of the nominating committee. Throughout Session, many delegates made calls for greater representation from women and young adults.
In terms of delegate representation, the General Conference (which has no membership) was the third largest bloc with 250 delegates. Many of the General Conference’s discretionary picks were delegates who vocally opposed the ordination of women.
The first major agenda item was the re-election of Ted N. C. Wilson as General Conference president. The Nominating Committee returned his name soon after convening for the first time during the session. In a rare move, which the Adventist Review on Twitter called an “extremely unusual moment,” delegates attempted to send Wilson’s name back to committee not once but twice. Other delegates called for a secret vote using the electronic voting devices. Ultimately, the voting devices were not used, and Wilson was re-elected.
Speaking of electronic voting, the devices that were promised in order to “bring greater accuracy to votes and offer anonymity, potentially relieving some of the pressure some people may feel to vote a certain way,” turned out to be one of the biggest stories of the Session for all the wrong reasons. From the first time the devices were used, it was clear that their use was not going according to plan. General Conference leaders consistently blamed technology, saying that the WiFi in the Alamodome was at fault and that the devices were not transmitting properly.
Delegates with whom we spoke voiced support for electronic and secret voting, but every time the electronic devices were tested, not enough votes were returned for the results to be considered legitimate. We spoke to IT representatives for the General Conference and to Meridia, the company that supplied the voting devices. In both cases, we were assured that the issue was not with the technology. Meridia tweeted that not everyone was voting. The company later deleted the tweet.
In a Spectrum Media video, we spoke with a delegate who said that his leaders instructed delegates to “go for the card,” referring to the yellow voting cards that were used in place of the voting devices. That delegate’s division president denied instructing delegates concerning use of voting cards. On the afternoon of July 5, President Wilson announced that the steering committee was recommending that the devices not be used. Despite objections, primarily from the North American Division contingent, delegates voted to scrap the devices. Meridia tweeted “#disappointed.”
Without the promised anonymity that the devices would have provided, delegates went on to vote several significant measures using voting cards, allowing those present to see how each delegate voted.
Among the most significant votes were changes to Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Beliefs. The words “recent” and “literal” were added to the Belief on Creation. Gender-inclusive language was added throughout (despite numerous protestations). Delegates overwhelmingly approved proposed changes to Fundamental Belief #23 on Marriage and the Family, which was amended to remove the word “partners” in order to remove ambiguity about allowing same-gender relationships. Belief #18 on the Gift of Prophecy was amended to remove language suggesting Ellen White’s writings serve as an “authoritative source of truth,” in order to indicate that Adventists consider the Bible their only source of truth.
Delegates also approved a raft of changes to the Seventh-day Adventist Church manual. The change that generated the most debate concerned resolving disagreements between church entities. The old language provided an appeals process whereby disputes could be taken all the way to the General Conference. The revision stipulated that if any level of church governance opted not to hear the dispute in an appeal, the previous decision of the lower level of governance would be final.
The single biggest event of the General Conference Session was the discussion and vote on the issue of ordination. Many Adventists (and outside onlookers, including those in the media), before and after the vote framed San Antonio as a definitive referendum on women’s ordination within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Of course it was not. In actual fact, the question put to delegates actually pertained strictly to governance, i.e. whether or not the Church’s 13 divisions would be given regional oversight on the topic of ordination.
While General Conference leaders promised a full day of discussion of the issue, a series of carefully-choreographed statements in the morning and a barrage of points of order in the afternoon limited actual discussion of the topic to about 90 minutes total.
Tension erupted after a speech from former General Conference President Jan Paulsen, who said that voting yes on the measure would indicate trust in the leadership of each division. Delegates audibly booed the former president when he referenced the African delegation in a series of appeals to various world fields.
The ordination vote was the only time during the Session that a secret ballot vote was taken. After a long procession of delegates processing through the floors of the Alamodome to deposit their ballots, Session Chair Mike Ryan called voting closed, and counting commenced. In the final tally, There were 2,363 total votes:
Yes - 977
No - 1,381
Abstain - 5
Ironically, the vote not to grant regional autonomy to divisions on the issue of ordination not only preserved regional autonomy, but actually increased it. The vote maintained and reinforced the status quo, which is that the church’s unions, in most parts of the world, are the entities that issue ordination credentials. Since the San Antonio vote, many regional entities have reiterated their support for women’s ordination within their territories.
Perhaps also ironically, the General Conference’s sole female vice president, Ella Simmons, was widely praised on social media as being the most gracious and effective business session chair of the 2015 General Conference Session. Notably, while Simmons was arguably the most capable chair she was the only one of the vice-presidents not ordained because of her gender.
The total number of General Conference vice presidents was reduced from nine to six, which upset many delegates. Though delegates attempted to send the list of names back to committee, the recommendations of the Nominating Committee were voted in the end. The six vice presidents voted in were: Guillermo Biaggi, originally from the South American Division; Thomas Lemon from North America; Abner De Los Santos from the Inter American Division; Geoffrey Mbwana from the East Central Africa Division; Ella Simmons of North America; and Artur Stele of the Euro-Asian Division. Delbert Baker’s name was not returned, and Lowell Cooper and Mark Finley retired as vice presidents.
On the penultimate day of business, delegate David Ripley made a request of the General Conference Steering Committee (much like the 2010 request for a study of ordination that led to the 2015 vote) that the Adventist Church undertake a study of biblical hermeneutics. Ripley argued that the denomination lacks a unified hermeneutic, which leads to many problems.
On the final Saturday of the General Conference Session, re-elected President Ted Wilson delivered a sermon entitled “Cross the Jordan, Don’t Retreat.” In it, he compared the Adventist Church to the people of Israel as they prepared to cross over the Jordan River into the land of Canaan. He also made an opaque comparison of his father, Neal C. Wilson, to Moses, who led the Israelites to the border of Canaan but did not enter the Promised Land, and gave the impression that the extension of the analogy would be that President Wilson the younger was analogous to Joshua, who led the Israelites into Canaan.
Inviting the Adventist Church to “Total Member Involvement” in ministry, Wilson called for the removal of any distractions: “Eliminate any television, social media, music, books and other influences that will distract you from Jesus and His biblical truth.”
A little over a month later, Wilson joined Facebook and Twitter, becoming the first General Conference president with active social media accounts (we understand that members of a small social media team are primarily responsible for the content posted under Wilson’s accounts).
The General Conference Session ended after a sparsely-attended final business session, but the results of the San Antonio World Church meetings will continue to reverberate throughout the Adventist denomination.
Jared Wright is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.
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