Delegates to the General Conference Executive Committee’s 2019 Annual Council meeting tackled major issues on Monday, voting tithe parity for all Divisions and reviewing a new statement on abortion, but they were also handed surprise changes in the schedule and new materials to consider overnight.
The first surprise came with the presentation of the agenda on Monday morning, when they were told that there had been a change in plans. The document on unborn life and abortion that had been scheduled for discussion on Tuesday, would instead be discussed Monday afternoon at 4 p.m., right after the two-hour session planned for consideration of tithe parity.
At the end of the day there was another surprise, a new document to be reviewed before Tuesday morning, with a new recommendation resulting from the 2018 Annual Council Compliance Action. The document stated that the Danish Union of Churches Conference, the North German Union Conference, the Norwegian Union Conference, and the Swedish Union of Churches Conference had taken actions that are not in harmony with the Working Policy and practices on credentials, so it is “Recommended, that the above entities be ‘Warned’ as provided for in the 2018 Annual Council voted document.”
Additionally, “Public Reprimand” is recommended for the presidents of the Columbia Union Conference and the Pacific Union Conference, because their unions “have taken actions that are not in harmony with voted actions of the General Conference Session and the General Conference Executive Committee placing them in persistent non-compliance.”
These recommendations will be considered on Tuesday, along with the motion that was tabled on Monday about whether conference presidents should have voice at Annual Council meetings.
In between these surprises, the Executive Committee voted to approve tithe parity of 3% for all Divisions’ contribution to the General Conference by the year 2030 (with an additional .85% for NAD to accommodate support of Loma Linda University and Andrews University). The North American Division will move more quickly. Its tithe percentage will go down to 3% by the year 2024.
The presentation about tithe parity began with General Conference President Ted N. C. Wilson saying thank you to the North American Division for its generous support of the world church. The delegates gave a standing ovation to the Division followed by a verbal Amen. “You represent the legacy of that generosity,” Wilson told the delegates. At one point in time the NAD was giving 21% of its tithe to the General Conference budget, he said. Over the decades, the percentage has diminished as sustainability outside the United States has increased. By the end of 2020, it will be 5.85% of NAD tithe that is passed to the GC. In 2018, at the NAD Year-end Meeting, their Executive Committee voted to request that the tithe percentage be brought to an equal amount with the other Divisions — to parity.
General Conference Treasurer Juan Prestol-Puesan, who has served as a conference, union, and division treasurer in the NAD before going to the General Conference, next gave the history of the negotiations between the GC as the NAD became more of an independent organization over the years.
In the discussion that followed, the majority of speeches made were in support of parity. Those who opposed the motion, however, wanted more details about the effect the decision would have on specific ministries. Some lay members objected to the motion, saying they wanted to be in support of missions and the world church.
Robert Lemon, the retired treasurer of the General Conference, reminded delegates of the words of Ellen G. White when she said, “we have nothing to fear in the future, unless we forget how the Lord has led us in the past.” Lemon said he had been through this issue in the past, given that he was the undertreasurer when the percentage for NAD went from 10% to 8% and when the other Divisions went from 1% to 2%. “We have to watch what the Lord can do. I was treasurer when we went from 8% to 6% in 2008, it was a terrible time. But the Lord blessed and the other Divisions prospered.” He concluded by saying “I support this motion fully. I look forward to seeing how God will bless.”
At 4 p.m., the discussion was halted, and a vote was taken by holding up of cards. The green cards easily outnumbered the red cards, and the issue of tithe parity was resolved.
Quickly, after a short session of standing exercises, the time had come for the discussion of the document “Statement on the Biblical View of Unborn Life and Its Implications for Abortion.” Again, President Wilson gave an introduction to the item, telling the delegates that he hoped they would support the document being presented. Then, there was a lengthy presentation on the process that the document had followed before being brought to the delegates. The Biblical Research Institute’s Ethics Committee had spent two years drafting a document that had been reviewed in the last couple of months by the General Conference Statement Writing Committee and then by the Bioethics Committee, with revisions along the way.
Artur Stele followed up with some questions and answers about the process. “Is this document a nuclear weapon to the Adventist hospitals?” he asked Peter Landless, who heads the General Conference Health Ministries Department. Landless responded by saying no, Adventist hospitals perform very few abortions, and he demonstrated the fact with a chart showing the number of live births and the number of abortions. “It should be clearly stated that the aim is to approach 0 as close as possible.,” he said. “This document is not a nuclear weapon. The data affirms that the hospitals seriously appreciate the church’s stance.”
Stele’s next question went to Elias Brasil de Souza, chairman of the Biblical Research Institute. “What does it mean that the statement is not part of the Church Manual?” The topic of abortion is not purely a medical issue, he replied. “It is a political issue. Some places it has been used as a weapon.” This statement was not prepared to be part of the Church Manual, he explained. “This document is guidance for the church to tell the world where we stand. We should not use this document to draw people away, or to punish people. It is a redemptive document.” It is no more than a statement at this point, he added, saying it would need to be followed up by people in other departments.
Stele said that the Health Ministries Department would be tasked with taking the statement and developing guidelines.
General Conference Vice President Thomas Lemon chaired the session. He asked the delegates not to try to edit the document on the floor, and told them that a writing committee had already been appointed to make any necessary changes. Then he opened the meeting for comments. Many of the people who spoke had suggestions on how to improve the document, both those who spoke in favor of the document and those who had questions.
Amazing Facts Evangelist Doug Batchelor was the first one to the microphone. “Praise God that the church is addressing this issue,” he said. “It is a good document. I’ve had people who were waiting for baptism who read our current guidelines and then decided not to become baptized.” He suggested removing Point Number 6 (God’s grace promotes life in a world marred by sin and death.) and concluded by saying that he strongly supported the document.
Jiří Moskala, dean of the SDA Seminary at Andrews University, praised the document for very good biblical principles and recommended it, but he did have suggestions for its improvement. He said the sentence about the sixth commandment should read differently and explained the origin of the commandment not to kill. “The document is silent about the most painful topic in regards to abortion — rape. I hope we will not send a false statement to our churches by not mentioning rape. There are 90,000 rapes each year. In view of that, in this document, rape should be included on page 5 where it speaks of the weak and vulnerable.”
Richard Hart, president of Loma Linda University Health, spoke to the sanctity of life. “Elective abortions are not done [in our hospitals].” There are pregnancies that end up in spontaneous abortion, he explained, but there are others that don’t. The tough part are the ones in between the two. He questioned the sentence on the last page of the document about those who are forced to have an abortion. “Forced by what?” he asked.
E. Albert Reece, executive vice president for Medical Affairs of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and member of the GC Executive Committee, said “It is a well-written document, but I believe it could be improved with a few modifications. The document speaks very well about the sanctity of life. The document should be titled as such. Abortion has a negative connotation. Point number 2, the abortion term should be replaced with elective abortion. I support the comments from LLU about the many complications that can arise. The document could be more explicit in those situations, that could enhance the document.”
Allan Handysides, the former director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department, spoke in praise of the process that had been used to create the current guidelines in 1992. “We have to be careful about saying the Holy Spirit is with us now, but not with what came before. We felt the Holy Spirit with us in 1992, also.”
Audrey E. Andersson, Executive Secretary of the Trans-European Division, said she appreciated the statement, and the work that has gone into it. “It is a statement and not a policy going into the Church Manual,” she noted, “but the further we get from this building, the distinction between statement and guidelines becomes blurred. I am not worried about our medical institutions. I am worried about vulnerable women in our churches who may be confronted with difficult decisions. I appeal for us to develop other protocols for difficult situations.”
At 6 p.m., the discussion was brought to a close. The chairman referred the document to the writing committee and said it would come back to the delegates on Wednesday. Then he reminded them to be sure to pick up the new document on recommendations resulting from the 2018 Annual Council Compliance Action. Disciplining non-compliant unions would be the issue on Tuesday.
Bonnie Dwyer is editor of Spectrum.
Image: Members listen to the discussion on tithe parity during the Annual Council 2019 in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States of America. Photo by Brent Hardinge / GC Communication, courtesy of the Adventist News Network on Flickr.
The live stream schedule for Annual Council can be found on the Executive Committee website here: https://executivecommittee.adventist.org/live/
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