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You Could Cut the Tension with a Knife: Reflections on the 2017 Annual Council


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To paraphrase Luke in his gospel,1 I know that many have already undertaken to provide an account of what went down during the 2017 Annual Council, yet here I go. Unlike Luke, I cannot claim to have "carefully investigated everything from the beginning," neither can I pledge to give "an orderly account" of all that happened. What I can promise is to place alongside all the previous reports my own take—specifically in regard to the debate on compliance.

For decades now, we've been engaged in a fierce debate inside the Adventist Church over the ordination of female clergy. And with certain regions of the world church unprepared to budge on the issue, the North American Division led the way in proposing that Divisions where the climate is favorable be allowed to proceed with such ordinations within their own territories. And at least twice now, this reasonable idea has been voted down by the world church.

Losing patience, and facing an existential problem in their particular areas, the constituencies of the Columbia and Pacific Unions simply went ahead and voted it, to the consternation of General Conference (GC) leadership.

Last June, with Annual Council 2017 approaching, and with well-founded rumors of reprisals in the air, a group of unions came together in London, for what was billed as a Unity Conference. Nine unions participated—Columbia, Pacific, Australian, New Zealand, and the Unions in Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany. They met at the Crown Plaza Hotel at Heathrow Airport.

A fundamental aim of the conference was to lay out a biblical-theological-historical rationale for equality in ministry, and to make the case that the ordination of female clergy, far from imperiling the unity of the church, actually enhances it. I was asked to present a paper on the topic: "What Is Jesus Saying in John 17?"2 The exercise gave me fresh insights into the burden Jesus carried for the unity of His church. (I will cite snippets from that paper below.)

"Political" activities in the lead-up to the Council

The attendees of the London conference had no illusions about the difficulty of influencing church leadership, notwithstanding the presence of some 7 union presidents among the 81 delegates. The hope, however, was that the message of the meeting could filter out to enough committee members and others of influence to make a difference at the upcoming annual council, then just four months away.

Meanwhile GC leadership was not idle in regard to influencing opinion in the other direction.  The GC president's article in the September issue of Adventist World ("God's Purpose for His Church") was clearly designed to advance the governance agenda that would come up at Annual Council. So also was David Trim's piece ("Seventh-day Adventist Ecclesiastical Polity in Historical Perspective") in Ministry magazine that same month.3

At the same time, curiously—and perhaps coincidentally, the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, in the lesson coinciding with the very week of the Annual Council's debate on governance and compliance, carried the following thought questions at the end of the segment for October 10:  "What is your attitude toward church leadership? How cooperative are you? Why is cooperation so important? How could we function if everyone was doing only what he or she wanted to do, independent of the larger body?" (An odd set of questions to flow from Acts 15!)

But perhaps the clearest attempt to influence the impending debate came from GC secretary G. T. Ng. Normally a very funny speaker, often leaving his audience in stitches, his humor on the Sunday of Annual Council, preceding Monday's debate, took on a dark tone, as, departing from the normal protocols for a secretary's report, he centered his remarks on what he described as "seven crises" that have faced the church in the past, with the church emerging victorious every time.

He listed "the Marion Rebellion, the Canright Defection, the 1888 Theological Crisis, the 1901 Organizational Crisis, the Kellogg Crisis, the Conradi Defection, and the Ford Crisis."4 The not-so-subtle message was that just as the church had weathered each of these crises successfully, so also would it weather the current theological insurrection in the form of female clergy ordination. The speech left some elated and others troubled. For here was the second highest official of the church comparing the ordination of female clergy to the Marion Rebellion, the Canright defection, the 1888 theological crisis, etc. Its over-the-topness, notwithstanding, it seemed to foreshadow the darkness many expected would descend upon the meeting the following day. 

The critical session commenced Monday, October 9, at 1:30 p.m., to a full house, with Ted Wilson in the chair, and dozens of onlookers standing at the back of the hall. In his opening remarks, Wilson, clearly aware of the tension in the room, spoke to it. "I want you to relax," he said. "I want you to be at peace. May the peace of Jesus reign in our hearts." (And I have to give him credit for himself maintaining a mood of calm and poise throughout the difficult meeting.)5

After speaking for 20 minutes, Wilson called on GC vice president Tom Lemon, chair of the Unity Oversight Committee, to make remarks. Lemon spoke about the different entities he'd met with since the last Annual Council—in North America and elsewhere. In all these meetings, he said, he didn’t find "one person who gave any hint… [of] rebellion." The attitude was "we are children of God, and we are in this thing together…." "I heard an understanding of mission and commitment to mission that would warm your hearts."

My mouth fell open. It was like listening to the prosecution making the case for the defense. An open contradiction of the current administrative position that certain sectors of the church were somehow in rebellion.

The debate would center around a 14-page document, entitled: "Procedures for Reconciliation and Adherence in Church Governance,"6 a document committee members were seeing for the first time. Even Division presidents had not been given prior access to the final copy before the meeting. GC associate secretary Hensley Moorooven read the 14-page (single-space) handout out loud, taking 48 minutes.

If the flowery niceties at the commencement of the document were meant to disguise what was to follow, they didn't succeed. For beginning around page 8, the point of the paper stood clear in all its severity:

"If members of the GC7 Executive Committee openly advocate positions contrary to voted actions of … GC Sessions, GC Executive Committee, or GC Working Policy, then those members will. . . forfeit GC Executive Committee membership privileges of voice, vote, and subcommittee participation which will be suspended until they come into or are in compliance…." (p. 9)

"… all Executive Committee members registering for the 20188 Annual Council, and annually thereafter, will be required to sign a statement … indicating compliance…." (p. 9)

"The GC Unity Oversight Committee will consider instances where the actions or statements of an Executive Committee member are shown to be inconsistent with the statement after signing it.   If an executive committee member is considered to be acting out of harmony with the signed statement, a pastoral process . . . will be initiated…. Should resolution not be reached, the Unity Oversight Committee will consult with the appropriate division, GC, or GC institution officers to determine the status of compliance of the Executive Committee member. If the Unity Oversight Committee determines that the actions or statements of an Executive Committee member are shown to be inconsistent with the statement the member has signed, the … Committee will send its recommendation to the GC and Division Officers (GCDO) for review and for a decision, to forward a recommendation to the GC Executive Committee for action" (pp. 9, 10).

At the end of the reading, Wilson called on his two officers, G.T. Ng and Juan Prestol, to make remarks; and part of what Prestol said struck me. Three times, he said, he'd voted in favor of women's ordination. But today "we have passed that point. [And] we need to find a way forward. What we need now is staying together. Because my personal conviction needs to be subservient to staying together. I wish you could actually be in our shoes and discover what it takes to keep this church together."

From what I know of Prestol, I'm sure it was not his intention to suggest that keeping the church together lies in human hands. Yet, on their face, his words brought to mind my exegesis of Jesus' prayer for unity in John 17:21-23. Those verses suggest, I said in the London presentation, that "the source of this unity is Deity itself. The Godhead. [They] suggest that it is not an artificial or human-engendered reality; not something created by committee actions, council resolutions, or church pronouncements; not something that can be administratively manufactured or contrived. Nor is it a condition to be controlled or enforced. Divinely construed and deep, it comes by each of us, and all of us together, submitting to the infilling of God, through Jesus Christ. 'I in them, and you in me.'"9

The Debate—a Few Snippets

After two hours and 16 minutes (1:30-3:46), the floor was finally open for debate. Here's a sampling from my own scribbles:10

  • A TED member: The document "nullifies more than 100 years of church policy. How does a super committee decide who is loyal and who is disloyal?" 
  • Ron Smith (Southern Union president): "Any machinery designed to compel compliance will be unwelcome in my union."
  • Lay invitee(from somewhere in Africa): "The document is long overdue. If we flout policy, we are nothing. I'm so happy! We should have had this document many centuries ago." (Never mind that the Adventist Church has been in existence for only 155 years.)
  • Lowell Cooper:gave 5 reasons he was against the document. Among them: it did not pass constitutional muster; it changed the ethos of the church, creating a system of vertical accountability; and it failed to take into consideration the action of local constituencies.
  • Randy Roberts(Loma Linda University Church senior pastor): questioned how the document found its way to the floor of the Council. He'd been told that in a key meeting preceding the session, the motion to advance the document to Annual Council first had failed, and then a subsequent vote came in at 36 in favor, 35 against—and that this second tally involved canvassing members not physically present at the meeting in question. Was such a razor-thin margin really enough to advance such an important document to the floor of the Council?  (Wilson gave a rambling response that did not seem to address Randy's concerns—even managing to complain that "private information" had been "leaked.")
  • John Thomas (GC secretariat): wanted to know whether the church was becoming a legal body, punishing people.
  • Young Woman (from the NAD): saw the situation in terms of parents setting rules and regulation in their home. Children must not disrupt the rules set down by parents. We cannot be selective in our obedience.
  • Kathryn Proffitt (1995 US ambassador to Malta): "We must abide by the voted policies of the church. The issue of women's ordination has been used by Satan to divide us."
  • Doug Batchelor (of Amazing Facts): "How long are we going to halt between two opinions? The world church is being halted in the execution of its mission." In that sentiment he was joined by (then Michigan Conference president) Jay Gallimore. The document was "not rocket science," Gallimore said, and the council should just vote it.
  • Jan Paulsen(former GC president): "In my 50 plus years of service to the church, I've never once had to sign a compliance document. The church operates on the basis of trust!"

It was remarkable, many observers thought, that in the prolonged debate, not one of the 13 Division presidents went to the microphone to defend the document.

The Vote

The major turning point of the meeting came when Columbia Union president Dave Weigley moved to send the document to the church's constitution and bylaws committee for further review. His motion precipitated a prolonged discussion that went on for at least 45 minutes, in the midst of which came an amendment (practically replacing the main motion) to have the document return instead to the Unity Oversight Committee, the body that had created it.

As members prepared to vote, Wilson made a few final remarks. "What do you do," he asked, inadvertently revealing the real intent of the document, "when an organization, when a union, is out of compliance?" His answer: "You can disband the union or you can downgrade the union to mission status." The GC, he said, has decided to avoid these "nuclear options." His underlying point was that the document members had before them was mild in comparison with the harsher penalties that could be meted out.  

The session went past 6:30. And when the vote was taken, it was a whopping 186/114for sending the document back to committee.

Some Personal Reflections

I left the building that evening with a deep sense of satisfaction and relief—that for once, on an issue related to women's ordination, common sense had prevailed. And I felt a lift as I reflected on the courageous men and women who'd stood up against this stark manifestation of ecclesiastical overreach.

But later, as I reconsidered the vote, the cynic in me returned. 186/114! So who are these one hundred and fourteen Adventist leaders who were prepared to vote in favor of such draconian regulations?11

In his powerful book, The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio,12 Hubert Wolf documents, from the Vatican's own  archives, the true story of a 19th century Roman Catholic convent in scandal. Beyond the utterly sordid stuff that went on at the nunnery, two things struck me: One was the juxtaposition of misogynyand veneration in Roman Catholic thinking and theology. Misogyny in regard to women in general; and ardent veneration of one particular woman: Mary. The other thing to strike me was the excessive bureaucracy that characterizes the church's ecclesiastical polity. Apart from the usual categories (brothers, priests, monks, bishops, cardinals, etc.), the church also boasted a judicial system, complete with courts, judges, lawyers, and massive tomes relating to evidence collection, storage, retrieval, and use. They had jails even!

And I have to say that when I saw what was coming down the pike in the Annual Council document, with its over-the-top bureaucratic stipulations and its implicit minimization of women in general and its overt exaltation of one woman in particular (Ellen G White—even using her in defense of that very minimization), I sensed disturbing parallels to Roman Catholic theology and polity. If we grant that people often have difficulty shaking off all aspects of their past, then what we may be witnessing here are the lingering embers of Roman Catholic sacerdotalism, unconsciously impacting our concept of ordination—and of women.13

But coming from the same woman in question is this statement: "The church may pass resolution upon resolution to put down all disagreement of opinions, but we cannot force the mind and will, and thus root out disagreement. These resolutions may conceal the discord, but they cannot quench it and establish perfect agreement. Nothing can perfect unity in the church but the spirit of Christlike forbearance. Satan can sow discord; Christ alone can harmonize the disagreeing elements."14

Acts 15 records the radical decision by the Early Church in regard to circumcision. The ordination of female clergy is vastly less severe. For here, unlike the Early Church, we're not breaching any clear-cut divine imperative. Rather, we're dealing with an issue not definitively spelled out in Scripture one way or the other. And here, precisely, is where the following statement comes in handy. “God wants us all to have common sense, and He wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation of things.”15

For what we have here, after all, is a group of people who simply want to join their male counterparts in the mission of the church and, in all fairness—and in keeping with common human decency—be fully and equally recognized for it. That's all. And to allow THAT to divide us is obscene.

 Where to from Here?

“The body has spoken,” Wilson said as the meeting closed. “[The document] will go back to the committee. By God's grace, we will find a way of bringing something together again.” With that he was sending a clear signal: the fight is not over; in one form or another, "something" is coming back.

Indeed, under a new chair (Mike Ryan),16 the same committee has already begun its work. Surveys have been sent out to Divisions and Unions, and committee members will be spending more time meeting in the various fields with leaders they've probably met with before; gathering more suggestions, receiving more input, for yet another report to yet another Annual Council.17

And the question that haunts me is: Why? Is that the best way to use the church's time and resources? When members give their hard-earned money to the church, do they really expect leaders to spend it this way? My heart aches as I think of the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of man-hours (pardon the term) that has gone into a matter that should be straightforward for people living in the 21st century. And all this while the world is literally decomposing all around us. Young people in the church are rolling their eyes, scratching their heads, and saying: "Really!"

If I had the president's ear, I'd say to him: "Ted, like it or not, we're facing a fait accompli. The paste has been squeezed from the tube, and we cannot put it back. The horses have left the stable. Let this go! You're dealing here with adults, with leaders of the church in their own right; not with children to be punished. Why expend so much of the good graces and energy God has given you on this single issue? Do you really want that to be your legacy? If you'd let this go, you'd get on the right side of history and be hailed by millions of thinking Adventists as an Adventist 'statesman' of the first order. Overnight!"

But I don't have the ear of the president. And what we see is an unflinching drive to inflict punishment for "non-compliance"; a pietistic stubbornness that does not back down for the sake of peace. And as this attitude comes up against a reality that's here to stay, we seem to be heading for the unthinkable: fracture. Serious fracture of the church we love. How utterly unnecessary!

The heart of Jesus must bleed over it!

I read somewhere that "there are more people alive today than have ever died." I don't know how anthropologists or statisticians come up with such data; but to the extent that they are correct, it highlights the enormity of the church's mission assignment. "It's a staggering and, from a human standpoint, an insurmountable task, notwithstanding clichéd reports about the message spreading by 'leaps and bounds.' If Adventists really believe in the imminence of the parousia, and have even a partial understanding of the magnitude and complexity of the mission, then there could be no question about the need to engage every able-bodied person, every willing talent, in the task. To understand the magnitude and complexity of the mission, and at the same time try to erect theological or ideological barriers to full participation in the church's mission—whether on the basis of class, or race, or age, or gender—is nothing short of theological malpractice."18

The mission is still huge; the laborers still few. But "if Christians were to act in concert, moving forward as one, under the direction of one Power, for the accomplishment of one purpose, they would move the world."19


Notes & References:

[1] See Luke 1:1-3.

[2] Mine and all the other papers presented at the conference have since been published in D. Thiele and B. Kemp, eds., Authority, Unity and Freedom of Conscience (Cooranbong, Australia: Avondale Academic Press, 2017). Available on Amazon.

[3] Incidentally, September's just happened to be one of those issues designed each year for sharing with non-Adventist pastors. One can only imagine how Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist and other clergy reacted, upon encountering an article in the magazine, brimming with Adventist organizational history. Would be worth looking into how that article came to be—whether it had been urged upon the editors by higher powers.

[4] To take a second look at Ng's list is to notice that he overstated the case.The Marion Party petered out in a few short years; and as for the Canright defection, the church was never threatened—after all, people are defecting all the time. The 1901 church reorganization, far from being a crisis, was a huge blessing, making the church more nimble for its mission. And from the little I know about it, to call the Conradi defection a crisis is far from accurate. But Ng was correct that 1888, Kellogg, and Ford did pose critical problems that could have derailed the church. But ironically, in the 1888 crisis, it was a woman that God used to urge the church away from legalism, standing up in open opposition to stalwarts like the GC president and the editor of the Review, and coming down on the side of young upstarts like A.T. Jones and E.J. Waggoner. The Kellogg matter was an organizational crisis with theological overtones (pantheism), and here again God used a woman to point the way forward. The Desmond Ford crisis was a real one, decimating our ministerial force in places like Australia and New Zealand (where Ford had a strong following among his former students) and parts of the United States. It was a serious issue, and the continuing controversy surrounding it, notwithstanding, Ng was correct in the view that the church survived it. But the ordination of female clergy is not to be compared to any of these events or developments. On the contrary, it's a move to enhance the mission of the church.

[5] Perhaps it was a calm bolstered by confidence in the fact that on the main underlying issue before the gathering, he had always had the votes on his side.

[7] As in the rest of the article, I shorten "General Conference" to "GC" to save space.

[8] The date assumed a positive vote by the Council.

[9] See the chapter under my name in Thiele and Kemp, eds., Authority, Unity and Freedom of Conscience.

[10] I use quote marks in those instances where I think I was able to capture someone's remarks fairly accurately, though not, necessarily, one hundred percent. Otherwise, I paraphrase.

[11] Perhaps the mere thought of having to sign a compliance document (given the wide range of church policies of which anyone could easily run afoul), spooked some leaders to join the ranks of the opposition, without necessarily signaling any movement in the direction of women's ordination.

[12] The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio: the True Story of a Convent in Scandal (translated by Ruth Martin) (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015).

[13] The point is too sensitive to take it any further here.

[14] Manuscript Release, no. 11, p. 266. 

[15] Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 217. Italics supplied.

[16] Whether by resignation or removal, Tom Lemon is no longer the chair of this committee.

[17] In her article, "General Conference Re-asks the Questions of 2017" (Spectrum, January 19, 2018), Bonnie Dwyer subtly underscores the curiousness of this procedure.

[18] See the chapter under my name in Thiele and Kemp, eds., Authority, Unity and Freedom of Conscience.

[19]Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 221.


Roy Adams has been a high school teacher, pastor, seminary professor, and church administrator. He ended his formal ministry at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, where, until his retirement in November 2010, he served as associate editor of Adventist Review/Adventist World.

Image: Executive Committee members follow along as the document "Procedures for Reconciliation and Adherence in Church Governance” is read aloud. Photo courtesy of North American Division/Dan Weber.


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