With no public resolution to the rift between the General Conference and the unions that have ordained women, the upcoming October Annual Council session for the General Conference Executive Committee seems likely to repeat the contentious discussion of last year about church authority. Certainly, the topic will be on the agenda, given that the action taken last year was to spend a year looking for resolution of the issue with the promise of a return to the topic this fall.
The first indication of how the General Conference will address the topic appeared in the August issue of Executive Committee Newsletter, the publication from the GC president’s office intended to inform members of this key committee that is tasked with acting for the General Conference in between the five year General Conference Sessions. In the lead article for the issue, David Trim who is the director of the General Conference Archives, Statistics, and Research, writes, “When the General Conference makes a decision, it is not something unions can depart from (though some church members or church leaders sometimes disagree with those decisions), because the General Conference, in a real sense, is not distinct from the unions. The decisions of GC Sessions, or, in constitutionally delegated areas, of the GC Executive Committee, are not the expression of something other than the unions; they are the collective voice of its members, all of whom have contributed to the decisions.”
If there can be no separation between the unions and the General Conference, because the General Conference is really a collection of unions, does that mean that the General Conference is ready to accept the unions' position? Or, will it continue to insist that the unions bow to the General Conference? Does this really mean that there can be no disagreement with a vote of the General Conference, even if people vote their conscience?
GC General Vice President Thomas L. Lemon echoes the archivist in the introduction to the Executive Committee Newsletter issue. He tells the committee member readers, “As both leaders and members of the Executive Committee, your role of making sure we essentially see the big picture and care for the entire family of unions across our globe is vital to mission progress.”
Neither of these authors address the specific issue that is the background for their comments, the elephant in the room of whole union constituencies (not just a few members or leaders) voting for equality in ministry and believing that GC policy places the decision of ordination in their hands at the union level and not in the GC’s. Also absent from this newsletter is any report from the committee tasked last fall with meeting with unions to attempt to resolve the standoff.
Rather than being a union of unions, the General Conference is structured to be a collection of Divisions. It is the Divisions that have the greatest say in what makes it onto the agenda for the Executive Committee and what gets voted. The Committee with arguably the most power at the General Conference and from which this discussion on church authority emanated is the General Conference and Division Officers Committee. Most agenda items are cleared through that committee before being brought to the floor of the larger Executive Committee which includes among its 347 members the 135 union conference presidents. The union conference presidents, however, do not have the numerical power on their own to overrule what comes down from the General Conference and the Divisions. But the Divisions have early veto power over what will be taken to the Executive Committee.
It is the absence of any meaningful dialogue between the General Conference and the unions that led ten unions from four divisions to stage the Unity Conference in London earlier this year. The organizers specifically stated that it was the lack of conversation at Annual Council on issues of importance that led them to create the Unity Conference. For its part, the General Conference actively discouraged people from attending the session and did not send anyone to listen to the conversation.
There was a time, not so long ago, when actions voted by the General Conference were subsequently presented to the local conference and union constituency sessions for ratification before being implemented, underscoring the point that the local church should be understood to be the foci of where power begins in the church.
Absent, so far, from consideration by the General Conference Executive Committee in its consideration of church authority is what role finances play in church structure. With diplomatic conversations not making headway between the unions and the General Conference, perhaps that is where the issue will go next.
Bonnie Dwyer is editor of Spectrum.
Image Credit: Screen capture of Executive Committee Newsletter
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