Surprises and Elephants

The Day Before

Very dubious about attending.

What’s the point? Does the center care about the margins?

Weather too nice to be inside for hours.

Must remember to take notebook for jottings.

Thursday - Arrival

Thursday, June 15, 2017. London Heathrow. Budget hotel-rather modest, no signature features. Rooms like millions of others: same kitsch pictures on walls, same room footprint, same policy notices: ‘In the interests of conserving water…environment…towels…blah, blah.’ ‘Management accepts no responsibility…’ Complete corporate uniformity. No surprises in this built environment. It works…at a business level.

Thursday Morning: Surprises Begin…Immediately

Barry Oliver quotes Ellen White: of the then GC president Butler she writes, ‘one man’s mind is not enough,’ ‘a sick man’s mind has had control.’ Ooof! Butler was manipulating what came before the GC session. Ellen W. again: People on the ground are to ‘use their judgment’ to further the mission. The prophet was a pragmatist (interesting idea in itself) driven by mission. She called for decentralization of decision-making and spreading of responsibility in church work. (Seems very wise). Unity in diversity. Central organization is advisory not executive. And EGW succeeded in settling the church, more or less. (But can this apply to 20 million Adventist individualists?)

George Knight says that church top guys misunderstand Matt. 18 and try to ‘bind’ members’ minds for administrative ease. Flat contradiction to EGW who says there must be ‘no forcing of minds.’ Individual conscience must not be compromised – a top value of EGW. Forcing minds produces division not unity. Unions are sovereign but senior leaders worry that GC might be destabilized. ‘GC – the highest authority under God’ often misquoted, badly misunderstood. (Wilfully?) San Antonio ordination debate saw the (cynical?) manipulation of information made available to delegates. TOSC (very expensive) - conclusions fatally ignored. And many delegates could not be bothered to read (admittedly dense) material. Voted en bloc. (Adventist populism!)

(This is beginning to disturb me. I am shocked but not surprised. This is detailed, compelling evidence. Can’t turn a blind eye to it. Need to breathe! Step out into the hotel foyer among the hoi-polloi aka ‘the world’ for a moment. Our mission is in the foyer!)

Rolf Pohler: Ellen W. again: ‘circumstances change the relation of things.’ She says that regarding the GC as ‘the voice of God’ is ‘almost a blasphemy.’ (Ouch! Must check that). ‘Do not surrender your judgment to that of any other man.’ Pohler says Ellen W. is often formative not normative.(Yes of course. She says the same.) Old jewels must be framed in new settings. Rolf’s call is for ‘conscientious non-conformity’ (like conscientious objection). (Rolf gave the idea a name, Ellen had already given it substance.

Lowell Cooper: (I have never been a policy wonk. I disliked reading it, making it, sometimes applying it. Thought you needed to be a little touched by some syndrome or other to actually enjoy it. Not optimistic.) So, surprising that Lowell Cooper made policy so riveting. Stellar, intelligent performance. The church frequently makes exceptions to policy when it supports the mission of the church – remuneration, conditions in local employment law, special affinity groups e.g., the church in China. So why not when it concerns ordination? (Good question!) Mission should always drive policy not vice-versa. Policy development is more important than policy enforcement. (Now that is interesting). Policy needs to be dynamic when the world (in the foyer) is changing by the minute. Need for administrations to be agile, imaginative…on ordination and elsewhere…for the Gospel’s sake. (Worth coming just to hear this).

(End of day one. Need to recalibrate. Need to settle. Remarkably sleep comes. Many surprises already!)

Friday: Surprises – No Let Up

Wendy Jackson – first up. The overall sense of EGW’s counsel is that we don’t need to think uniformly, we do need to work harmoniously. That means teachableness, mutual availability. All of us. Church unity is the responsibility of every member. Unity is daily. Unity is local. The tendency to categorize, stereotype others leads to disunity. (Yes! Small rebuke to self!) Actually, simple nurturing kindness creates unity. (Kindness – easy really!?)

Roy Adams: John 17 is about unity? Right? Wrong! Not only that anyway. It is also about ‘glory’ – bringing ‘glory’ / respect / value to one another. It is about protection. Pray then for the protection of the church against destructive forces. It is also about revelation / mission. Jesus lamented the fact that he had so few workers to reap the harvest. He was not about to halve the workforce by excluding women. (That hits home! Memo to self: or excluding people I do not much like!) John’s gospel is about unity as well, of course. Unity cannot be manufactured, administered, enforced. It has to be nurtured. Takes time. And lots of gentle, loving effort. And yet paradoxically unity is somehow effortless, organic. Not sameness but connectedness. And then a further surprise: ‘the church’s failure to use all willing talents is ecclesiological malpractice.’ (Sharp intake of breath in the room!)

Panel of speakers produces a bag of all-sorts:

  • There is no biblical hierarchy of gifts, no ranking of service - but we have confused things with our strong hierarchy of roles, our appetite for labels of status.
  • GC session has become so big as to be ineffective and undemocratic with executive effectively dictating policy.
  • Young people (not only!) roll their eyes: ‘you’re still discussing what?! Ordaining women? So what exactly is the issue?’ We’re losing swathes of next generation.
  • Paul’s passages about spiritual gifts say nothing about gender.
  • Adventist ‘one size fits all’ approach just does not work in our complex world.
  • What about huge Adventist mission success in China led by women pastors – against policy?!
  • Do we seek thriving (and, probably, rather untidy) mission, or a perfectly administered organization? GC needs a slimming program. Otherwise sclerosis sets in.
  • Actually, women’s ordination apart, we are united on so many things. Don’t forget that.
  • There is now a GC Executive Newsletter. (Surprise to me. Available to all online? Transparency or no?)

John Brunt: (evening talk to wearying participants, difficult task). Early church is our model. Koinonia – mutual availability. Would have been easy to divide over cash, junk food, sexuality. But Paul sought community at cost of considerable hardship to himself. Jerusalem Council. Paul v Peter. Diversity v uniformity. Paul did not try to control everyone’s behaviour. Paul: welcome each other ‘with open arms.’ Can narrow conservatives and smug liberals pull that off? If we cannot we’re finished, we’ve nothing to say. Joy is the test of healthy religion. (Yes! Yes!) ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is one.’ (Amen).

(And so to bed. Can’t sleep. My resources for coping with surprises are stretched!)

Sabbath (Some Rest from Surprises?)

Olive Hemmings: (I’m tired, Olive, you had better be good!) ‘Righteous’ means just. Freedom from oppressive structures. ‘Then shall the sanctuary be cleansed’ literally ‘then shall the sanctuary receive justice.’ (Key point I am sure – haven’t quite fathomed it yet…be a place of justice?) Early church incredibly diverse – all stripes. Paul insists we are all equal Jew / Greek, slave / free, male / female. Paul makes this huge leap of imagination. But Peter intimidated by pro-circumcision party. Paul opposed use of coercion of conscience to bring unity. Paul patiently seeks spiritual maturity not imposed conformity. Paul does not bow to the loudest voice. Allows for freedom of conscience on idol meat. He knows that on culturally complex issues you can’t be dogmatic. Within dominant structures there is often a whiff of fear. Paul refuses to motivate by fear. Where Jesus is there is no climate of fear. Grow members not just membership! (Olive has kept me very awake. Finely crafted, passionate piece. I do not do justice to it here – concentration not best. Will read it (all of them, actually) again. Online.

Reinder Bruinsma: Adventists have always been interested in promotion of religious liberty. IRLA (Google it). Ironic: we seek religious freedom for ourselves when facing outwards; slow to grant it when facing inwards. But how much freedom can a religious organization permit? Can you codify ‘real Adventism’? (If we continue to codify everything then we may only have the GC Executive left, and even they…!) Policy simply can’t be made to have equal importance to doctrine. (New GC policy of close screening of scholars is an uncomfortable reminder to Europeans - like me of recent expressions of totalitarianism. Burning of the books – frightening). A climate of fear kills the spirit: (witness the veiled threats issued to some due to participate in this conference). Ironic that 500 years after Luther we witness an excluding tendency, an inquisitorial spirit. Adventist presidential system reflects American presidential system - to its detriment. Church leadership style often mimics local cultural style – inevitable or regrettable?

Panel: again – another mixed bag:

  • Unity is local, unity is personal – leaders’ biggest task is to cultivate fertile ground for inspiring trust, generating faith. Not to legislate some mirage of unity.
  • Lose trust – lose unity. Simple as that. Do all we can to cultivate trust, be authentic.
  • What might we gain in unity– rather than lose - by taking a risk on devolving responsibility and initiative?
  • Location of the greatest meanness in the church? Sadly, the Sabbath School class where members (usually opinionated men) try to strut their theological stuff.
  • Why does being right matter so much to us? Let’s practice saying: ‘Sorry, I was wrong.’
  • ‘Not everything in the Bible is biblical.’ (What?! That’s too much!) Bible writers sometimes quote secular and apocryphal sources. (OK. I understand. So what? Need to think about that.)
  • There has always been a recurring perfectionist strain in Adventism. Cycles. Nothing new. (Perfectionism always ends in tears – seen it many times.)
  • Just read good chunks of the Bible not ear-tickling slivers.
  • Non-negotiables of unity? Lordship of Jesus. Centrality of Scripture. Wide distribution of authority. Trust.
  • Does a constituent vote trump a GC decision? Apparently yes. (Power to the people!)
  • So, unions have final authority on ordination - but policy is a bit confused.

Ray Roennfeldt: (you’ve drawn the short straw. Last lecture of conference – surprisingly hot afternoon. I’ll give you the best attention I’ve got, Ray). ‘I have enjoyed working with women in authority over me.’ (Very honest. Like his tone). In Genesis God creates spaces on days 1,2,3; he fills them with richness on days 4,5,6. So the male was created first, with potential – the female fulfilled it. (Mmm. I shall need convincing on that one, Ray. Interesting though.) Hagar, Ruth, Gospels – God is on the side of the marginal. Not the powerful ones. Really understanding the Bible is not for the faint-hearted. Challenges just as it comforts. Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Scripture, experience, reason, tradition. (Read the lecture online – very helpful). Early church opting for non-circumcision shows that Jesus’ new covenant applies beyond males. God is vitally interested in justice and equality. Are we? They are at the heart of righteousness by faith, Sabbath, second advent – in fact the whole Adventist package. Not a side issue.

Overarching Impressions

Very glad I attended.

Worship was not neglected. Gary Patterson did the honours. Not just all head stuff. Tying up the ten commandments ‘package’ was a great stunt…you had to be there! Liked Wim’s moments of silence.

I am proud of, and grateful for my people, my community of faith.

Huge commitment to Jesus on display here.

Niagara of loyalty to the church.

Great generosity of spirit.

The conversation was extremely well-informed and there was no academic point-scoring stuff.

Actually, not just one-sided. There was friendly dissonance. It can be done.

Complete lack of cynicism. It would have been easy for anger and disappointment to degenerate from sad to mad. But no! No negativity. Especially proud of everyone for that.

No personal attacks.

Lots of joy.

At Home Now and Here Come the Elephants

I need time – a lot – to absorb all this, reflect on its implications. Read the papers. I haven’t done any of them justice here – just fragments. Will they get more attention than TOSC papers?

So… what about the elephants? Elephants in the conference room, that is.

Important to be self-critical. That’s how humans mature (churches too). It was an excellent three days. Proud of the organizers, speakers, contributors from the audience, etc. For all the excellence (I don’t use the word lightly) of this event, must ask where were the weak spots, the flaws you just can’t identify close-up? Particularly indebted here to hindsight!

  • Did the conference succeed in modeling its inclusive, egalitarian ideals? No, not entirely.
  • There were many more male participants – presenters too - than female (80:20, guessing). That’s largely a function of office, to be fair. Even so, other women contributors could have been sought. Own goal?
  • The American voice was the loudest. Top guys. Too little sought from the margins – Germany, Denmark, Norway, New Zealand, etc.
  • I was a bit uncomfortable with the labels of prestige flapping in the wind. Everyone knew George but what about the invisible ones?
  • Lectures - the best way of doing it here? Maybe so because we do now have an excellent body of very relevant scholarly material. Would have liked to see a small attempt at peace and reconciliation exercise. Next time?
  • Reconciling would require some participants of a different persuasion. Not just singing to the choir. Would they happily participate? That’s up to them. Orthodox Adventists and True and Free Adventists managed it at WWI conference at Friedensau in 2015.
  • Mostly church employees (a number of white retired or middle-aged men) here. Do they adequately represent the church? Tricky to balance this equation, I know.
  • Certainly, there was some hurt-anger in the room. Wish we could have named it and explored it a bit more. Might have brought some healing of wounds.
  • It was very biblically based. Good. Was there too much trading in EGW references? Maybe not. After all she shapes our identity in so many ways.
  • Is everyone really that clear about mission of the church? Is it just I who am overwhelmed, bewildered? Inadequately skilled, committed? Mission to the world is in the foyer. Mission… I can’t wish my confusion away with the usual clichés? Mission is nurture. Fact is – women have more experience of it than men.
  • Much prose – very little poetry (except from Roy Adams). True unity in the end is mystery. Where was the mystery?
  • The Grenfell Tower inferno happened on the eve of the conference. Tragic loss of lives -scores of them. Great Islamic heroism, generosity in the rescue and aftermath. Only 14 miles from the hotel. Still burning as we were speaking. Poor tenants, rich local council…top of Jesus agenda. Barely a mention among us! My fault as much as anybody’s, maybe more since Helen and I were the only Brits. Adventist self-absorption? Our besetting sin? Still too much Advent-speak?
  • Did we talk to other guests and staff i.e., ‘the world’s at the hotel? Cheryl waited on us at table with enormous good grace, carefully attentive to special diets. Cheryl = ‘the world.’ Will think about her next time I’m tempted to say dire things about ‘the world.’
  • Fiddling while Rome burns’ – so say our young. Personally? Guilty as charged sometimes.

Elephants? Just a small herd.

Surprises? I was surprised by joy (to borrow from C.S. Lewis).

Well worth staring at that awful kitsch at the bottom of my bed for three days.

Michael Pearson is a retired ethicist living in the UK.

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Papers presented at the Unity Conference can be downloaded on their website here. Additionally, the next issue of Spectrum (Vol. 45, No. 2) will be a special edition containing all of the papers from the conference.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at
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Delightful overview with inserted thoughts. Thanks!

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You wrote:
There is now a GC Executive Newsletter. (Surprise to me. Available to all online? Transparency or no?)
Yes, there is a GC EN, online available at:
But: the content is diametrically opposed to the satisfying conclusion of UNITY 2017.
I fear, that with this GC ECOM we could fall apart any time.

What a hoot. Adventist places when to worship above Whom to worship and why and then they double down with who is worthy to lead in worship. time and sex take the foremost.


Thanks for your helpful representation of Conference surprises and elephants in the conference room.

I welcome the fact that a Conference of this nature could meet in a “budget hotel.” Yet this was probably more expensive than meeting at Newbold! Reinder Bruinsma suggested that this was the organizers first wish. Perhaps with the limited numbers attending the Conference might easily have been held at a Adventist Youth Camp facility.

George Knight’s presentation and paper can be seen to contain explosive material that should give all pause for thought. Especially the following quotation:

“The highest authority under God among Seventh-day Adventists is found in the will of the body of that people, as expressed in the decisions of the General Conference when acting within its proper jurisdiction; and that such decisions should be submitted to by all without exception, unless they can be shown to conflict with the word of God and the rights of individual conscience.” (Voted at the 1877 General Conference Session).

Please note, however, that it did highlight limitations related to the “proper jurisdiction” of the General Conference and “the rights of individual conscience.”

It seems to me that the GC session was not the appropriate forum for deciding the ordination issue. The proponents of WO regard it as a moral and ethical issue concerning discrimination and thus subject to the dictates of individual conscience. The opponents of WO also regard it as a moral and ethical issue concerning a faithful interpretation of Scripture. Thus it is also a matter subject to the dictates of individual conscience.

Thus it is plainly obvious that whether the San Antonio vote had been decided 58% to 42% for or against WO, it will continue to be a contentious issue (basically because it is strictly a matter of individual conscience).

No church pastor worth his salt will bring to a vote any item that will generate ongoing division beyond the vote. Yet this is what the GC Session did!

The issue is best solved, not by attrition of the vote of the opponents to WO, which will surely happen. Rather, by using the consensus already achieved by TOSC, building on it, and enunciating its principles and common biblical and theological approach and allowing Adventists globally to develop rites for each region. Only those rites which can be demonstrated to encapsulate the principles and common biblical approach of the consensus document should be endorsed.

Further, a hermeneutical paradigm that embraces the whole of the Scriptures, and that provides a clear solution to the ordination conundrum has already been developed in Bertil Wiklander’s book Ordination Reconsidered: The Biblical Vision of Men and Women as Servants of God. Here is a biblical theology of ordination based on the Bible as a whole. It envisions the Scriptures as a multi-faceted story of the mission of God to our fallen world through his chosen missional representatives - Israel, Christ and the Church. Each of these missional representatives engaged in Kingdom mission as divine Servants.

In this way a theology of Adventist leadership and the associated rites is built on a theology of the laity, (a theology of the whole people of God).

I really appreciated your bag of all sorts, Mike! There is so much that ressonates with my conservative mind set.

Each of the several topics under discussion - church structure and authority, church unity, and religious liberty and freedom of conscience could easily have been the subject of a weekend such as this. I feel strongly that the matter of the relationship of church policy and freedom of conscience deserves much more exploration. The 1877 GC vote would seem to indicate so.

Like Mike, I am anxious to see this kind of conferencing spread. After-all this is the model of collaborative unity the General Conference dreams that it will embrace, if I understand what the word Conference actually means.

I’m also anxious to see global voices being represented, though if I understand correctly, Lowell Cooper is originally from Canada, Olive Hemmings is from Jamacia and Wendy Jackson from New Zealand.

Then the issue of just church employees being attendees at such conferences also needs to be addressed.

Perhaps a conferencing movement of this nature would be best led by non-church employees. Such conferences might happen in very diverse places and cultures. All who come have an ambition to create a growing consensus around the following topics:

*** an organic model of church structure in which all pastoral authority is derived from Christ himself and from the Spirit’s gifts.**
*** an organic model of Adventist unity that fulfils the ideals the Scripture holds out.**
*** an exploration of what freedom of conscience means for Adventist church policy development. This would specifically address the question of under what circumstances might Adventist church entities actually have over-reached their policy development mandate in throwing off the significant constraints of the rightful demands of individual conscience.**

A harnessing of the intellectual resources of our global communion in this regard is just as useful in asisting the mission of the church and preparing for a studied revival and reformation as a unofficial organization such as ASI is in harnessing the financial resources of the well-endowed.

Any thoughts?

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