The Unity Conference: An Afterword
It’s been a few days since the Unity Conference in London ended, and Carmen and I have been enjoying our memories of the wonderful fellowship there. I think assessing the personality of a group is difficult, but we felt it to be a very affirming, friendly, supportive gathering, of people who genuinely love the Seventh-day Adventist church and (not surprisingly) feel misunderstood and not listened to.
Though the topic of the conference was unity, of course women’s ordination was there, too. I saw a few tears when it came up. But from the beginning everyone realized that the problem facing us right now isn’t women’s ordination, but finding the balance between effective church organization and authority. Who gets to decide about this disagreement—and the next one that comes up? “Unity” was a good way to talk about these questions.
Elder Ted Wilson was on people’s minds, too. I heard no disparagement of the man, but sincere puzzlement: trying to figure out why one who is known to be sensitive to people’s personal needs, spiritually-minded, and gracious in so many parts of his life, is so fixedly authoritarian when it comes to solving church problems.
(I also confirmed the statement—confirmed in the sense that I know who heard it, and that the source is trustworthy—that when asked after San Antonio about his strategy for comforting and incorporating those who were voted down in San Antonio, Elder Wilson replied, “We know that a shaking is coming upon the church.” This person, who happens to be strongly anti-women’s ordination, was nonetheless shocked that Elder Wilson would imply that he was welcoming a shaking out of members around this issue.)
The Unity Conference was, you’ll recall, originally built around union leaders, all of whom are men. At the conference there was a majority of old men like me—most older than me. But along the way some less conventional folks slipped in: strong, smart, thoughtful spouses like Audrey Graham, some journalists, a few pastors, and best of all, a group of young women (lay, clergy, writers and educators) from Europe, America and the SPD, who were amazing. There ended up being more younger people there than there usually are at such gatherings. I think the organizers should be glad that others insisted on crashing the party: it made the meeting more interesting.
Some people probably think of a gathering where scholars read papers to one another as a snooty bunch of mutual admirers. People who like to hear their own sesquipedalian words. I suppose scholarly conferences can’t help but have a bit of that. But there was sincerity and openness here: the presenters weren’t just showing off. George Knight’s was the most entertaining presentation. I thought Olive Hemmings moved the ball the farthest down the field in terms of creative exegesis. Wendy Jackson had assigned to her a topic that I’d find difficult to make interesting—Ellen White’s understanding of unity—but she did it. Roy Adams’ presentation was, like Roy himself, thoughtful and sincere: almost a meditation. Ray Roennfeldt told us that if we follow the trajectory of the creation week, the human female is the best of everything God created except for the Sabbath! Lowell Cooper demonstrated how policy solves problems, and how people like us could get more done if we’d parse it more carefully. (It was, by the way, nice to have a top church administrator, though retired, there. Lowell was candid and engaged, and he was very much appreciated by everyone.)
A few rough edges. Affectionate jokes from older men, when topics of authority came up, about their wives, that reverberated awkwardly. A generational thing, I suppose. And there should have been more women there. When, on Saturday night, New Zealand Union President Brad Kemp said, “Everyone leave the room but union leaders, so we can work on our strategy,” most of the women obediently left with the rest of us, because they weren’t church administrators—thus illustrating the problem, don’t you think? I wish someone would have said, “Really, shouldn’t you want all these women pastors and church workers to help you with your strategy?” But even those who couldn’t stay, like my ordained wife, understood that the intentions were good.
I do think it’s a shame that the conference was attended only by people who were already convinced—and not even all of them. There were a lot of Germans, some eastern Europeans, one South African, many from Australia and New Zealand, the Columbia Union and Pacific Union. But where were leaders from the other unions who are worried about the authoritarian trend in the denomination—for example, most of the NAD unions? Some new friends from Newbold College were there, Helen and Michael Pearson, but their bosses in the British Union Conference didn’t attend though we were on their home turf. Perhaps it had something to do with the General Conference’s strong opposition to this meeting: there were people who wanted to come who couldn’t or wouldn’t (even some presenters), because they were afraid of their boss.
I think the big question everyone is asking is, what did the Unity Conference accomplish? The goals of the conference weren’t very distinct when it was announced. Some of us wondered, how is reading a bunch of papers to a selected group of people who already are inclined to think similarly going to help should GC leaders decide to try to take punitive action against the unions in October? On the other hand, I have a few friends who opined that this event could change the whole conversation in the church. But it’s relatively rare for a single event, particularly in a pre-polarized situation, to change the entire conversation. This is an incremental contribution, not a revolution. Still, it’s a very good contribution, and praise be to those who organized it. The papers will speak for themselves. I give presenters, and the communications director of the event, Ray Tetz, credit for making the papers available instantly. Overall, these papers seem to me less likely to be controversial than the papers of the TOSC, because broader in application.
How often do you get scholars together with church administrators with pastors and other workers, in a setting where they have to listen to one another? The result was a kind of inter-disciplinary strategizing that doesn’t often happen. I’ll give you just one example: before Dr. Lowell Cooper’s presentation on policy, I think I would have said policy was the problem. He raised questions like, “Do you know what the policies actually are? Do you realize how much is already written in to policy? Do you know the vulnerable points in policy where you could make a difference?” In other words, understanding how policy works could help you reach your goals. Suddenly a light comes on and people say, “Perhaps there are keys to solving this that go beyond just moaning and protesting and making unending theological arguments.”
Lowell was also the one who explained, when someone complained that Elder Wilson had called this meeting “unauthorized,” that unauthorized has the technical meaning of a meeting that isn’t on the GC calendar, and that this has to do with a useful rule that was implemented because there were abuses of church money for superfluous meetings before the rule was made. He also added that an unauthorized meeting wasn’t necessarily an illegal meeting, a very important distinction. In other words, don’t get your tail in a knot before you understand the terminology.
Of course, not all the value was in the papers. Much happened over meals, and in the halls. How often does a four-church district pastor like me get to have lunch with a union president? It was reassuring to find common ground with all kinds of people. I also met some possible new Adventist Today writers, so you may meet some of these people in the future.
At our final meeting, I was expecting that our leaders would be ready with a hard-hitting strategy. Some devious scheme to see the authoritarians put in their place, and let regional autonomy rise. But what Columbia Union Conference president Dave Weigley and the rest made clear was that they were working toward win-win solutions to this standoff, trying to avoid the train wreck so many have feared is coming. This moment, said Dave, feels like a movement, an opportunity for change whose time has come. Knowing that advocates of women’s equality in ministry feel they’ve been ignored and misunderstood, Dave quoted The Great Controversy p.113: “In almost every generation have been those who, while seeking to elevate the people of their time, have been reproached and cast out, but who in later times have been shown to be deserving of honor.”
I know many of you who are reading this are angry, hurt and disappointed in the way our top church leaders have behaved toward the perfectly logical and Biblical idea that women should be ordained. The notion that the General Conference is a sort of infallible authority, the disobedience to which will plunge us into chaos, remains popular among some of our members. But in reality, the authoritative attitude in Silver Spring that brought us here will continue to disrupt the church’s mission, in direct contradiction to Ellen White’s instruction that church authority should be local and distributed.
But if you’re waiting for a belligerent strategy from this group, you’ll not get it. Dave said that our guidelines in this situation start with courtesy—dealing, as he said, in heaven’s currency. And communication: providing salient and thoughtful talking points. Meeting with GC officials. Offering solutions that will bring harmony, and doing nothing that will hurt our church. We will persist with good attitudes, a calm tone of voice, and intelligent discourse, he said. I think that’s a remarkably Christian attitude, and I’m proud to be associated with those who are taking it.
I just hope they’re tough enough to prevail against people in high places who are more opinionated than gracious.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.