Today, about 20 minutes down the street from me, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists is on Day 6 of its 2014 Annual Council meeting. The group reconvened for the afternoon session at 2 p.m. Eastern.
The Annual Council meeting convenes church administrators from around the world each October to present progress reports on their departments and major projects, get budgets and membership updates, approve or reject closed committee recommendations, and group-edit revisions to the church manual. Voted changes are then forwarded for final review to the full General Conference session held every 5 years. The group just unveiled the question it wants the General Conference delegates to consider next year.
— SPECTRUM (@spectrummag) October 14, 2014
Lay member participation at both of these affairs is minimal; we are neither in the room directly nor through accountable representation, but thanks to social media, the denomination’s PR team, and two independent media sources, church members and other interested parties not attending can eavesdrop on what’s going on. (Special thanks go to Adventist Today and Spectrum Magazine!)
The Annual Council agenda today includes the ordination of women to pastoral ministry. The last international discussion I remember about this was in 1995 when General Conference delegates refused to allow North America and Western Europe to move forward with gender-equitable ordination rules given the needs of their territory.
But the timeline of comment, study, and [in]action on this question goes back to the 1800s and the Adventist denomination’s founders, not just to 19 years ago and the NAD: check out this general ordination overview via the GC Archives and this women’s ordination-specific timeline from SDAnet’s At Issue.
Earlier this morning, Annual Council delegates voted (275-11) to affirm this consensus statement on ordination from the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (pdf). (Other interim reports from the TOSC are hosted on the GC Archives website.) The TOSC committee needs the entire church to know that regardless of their differences they are loyal to the church’s 28 Fundamental Beliefs.
Related: The First Step in Apostasy: The Anti-creedalism of Charles Beecher (July 2014)
I’m not a neutral observer today. I’m the daughter of an ordained female elder who was among the first ordained in the British Union Conference.
I’m also the daughter of an agnostic former Adventist who, last time we spoke about this at any length, shared reservations about how much religious authority dresses up garden-variety games of power and control.
The pastoral team at the Adventist congregation I participate at weekly includes a woman doing good, diligent, soul-watering work despite a denominational climate that’s both passively and actively hostile. No, I’m not neutral about this debate and I’m not at all inured to the human costs it has charged us over at least the last 41 years.
And is no one going to talk about the real life experiences of women who are serving and have served as pastors and as chaplains? #GCAC14
— Bill Cork (@WJCork) October 14, 2014
No, Bill. Women who are also ministers can be spoken about in the abstract, but they can’t be spoken with in the flesh.
Related: Women Pastors Tell Their Stories (September 2014)
By this afternoon, observers expected the Annual Council to approve an “ecclesiastical” church policy solution to the problem of global disagreement about women and which roles women may or may not play with equal pay and responsibilities in denominational service.
Three options are being presented: for male headship and no women’s ordination (presented by Clinton Wahlen of the GC’s Biblical Research Institute; for gender mutuality and for women’s ordination (presented by Carl Cosaert of Walla Walla University); and a “third way” promoting men in ministry as God’s ideal, and women in ministry as “Plan B” (yes, really, that was their chosen term)—the lawful concession when men are not available or qualified (presented by Nicholas Miller of Andrews University and co-authored by David Trim of the GC Archives).
Only one of these options will advance from Annual Council to the next stage, which is “study” in the wider church ahead of July 2015’s international General Conference session in San Antonio, TX. All week long, GC President Ted N.C. Wilson and others have been hammering home the idea that whatever GC delegates decide next year should end the debate and all who disagree must “submit.” We can expect continued pressure along those lines between now and next summer.
I’m astonished that it has taken about 44 years to get to this point. It has also taken 19 years for the conversation to circle back to letting divisions compelled to ordain do so yet not forcing opposed divisions to do so. This was the very request that the North American Divison made in Utrecht (1995). Again, here is the question being referred back to the General Conference delegates:
— SPECTRUM (@spectrummag) October 14, 2014
In this millennium, however, the 1995 proposal is being offered alongside the reasoning, “Female ministers aren’t God’s best, but it is acceptable if we ordain them when men have failed.” And that argument is being presented as “moderate.” There are a number of missing voices across the discussion, as at least a few spectators have pointed out.
— Pamela Harris, Ph.D. (@PamMHarris) October 14, 2014
So in the absence of these women, today’s meeting involves abstract debate, compromise, and concession. Only two women spoke all day, and the first, a Chinese psychologist, didn’t reach the mic until after 4 p.m. I don’t expect female minsters to go to bed tonight feeling seen, heard, or affirmed: I suspect many have learned not to care how strident criticisms are, and others are beginning to learn. Someone said to me recently that this is a generational issue, that change will not be possible until the most recalcitrant voices move out of office or influence. I don’t know if that’s true, and I don’t know who will be left to wait if it is.
I did see something interesting between the church stats and Peter Handless’ comments, though. Internationally, the majority of the church’s 18 million members are under 35yo. That is not a conclusion you’d draw from looking at the Annual Council photos. If the majority is not represented during discussion, how will we assure the legitimacy of the conclusion and policy changes that result from it?
Related (updated 11/2018): The NAD’s 2013 TOSC report. The NAD removed its summary, “WANTED! More Female Pastors — Essential for the Harvest,” in 2018. A new page compiles approved statements and documents.
I’ve compiled a list of resources that may help you read behind the tweets—and certainly get a rounder view of the topic than the Adventist Review will be able to provide.
Adventist Today’s prime correspondent is J. David Newman.
- Adventist Today: Day 1 of Annual Council Begins with Concern, Health Seminar
- Adventist Today: Day 2 of Annual Council: Fear and Loathing in Silver Spring
- Adventist Today: Day 3 of Annual Council: Wilson says Satan Trying to Destroy Church
- Adventist Today: Day 4 of Annual Council: Changes in Doctrine, Statistics
- Adventist Today: Day 5 of Annual Council: Doctrinal Changes Voted
Related: The Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary Faculty: On the Unique Headship of Christ in the Church (pdf)
ANN reports on Andrews statement. | Andrews faculty reaffirm statement in October 2014
Spectrum/Adventist Forum’s correspondents are Jared Wright and Bonnie Dwyer.
- Day 1: And So It Begins: Annual Council Diary I
- Day 2: Getting Personal: Annual Council Diary II
- Day 3: Annual Council Diary III: Faith, Love and Satan
- Day 4: Annual Council Diary IV: On to the Fundamentals
- Day 5: Annual Council Diary V: Inspired Revisions
The report that started it all: The Camp Mohaven Report on Ordination (1973) via the Columbia Union Conference, which began ordaining ministers without regard to gender in 2012.
Some solid recent research on the role Adventist interpretation plays in this conversation: Sacred Texts and Social Conflict: The Bible and The Debate Over Women’s Ordination in The Seventh-day Adventist Church (2010) by Olive Hemmings, Washington Adventist University. I’ve summarized her recent presentations on this website, at Spectrum, and at Adventist Today.
The 2014 Theology of Ordination Study Committee Report – as received by #GCAC14 today.
At 5:35 p.m., the proposed motion has still not yet been voted, but I expect it to pass comfortably based on the discussion so far. If it does, Annual Council will have punted on making a clear recommendation to the General Conference and we’ll have to await the delegates’ decision this July.