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Annual Council Diary VI: Orchestrating the Session


There were some ah ha moments in the Annual Council deliberation on how to handle women’s ordination on Tuesday. One ah ha came early, during the morning devotional by Dr. Peter Landless as he described Jesus encounter with the woman at the well. “The woman proved to be a more effective missionary than Jesus’ disciples,” Landless said, and an audible ahhh rose from the audience.

Other ah ha’s have come to me in the hours since the meeting as I have thought and talked with others about what was and was not presented during this tightly scripted day.

Delegates were told that all of Tuesday was to be devoted to the discussion of women’s ordination, and were advised to come early because a large crowd was expected. I arrived at 7:30, mid-way through the regular morning prayer session.

After the devotional, there was a report from the South Pacific Division on their Mission to the Cities evangelism program. As the names of the island cities were read by Division President Barry Oliver and his wife Julie, there were more ahhs for cities that had 1000 baptisms. Several did. “When we go out into the world we meet our God out there, because he goes before us to prepare the way,” Oliver said.

President Ted Wilson took 25 minutes to introduce the topic and provide historical background. He acknowledged that studies on the subject went back to the 1970s, but began his history with the 1990 General Conference session, where, upon a recommendation from Annual Council, the session voted not to go ahead with ordination in view of the possible risk of disunity, dissension and diversion from the mission of the church. At the 1995 GC session, the North American Division requested permission for divisions to decide the issue. It was defeated. At the 2010 GC session, a delegate raised from the floor a question about our lack of a theology of ordination. That led to the creation of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC). “TOSC was formed with members who have convictions on both sides of the question,” Wilson said. “Most were not administrators. Many came from the North American Division. There were two representatives from each division. Biblical Research committees from each division who entered their thoughts into the process.” Wilson closed by foreshadowing what would be forthcoming: a recommendation from the General Conference and Division Officers (GCDO) for a question to be placed before the delegates at the GC session. Wilson pointedly said that the recommendation from GCDO was approved with no dissent. The rational for the GCDO action, he said, was that the church has discussed this issue for a long time without coming to consensus. “The GC session owns this question. We do not have the urim and thummim to ask the question of God directly, no cloud or pillar of fire, no living prophet. What we do have is what the Spirit of Prophecy indicates. When the General Conference is in session, it has authority, and in some places it is indicated higher authority.”

Artur Stele, the chair of the TOSC, described the committee with a somewhat different emphasis than Wilson. Citing the terms of reference for the committee, Stele made a point of the international nature of the membership with representatives from each division as well as international background for many of the delegates from the North American Division plus the work done by the Biblical Research committees in each Division that produced material to be submitted to TOSC. “It was really an international study process,” Stele said.

As he transitioned to an introduction of the Theology of Ordination Statement that eventually was approved by TOSC, he noted the significance of the differences on the committee, saying that he thought they would never come to consensus even on the general statement on ordination. “I will never forget it.  One lady came to the mic and said, ‘I still believe that we are close to a consensus statement. Let us work this evening. And we will be able to come to consensus.’ Thank God for this lady. This is what we did. It was a miracle. About 92% agreed.”

The statement on the theology of ordination was then read and agreed upon by a similar percentage in the room. The vote was 275 yes, and 11 no.

Next, the TOSC reports on the ordination of women were summarized. Stele said the committee began with two contrasting groups that drafted papers and debated the topic. At the end of their sessions with the impossibility of consensus becoming a reality, a third group emerged. “Although all three groups agree and support all of our 28 fundamental beliefs, we couldn’t reach consensus. This tells us that we have a great assignment to find a way forward. I think we have found the right way forward. We can’t say that we need more time for study, for having an eternal TOSC.  When Jesus comes we would still be looking for a final report.”

Biblical Research Institute Associate Director Clinton Wahlen gave the presentation on Position 1 supporting headship theology.
“This is a theological issue and not just a practical matter,” he said. Can women be gospel ministers? No women were ever given a priestly role in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament, no woman was an apostle overseeing the church, Wahlen said. Jesus ordained twelve apostles of the church and they were all men. The leadership in the early Christian Church was open to Gentiles, but never opened to women. If women can work in full time ministry, why not ordain them? He answered his question by saying, “It’s not ours to give as we see fit. God said it is to be a husband of one wife.”

In his presentation on Position 2, Walla Walla University Professor of Biblical Studies Carl Cosaert told the audience that over the years his views have changed, but not from backing away from Scripture. He maintained that a plain reading of Scripture supports women’s ordination and is consistent with the Spirit of Prophecy. “Created before does not mean domination over,” he said. “To argue that what was created first is superior would be to argue that birds and animals were superior to humans because they were created first.” Paul forbids the women from speaking in 1 Timothy, not because they are women, but they were part of false teachings. Reading the whole chapter shows how the women were spreading false teachings. Cosaert noted that the “husband of one wife” text is no more prohibitive of women than it is of singles.

Andrews University Professor of Church History Nicholas Miller gave the presentation of Position 3, which is based on making a distinction between universal moral commands and divine ideals. He said God can work with a plan B. Miller’s “Moderate Proposal” suggests that the Session should vote to: re-affirm a male ministerial leadership model, but allow exceptions where Divisions, Unions, and Conferences, in consultation, agree that mission will significantly be impacted, and have a conscience clause for territories that believe differently.

A vote was taken to receive the report from TOSC, but there was no discussion of the options that were presented.

Finally, it was time to present the three page statement and question that had been alluded to for several days coming out of the General Conference and Division Officers meetings as they considered how to take the issue of women’s ordination to the General Conference session. Secretary GT Ng read the document aloud.

After a three page framing of the history of women’s ordination, the document concludes by saying, “Therefore the General Conference Executive Committee requests delegates in their sacred responsibility to God at the 2015 General Conference Session to respond to the following question:
    After your prayerful study on ordination from the Bible, the writings of Ellen G. White, and the reports of the study commissions, and;
    After your careful consideration of what is best for the Church and the fulfillment of its mission,
    Is it acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to the gospel ministry? Yes or No.”

Read the full text of the document.

Session Chair Ryan paused the action to make a point. “Some feel we have come today to discuss the question of women’s ordination. The business of what we have come to today, is what is the question going to be to put forward to the General Conference? We are not trying to answer the question.  We have already agreed that the answer belongs to the GC session. We will ask for a vote on this question that will be placed before the body. When we vote yes, it does not mean that we are taking a position from the past. This is the question that we take. 1. That is not secret. 2. That is transparent.”

It was 3:25 pm when the floor was finally open to discussion. Pacific Union Conference President Ricardo Graham had the first question. “Is the one option to discuss today the question to put before the General Conference session?” The answer was yes.

Columbia Union Conference President Dave Weigley rose to amend the motion and turn it into a statement rather than a question. He said the Annual Council should show leadership to the GC Session by taking a specific position. Ryan called the amendment hostile to the motion and disallowed it, and was supported by the parliamentarian.

General Conference Archivist David Trim also tried to amend the motion by inserting language reflected in Option 3. His amendment was defeated.

Ryan said he had a small suggestion that division presidents or officers speak. “It would be good for those voices to be heard.

Former General Conference President Jan Paulsen said that one of the regrets that he has is that he was not able to take this issue to the GC session before. “Fix this one,” he pleaded. “We cannot come back from San Antonio as we are today. The younger half of our family can’t understand why this is a problem for the church. For them, it is also an ethical and moral issue. We lose too many of them if we don’t fix this. Please we don’t have time beyond San Antonio. Fix this.”

Applause honored his statement, but received gentle chiding from the chair.

Inter-American Division President Israel Leito stood to support the motion, but also suggested that the issue should be dealt with at a level closer to where it is useful. “The GC doesn’t decide on the most important thing—membership—it is dealt with at the local church. The GC has said that each division can put a supplement into the church manual. We will stand together. I am not afraid of letting a lower body make this decision.”

General Conference Vice President Lowell Cooper spoke in support of the motion, but said he was personally disappointed  that in the historical section there was no mention of a decision of Annual Council to allow for women pastoral associates. “It is a bit problematic,” he said. “Perhaps that can be addressed at the session.” As he spoke, another ah ha moment occurred. Yes, why hadn’t information about women pastors been included?

Ryan noted that there were 16 people at the microphones and time was becoming a factor. I would hope that we would not have more come to the microphones.”

Henry Fordham stood in opposition to the motion, because of his support of women in the seminary. They trust that there will be a time when they are not treated as second class citizens. Some of the best minds in the church are in this room, but  we don’t have the courage to make a decision. With these great minds here, why do we continue to kick the can down the road?

At 5: 38 the delegates voted 243 yes to 44 no with 3 abstaining.

Wilson expressed his thanks for the gracious spirit in the room, repeated a quote from Testimonies volume 2 about the church being the most precious thing in God’s eye. The final prayer for the day was said.

Given that the wording for the General Conference session is in the form of a question, there are those who see it as a positive way to move forward, and those who don’t. It is similar to the request that went to the session from the North American Division in 1995, only now it is the GCDO that is posing the question. Will that make a difference? While important points were made in the short three minute speeches of delegates, there was no way for any of their ideas to go anywhere, because in the day that was supposedly devoted to discussion of women’s ordination, there really was only discussion of what the General Conference and Division Officers had done. To propose any other way forward would have required voting down the GCOD proposal at the end of a very long day. Somehow the way forward seems like a return to the place from whence we’ve come. 

Photo courtesy Viviene Martinelli / Adventist News Network

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