“We’re not leaving the church; the church is leaving us.”
So a pastor from Europe told me last Sunday. For Adventists who want grace-oriented faith, equality for all, unity without uniformity, and leader responsiveness to the particular concerns and situations of lay members, San Antonio feels so far like a disaster. The church’s older strongholds—North America, Europe, and Australia—have ever-weaker influence, and the rest of the church (along with old, white fundamentalist males who still gravitate to microphones) seems determined to re-establish a more rigid, centralized and doctrinaire version of Adventism.
Delegates have already said No to fresh perspective. They have made noises (in conversation about proposed Church Manual revisions) that cause friends of equality and openness to feel beleaguered. Many or most have responded positively to preaching that is insistently narrower and more cavalier than that heard just five years ago in Atlanta.
The vote on whether it is “acceptable for division executive committees, as they may deem it appropriate in their territories, to make provision for the ordination of women to gospel ministry” (full text here) will take place at 4:30pm tomorrow, July 8, 2015. Although some are still hopeful that Yes will prevail, most see a windsock blowing the other direction. As for the extra-biblical doctrinal stringency in proposed revisions to Adventists official statement on biblical creation, the fundamentalist outcome seems (despite many insightful speeches in opposition to it) as certain as sunrise.
There is no logical bar to a miraculous change of heart. And there would certainly be no better time than now for that to occur. One delegate familiar from his role with the Biblical Research Committee told me Sunday morning that if the proposal on ordination does not pass, the issue “will never come up again.” The General Conference culture is changing that quickly. A No vote would be, he then said, “a deep wound to the church.”
Many are praying that their dream of grace will not, these next couple of days, disappear like a match flame in a wind gust. Another apt subject for prayer is the possibility that the flame may be re-lit.
It seems likely now that this General Conference session will go down in infamy. It will deal a blow to the hope that Adventism in secularizing locales can hold on to its children, or even to its wavering, educated members. And as for the hope that believers from the older strongholds and those from other cultures can flourish together, that now seems practically impossible. The same pastor from Europe who spoke to me on Sunday said that the direction we seem to be taking “will make it impossible for us to function as a world church.”
So if all the outcomes in San Antonio disappoint, what can be done? With the relevance of the General Conference becoming less and less plausible, who could be the new Voice of Adventism for our children and our friends? How could the defining of Adventism fall to persons more sympathetic and biblically responsible?
I don’t really know. But I still love the ideal of an international people called to a radical faith. I still love the energy of the Exhibit Hall at a General Conference session. I love the wonder of friendships made and renewed. I love the crowd of hopeful faces, the rafter-raising song, the Sabbath parade of families in costume and women (fewer now) wearing their hats like crowns. But when uniformity has the upper hand, and the dream of grace stands bloodied on the ropes, I really don’t know what to do.
Still, I will take a shot at something. What if in the older strongholds the best pastors—the ones who in thought and deed venture forth like Abraham—became a Pastors’ League for Adventist Renewal, or Faithfulness, or whatever seems best? What if they founded a website (and exploited social media) so as to achieve a wider and deeper reach into Adventist consciousness? What if negative drift could be overwhelmed, at least in North America, Europe and Australia, by the energy of university and other truly adventurous Adventist pastors and their congregations?
From the Alamodome podium it was said, earlier this week that the work of God cannot succeed until church members unite their efforts with church “officers.” The best pastors know that it is at least as important for church “officers” to unite their efforts with church members. These pastors live, as we say, at the front lines, and they know how important it is to listen. They also know how important it is to read Scripture for fresh perspective, and to let the Jesus story shape our lives on earth as well as our dreams of heaven.
What better hope than our best pastors, the ones who, besides their other virtues, recognize and support the best lay leaders? The One Project is pastor-led, and it has become a vehicle of energy and hope. The “Called” convention in Austin, Texas, which just prior to San Antonio featured and focused on pastors, was by most testimony, really energizing. And what smarter move could administrators make than to uphold and support the church employees who, arguably, have the toughest jobs and make the biggest difference?
Could our best pastors become the Voice of older-stronghold Adventism? Could our children, when they grow restless and need to rebel, be able, at least, to rebel against something other than exclusion and narrow-mindedness?
Let’s just say that somebody, sooner and not later, had better become such a voice for such a version of Adventism.
And by the way, if the vote tomorrow surprises everybody, and I turn out to be a crank and a doomster, I promise to absolutely revel in the pleasure others may take at my expense. Laugh it up and I’ll laugh with you.
Charles Scriven is chair of the Adventist Forum board, and a member of the General Conference reporting team in San Antonio, Texas.
Photo Credit: Steven Norman / NAD
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6937