In October, 2016, following a vigorous debate and a contentious week, the General Conference Executive Committee approved a document with a five-step procedure for church reconciliation. The action followed days of uncertainty because several drafts of a possible motion had been proposed to dissolve the unions that had voted to approve women’s ordination in a possible takeover action by the General Conference. Instead of a takeover however, the document that was finally voted set up a year of grace with provisions for meetings, prayer, and consultation. And, to generalize this procedure so that it might be used for more than just the current situation, it was also acknowledged that other situations might bring an entity “out of compliance,” such as taking out an unauthorized loan. But the elephant in the room was the conferences and unions that had ordained women.
What has happened since that 2016 action? Have the five voted steps been followed?
The first step specified: “a. Listen and pray. i) this step begins when the executive officers or governing body become aware of an apparent reason for concern regarding a subsidiary entity’s actions. The executive officers should then meet with the leaders of the subsidiary entity. This will provide an opportunity to pray together and listen to each other.”
On January 19, 2017, there was a “closed door meeting” at the General Conference with the GC Officers, the NAD Officers and the NAD Union Conference Presidents. The Union Conference Presidents prepared for the meeting by drafting a statement declaring the basis for their unity. They affirmed the 28 fundamental beliefs and their unity with the worldwide church in its mission of bringing a remnant message to the world. But they also were specific in saying that they believe the Holy Spirit calls both men and women into ministry. And they were critical of the year of grace action taken at the 2016 Annual Council saying, “We believe the GC is dangerously overreaching its authority and potentially endangering the current and future unity and mission of the church.”
While the participants said this was a good meeting, with candid and vigorous discussion, at the end, a joint statement was issued that simply acknowledged that the meeting took place and the people who were present.
In February, the Trans European Division (TED) Executive Committee met, and the Annual Council action was put on the agenda for discussion. In response, the committee voted to request that the General Conference amend the Working Policy and create a single ministerial credential. But this meeting was different from the consultation that the GC held with the NAD and its Union conference presidents in January. It was not until April that such a meeting was scheduled with the TED and its unions that support women’s ordination.
Step two in the process calls for consultation with a wider group, “including lay people, pastors, and administrators from the entity and the broader Church—should meet at least twice over a period of six months. This will provide an opportunity to listen to each other, pray together, and study God’s will from His Word and the Spirit of Prophecy. Every effort should be made and sufficient time be given for personal visits, open consultations, meetings, and forums for dialogue.”
In March, ten unions from four divisions announced their intention to hold a “Unity 2017 Conference” in the United Kingdom. They said the purpose of the meeting was to provide a time for a broader conversation than is possible at regular business meetings such as Annual Council. While this meeting might have been viewed as an appropriate step in the process, instead, it was met with opposition from the divisions and the General Conference. Calls were made from the General Conference telling people not to attend and not to use their travel budgets for this meeting.
So, step two in the GC’s process remains uncompleted. There have been no wider groups called to discuss the issue. No forums held. No reports made to the General Conference Executive Committee through its regular monthly newsletter or elsewhere.
“c. Write pastoral letters. i) If after six months of discussion the matter has not been resolved, the executive officers of the next higher organization should write pastoral letters encouraging the executive officers and the governing body of the entity to lead their organization to be faithful to the biblical principles as expressed in the Fundamental Beliefs; voted actions; and working policies of the Church.”
In April, the North American Division Officers drafted a letter. But rather than a letter to the unions to encourage them to reconsider their actions, it was a letter to be sent to the General Conference. At that January session, the GC suggested that they should propose a way forward, a way that would include some pain in recognition of the “non-compliance.” A draft was reviewed with the Union conference presidents and then voted by the NAD Executive Committee which turned out to be the officials in the office. The minutes to the voted action were never shared with the entire NAD Executive Committee. (It is common practice for a small group to act on routine matters, but this was hardly routine.) And when the voted action was shared with the Pacific Union Conference Executive Committee, after the fact, the committee expressed specific disagreement with the response document, because it said, “With particular regard to the current situation within the church, we recognize that the actions of the Columbia and Pacific Unions are in violation of the voted actions of the General Conference in session and GC Policy #E 86.”
It also recommended, for the pain part, “the Columbia and Pacific Unions (either employees or laypersons) will not participate in the leadership (chairmanship or vice-chairmanship) of General Conference governance activities. . . They would retain their appointments or memberships on these committees with ’voice and vote,’ but they would be not be permitted to lead.” So, the Pacific Union Conference Executive Committee wrote to the NAD protesting the wording of the NAD action, but it was too late. The NAD had already sent the action on to the General Conference.
You can read the NAD Action in full below.
There was no response from the General Conference to the North American Division Executive Committee Action.
Also, in April, a new website for the General Conference Executive Committee was unveiled just in time for Spring Meetings. The monthly newsletter, created for the Committee, was placed on the website with articles reinforcing the authority of the General Conference.
The Spring Meeting of the General Conference Executive Committee took place in April, too. But the topic of reconciliation was not discussed.
On April 27, Thomas Lemon, vice president of the General Conference and chair of the Unity Oversight Committee, met with the officers of the Trans European Division and the officers of the four unions in that division that have taken a position supporting the ordination of women. Division officials described it as a private meeting and no statement was released after the session which was characterized as “good spirited.”
There are fourteen people on the Unity Oversight Committee that Lemon chairs, all General Conference personnel. There have been no reports of the committee’s work, not even in the Executive Committee Newsletter.
In June, the Unity Conference took place in London. The three-day meeting included presentations of ten papers by historians, theologians, and retired church administrators. It brought together eighty people from five divisions for an extended conversation about church authority and unity in the Scriptures and the Spirit of Prophecy as well as Adventist history. But, there were no current personnel from the divisions or General Conference present.
And that is what has taken place since October 2016.
The rest of the steps in the process specify:
“d. Listen and pray again. i) If these letters still don’t resolve the matter, the executive officers of the next higher organization should again meet with the executive officers and the governing body of the entity concerned to urge and encourage them to reconsider (unless an amended time frame has been approved in step b. above). They should also request an opportunity to meet again with the group that has been addressing the matter.
“e. Start phase two of reconciliation.”
That is where the General Conference and Division Officers picked up the process on September 19 with a new proposal from the presidential offices of the General Conference on where to go from here. But after twenty hours of discussion, plus conversations while riding on a bus from Maryland to New England for an Adventist History tour together, there was not a consensus. The president could not get a majority to support his proposal. The vote was close, but he lost. What he did get was non-disclosure statements from all the participants. Secrecy has been a key part of his approach to this whole process, in spite of the fact that there is nothing about specific employees or legal actions that would require secrecy. That is where it appears to stand on October 3.
Whatever comes next is due for consideration in the Annual Council meeting that begins on Thursday, October 5. Will there be discussion of whether or not there has been compliance with the voted action of last year? Will it be done in secret? In Executive Session? Will the rest of the church, the unions and conferences, the pastors and the laity ever be brought into the conversation?
Bonnie Dwyer is editor of Spectrum.
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