At the two recent constituency meetings regarding the issue of women’s ordination (WO), the dominant argument coming from official channels has had to do primarily with a) policy and procedure, b) the question of unity, and c) the dire consequences of a yes vote (though ironically these latter two points were never very clearly detailed). Why should an affirmative vote raise a question of unity, particularly since it is clear that an overwhelming percent of the membership in both CUC and PUC clearly support WO and fundamental fairness in the Church? Should not this reality actually be the path to unity? After all, the vote only has jurisdiction in each respective Union’s territory, and considering the margins by which these votes passed in both unions, it seems that unity is only possible if this vote is allowed to stand.
I personally am hopeful that peaceful resolution can take place, but if it doesn’t, it will be clear that the actual subtext of President Wilson’s position is really less about unity and more about power and authority.
So the question emerges as to whether Wilson’s call for “unity” was in fact genuine of whether it was pretext for some other agenda? If it was mere pretext we can assume that this dog-and-pony show will live another day, the ends of which we can assume will be less than unifying. There are at least four reasons to be pessimistic about how this dynamic ultimately plays out:
1. A friend of mine asked me the other day, “Why is Ted Wilson choosing this hill to die on?” As I have thought about that question it occurs to me that there are at least two possibilities: a) one is that he is a poor political strategist—someone who is merely bumbling along wrecking havoc along the way. Though this is a possibility, it is difficult to imagine someone reaching his level in church government who would be so politically inept as to misjudge circumstances and outcomes so profoundly—not once, but twice. So this then leads to a second possibility, b) that being that he is a determined ideologue who is less concerned about the political implications of actions than he is in achieving his objectives, whatever they may be. Unfortunately, I suspect this latter possibility is the more probable explanation, and if it is, then we most definitely have not heard the end of this matter, and this, of course, is a point of concern and pessimism.
2. During the two most recent constituency meetings we heard a great deal about “unity” from President Wilson and others, and if this were truly a key objective for voting down WO, we must wonder why we heard so little in the way of substantive arguments regarding the practical impacts a positive vote would have to world unity. For instance, why should an issue of policy and procedure affecting only Church employees within the jurisdiction of these voting unions be of any real concern to the world Church, particularly when this issue happens to have wide grassroots support? As mentioned above, we heard numerous elusive references to “dire consequences” if WO were to be voted in, but “dire” was never explicated. This vagueness left the distinct impression that the “dire consequences” spoken of had less to do with cause and effect, than as an assertion intended as an implied threat—essentially an act of condescension towards the intelligence of obviously smart people. We can guess that delegates were on the whole fair-minded enough to give thoughtful pause if specific points had been made as to what “dire consequences” looks like in practical terms—but they weren’t. Thus, this all has the feel of secondary agendas and manipulation in play, which gives rise to pessimism that the final chapter of this affair has been written.
3. Another hint that the unity argument was mere pretext came from Ernest Castillo, Vice President of the North American Division, who disclosed a conversation he had had with an unnamed General Conference Vice President, who rather flippantly seemed to dismiss the entire North American Division as unneeded in the Church’s fulfillment of its mission. The obvious question is whether this view also characterizes that of President Wilson, or whether it was a mere personal view of that particular VP? Regardless, it is an amazing attitude from someone at that level of Church government, and if it represents the view of the President, it is even still more amazing, but it could partially explain why things have unfolded as they have, and so this again becomes a point of pessimism, for to the extent this attitude prevails it will have the tendency to ripple out in a lot of other areas.
4. A finally hint that a unity argument was mere pretext comes from outside the WO issue and goes to the ongoing efforts to revise Fundamental Belief #6. If unity were truly a key objective of church administrators then we must wonder at the driving effort of some to insert language on creation that is extra-biblical and anti-scientific. The outcome of this matter is obviously still pending but the mere exercise seems less than unifying. Once again a reason to feel unity is pretext and that other agendas are in play.
I have been around long enough to know that these recent union constituency events would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, so what has changed? The answer must obviously be a point of conjecture, but first of all we must recognize that the WO issue has been under review for decades now, and the recent delegate action may have partly been an act of exasperation—that the ethical thing will never happen short of the issue being forced. Also, I am reminded that over recent years church administrators have squandered a great deal of moral capital in its failure to afford basic due process (sort of the heart of Christian practice) in a number of high profile cases involving Church employees. I won’t bother to enumerate them here, but there have been many. These recent events could well indirectly reflect frustration with this state of affairs—signaling a grassroots demand that it is time to make a fundamental change in the way business is conducted.
So what happens from here?
If unity is more than pretext, then we can assume that the path of peaceful coexistence will be found. If, on the other hand, this matter is not laid to rest, or is in some way escalated, there are indeed difficult days ahead for the Church, for I do not sense that many in the Pacific Union are in any mood to reinstated discriminatory employment practices along gender lines (and I assume the same prevailing mood exists in CUC). It is time to move on—all in unified purpose—but the ball has now been lobbed back to those who have figuratively been standing in the doorway. How they choice to make the next move will determine whether unity was pretext or a genuinely sought for objective.
A German Union has also voted WO, and so the general points made in this article also applies to it as well.
 For those who will object to this characterization perhaps I should offer up the standard definition, namely, “a highly promoted, often over-staged performance, presentation, or event designed to sway or convince opinion for political…ends.” The term can be used to connote “distrust of the message being presented or the efforts undertaken to present it.”
Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California.