Precisely at 2 pm, General Conference Vice President Mike Ryan called to order the most highly anticipated session of Annual Council. A statement on church polity, procedures, and resolution of disagreements in the light of recent union actions on ministerial ordination was to be considered.
A goodly number of women visitors helped to swell the crowd to full house status. After taking care of several short business items, Ryan turned to President Ted Wilson to introduce Item 112.
It was a much more subdued president this year who went to the floor microphone, compared to last year when he both chaired the session and made preliminary remarks about an item on a similar topic and set off a firestorm of debate and controversy. In the following months, three unions voted in constituency sessions to ordain women. The motion on the floor was a response to those union actions.
“The subject that we are going to be looking at for the next few hours is a very serious one,” he said. “One with which we want to approach with tenderness and care. I appeal to everyone here that in whatever discussion we have on this floor or elsewhere that we do it with the most Christ-like attitude possible. In the spirit of Phil. 2, ‘let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.’ I ask and beseech you, don’t denigrate anyone or undercut anyone, and I’ll remind us again about this before we go into discussion period.”
He then explained that the issue of ordination, per se, would not be discussed, or of women being ordained to ministry. “That has been placed on the back of the Theology of Ordination Committee,” he said.
The statement that was to be presented for consideration came from PREXAD–the President’s Executive Advisory Committee made up of the nine general vice presidents, the secretary and undersecretary, the treasurer, and the under-treasurer, plus the 13 world division presidents. Over one entire day, they studied the Bible together, prayed, sang, and ate together. Case studies were used to help sharpen their minds. They took four hours to discuss in a very careful and congenial and Christ-like manner the situation. “What would be our response from a senior leadership position to these unions? Elements of a statement were developed. From my perspective,” he said, “I felt a very close presence of the Holy Spirit. The Lord was leading us to be kind and respectful of each other. To understand each other.”
The statement form was done in a Biblical model, he said. The reason that it was not released prior to the meeting was because the statement needs to be understood within a particular context—that of Bible study and prayer. The statement was accepted in PREXAD by consensus. Then it was taken to the GC Officers meeting where there was more prayer and Bible study together. A vote was taken and it overwhelmingly passed.
Thus, Bible study and prayer were called for before the statement was presented to the gathered members of the General Conference Executive Committee.
“I can’t impress upon you enough the atmosphere we breathed on the third floor a few days ago. I felt the presence of God moving in our midst. I hope that those who were there feel as I do,” he concluded.
Mark Finley then made a presentation on “The Acts Model: Settling Differences in the Context of Mission” in which he examined the actions of the early church in Acts 1, 6, 10, 11, and 15.
What did the disciples do when faced with controversies in the early church? After recounting the story of the split that developed over which widows were receiving more food, Finley summarized, the disciples summoned the multitude—they did not make the decision themselves, neither did the multitude, there was a process. The disciples acted promptly. They sought consensus.
Continuing through the issues created when Peter baptized Cornelius, and the vision of the eating of the unclean meat that came down in a sheet, Finley gleaned more principles. “When an issue threatens church unity, don’t judge too quickly or harshly,” he said. “Discover the facts. Listen to another’s point of view. The Holy Spirit may be speaking to you through your brother or sister. Honest people can have differences of opinion. Consensus often comes through discussion and dialogue. It is through this process of dialog, discussion, and sharing that we become the body of Christ in the fullest sense.”
The third principle that Finley gleaned from Acts 15 and the decision that the early church made on the issue of circumcision, was that “the essence of unity is not uniform action. It is respecting one another enough to listen carefully, respond thoughtfully, and decide together.” He pointed out the decision in Acts 15 was not that the Gentiles be circumcised, nor that the Jewish members not be circumcised. The church could live with actions that were not uniform. There is a
difference between uniform action and unity he said.
That point came up again in the discussion that followed and led to a footnote being added to the proposed statement with Finley’s definition of unity.
A time of prayer followed Finley’s presentation. At 3:30, President Wilson was back at the microphone reminding people to speak with utmost respect for each other and introducing the writing committee which consisted of Mark Finley, G.T. Ng, and Lowell Cooper.
To introduce the document, Elder Cooper outlined the six ideas that the writers had been asked to incorporate into the document:
1. To place the response within the design of church structure and global decision making process,
2. To affirm the legitimacy of expressing disagreement,
3. To propose a course of action that reflected shared decision making,
4. To state that actions taken contrary to a GC session cannot be legitimized by the world church,
5. To differentiate in the statement between the actions taken from the role of women and our high regard for the contribution that women make to the church,
6. To conclude with an appeal to all church organizations and church members for careful thought about how the expression of actions and demonstration of behavior reflect that we are all part of a worldwide family that seeks to do things in the name of Jesus.
At that point the statement was distributed to the audience, and at 3:55 pm, the statement was read before opening the floor to discussion. The five page statement said, “The central issue is one of Church polity—how the church defines its organization, governance and operations.” It calls the actions taken by the unions to be serious mistakes, and says “The world Church cannot legitimize practices that clearly contradict the intent of General Conference Session actions. . . . Accordingly, the world Church does not recognize the actions of unions or conferences that have authorized or implemented ministerial ordination without regard to gender.”
It also calls the union actions an expression of dissent and a demonstration of self-determination in a matter previously decided by the collective Church. After noting that ordination is a separate matter under global study and review, it calls attention to the role of women in ministry and leadership, noting it has been a long-standing question that attracts strong yet differing convictions. “The process toward finding acceptable solutions must not obscure the contribution that women have made and continue to make in many areas of Church life and leadership.”
It ends with three footnotes, the first affirming that a General Conference Session is the highest authority in the church with three quotations—one from Ellen White, one from the Church Manual, and one from the Working Policy; the second being an excerpt from the 1990 General Conference Session Bulletin; and third an excerpt from the 1995 General Conference Session Bulletin giving the wording of actions taken at those meetings.
Then the comments began, and the session really turned into a discussion, because various members of the writing committee would respond to specific questions as they were raised.
Twenty-three people came to the microphones to make comments. Leslie Pollard, president of Oakwood University, moved to amend the statement to include Mark Finley’s definition of unity. Then it was suggested by Doris Gothard, a lay member from the North American Division, that the definition be added as a footnote, since the document already contained footnotes. That solution was adopted by consensus.
There were suggestions by some that the presidents of the unions in question should make an apology, but no apology was forthcoming.
North American Division President Dan Jackson said, “I want to begin where I ended last year. I feel a brother to every person in this church. It is an honor to represent the NAD and its nine union presidents and 59 conference presidents. I don’t know one of them that wants to be disunited from the world church.”
Pacific Union Conference President Ricardo Graham told the body that the constituents of the PUC are loyal members of the SDA church, united in preaching all 28 of the fundamental beliefs of the church. “I appreciate the work of the committee and the tone of the document,” he said, “and the gentleness with which Wilson introduced the subject.” He noted from Elder Finley’s sermon that the essence of unity is not in the uniformity of action, and asked people to cogitate on that. “Unity is not in the uniformity of action.” He closed with a request that a secret ballot be used to respond to the action.
Chairman Ryan immediately responded that that was already the plan. Shirley Chang, a lay member from the North American Division, used a quotation from Prophets and Kings recounting of the story of Daniel to show that Ellen White also valued the courage of one man over policy in moral decisions. “How do we mesh these things,” she asked. There are a lot of people who feel that this is a matter of justice and equality. We do have conflicts here.”
Lowell Cooper and Mark Finley both responded to her question saying they resonated with her feelings, and that the committee had discussed the matter of individual conviction. Cooper said the writing committee had basically decided that this document would not address that. The drafted statement was about the process that the church makes in coming to a decision. Finley said that he thought that the place to deal with that issue is in the work to be done by the Theology of Ordination Study Committee.
Tankiso Letseli, president of the South African Union Conference, asked about the implications of the statement. “Supposed they elect a woman president, would that president become part of the General Conference Committee? Should we accept these people if they come to our union?”
Wilson went to the microphone to answer that question. “The statement needs to be understood within the context of this document,” he said. “There may be those individuals who will twist or turn the words to what they might like rather than to what the intent is. The document is simply saying that the world church does not recognize those actions. They do not hold validity in the world territory or the territory where they were made. The wording is clear.”
Brent Burdick, treasurer of the Euro-Asia Division, pointed out that one of items brought out in Elder Finley’s Bible study of the early Christian church was the fact that the disciples dealt with an issue in a timely manner. “This is a concern to me, he said, and I urge that we look at how we can make the church deal with issues in a timely manner.”
Before the ballots were passed out, Lowell Cooper read possible wording for the footnote that would be added defining unity, and a rewording of another sentence where he said he wanted to avoid any assumption that the Church does not recognize any actions taken by the two unions. The revised wording would be: “Accordingly the world church does not recognize the actions of unions or conferences authorizing actions regarding the ordination without regard to gender.”
At 5:30 pm, there was a motion to adopt the document as adjusted. The final tally was 264 votes in favor of the motion and 25 votes against it.
Wilson thanked the body for its sweet spirit and the meeting was adjourned.
Photo: Adventist News Network, Ansel Oliver.