By Loren Seibold, October 10, 2017:      

I talked to several friends today who were still discouraged and upset about what happened in the General Conference Executive Committee on Monday, October 9. I do understand. It’s been long and frustrating. As one young woman said, “The GC still thinks I’m inferior to you.”

She’s right that this high-tension moment didn’t suddenly clear up the matter of women’s ordination. I wish it had. All it did was interrupt a wrong-headed attempt to silence women-supportive union conference leaders.

But let me try to explain why I think that something as simple as sending a document back to committee has moved us a step closer to women getting ordained.

How the Church Works

Some of us are idealists, and we know the principles we stand for, and we want decisions made for those principles. We want our opponents to say, “Your flawless reasoning has convinced me that you are right about women’s ordination, and I’m wrong.”

Rarely, though, does that happen. People vote as they do for a whole lot of rather personal reasons, and sometimes for not very good reasons at all. Some on Monday voted as they did because they believed that women should be ordained for ministry. Probably a larger number were concerned about the heavy-handed way this document was presented: little transparency, punitive consequences, the sense that it impinged on the conscience.

Others are genuinely concerned about technical aspects. Is this constitutional? Was it processed with correct parliamentary method? They notice logical conflicts such as, “How can an officer be accountable to the GC, and at the same time to his constituents?” (Please remember that there are union conference constituencies who would still vote for women’s ordination even if it means their president couldn’t sit on the GC Executive Committee! How can their leaders win?)

As chaotic as the process seems, as confused the reasons for people’s votes may be, there is truth-discovery happening in these meetings. Of course, a few on both sides aren’t going to be convinced by anything. But many are listening, and minds get shaped, if only gradually.

When that document goes back to the committee, the committee knows not just that it didn’t get support, but why it didn’t get support.

You should also know that not everyone who supported this loyalty oath was against women’s ordination. But they were more anxious about organizational anarchy than they were about women being ordained. In the places where they live and work, they do know about chaos, and they think the way to prevent it is strong leaders, clear policies and punishment. (They are wrong, but that’s for another essay. I’ll just say that our dear president doesn’t seem to have the concept of “win-win” in his administrative toolbox.) Some come from a patriarchal culture, without our history of waiting so long for women’s ordination, so waiting a little longer doesn’t trouble them as much as it does us. Though their first inclination may have been to crack down for the unity of the church, over the course of the meeting some may also have sensed the unpleasantness of oppressive, dismissive leadership, and sympathized with those who were under the hammer. The secrecy and irregularity of the process just didn’t set right with them. Some aren’t believers in women’s ordination at all, but they got just a glimmer that flexibility might be preferable to coercion.

And, votes are often affected by procedures and technicalities. Monday’s loyalty oath proposal didn’t move forward because Dr. Dave Weigley made a motion to refer it to committee on the basis of constitutional questions. You may say, “But I wanted them to reject it because they believe women should be ordained!” Or, “Everyone should reject this motion because they fear coercive religious leadership.” Wouldn’t it be nice if all decisions were made for substantial reasons? But technicalities matter—something as simple as using secret ballots. And I happen to believe that the Holy Spirit even works through the machinery of the church, and that it did on Monday.

Every democratic decision, no matter how it is achieved, creates a new reality in which the next decision is made. If it is made in a good, trustworthy manner, it leads to more good trustworthy processes. A progressive decision with a good discussion opens the way for increasingly thoughtful decisions. A decision that is perceived as made in an unfair manner is likely to leave a climate of mistrust.

What Was the Result?

As I said, this one vote didn’t suddenly usher in an era of warm good feeling toward women in ordained ministry. It is just one step in a long process, and I understand why you’re all sick of it. Still, it showed momentum in the direction of freedom and transparency.

A friend who has a lot of experience in Silver Spring said to me, “Please understand that you saw something remarkable yesterday. I’ve been working in church administration for decades, and I have never before seen a major motion brought by a GC president to the Executive Committee that was sent back down to the subcommittee. I have never seen a proposal brought by a GC president that none of his division presidents supported publicly.” (In fact, two spoke publicly against it!) The momentum was reflected in a vote of 184 to 114—nearly two-thirds. That means that many votes came from places other than North America, Western Europe and Australia/NZ.

From where you sit, the live-streamed discussion may have seemed to be wallowing about in namby-pambyness. Some speakers seemed to qualify their reasons too much, to have too many “but’s” in there, as though they couldn’t speak their minds. I’ll just say that you may not realize how much courage it took for some of them to speak at all, much less to vote against their president.

Just a Delay? Well, Yes, but…

Some of you are upset because this loyalty oath document was just sent back to a committee, rather than defeating it.

I don’t think the intention from the voters was to bury it in committee. They wanted it to be considered more carefully. But there’s no doubt that sending it back has delayed the effort to punish union conference presidents by kicking them off the General Conference Executive Committee. If this paper survives, it will be filtered through one committee—constitution and bylaws—whose actions must be ratified by a GC session—in 2020.

Which may well mean nothing can be done until after 2020. Who knows what will happen by then? Time is on the side of those who want full equality in ministry. Acceptance of women’s ordination is growing daily—if, for no other reason, than that older people die, and younger people move into their place.

Delay can help us make better, wiser more moral decisions. When that document goes back to the committee, the committee knows not just that it didn’t get support, but why it didn’t get support. They’ll have to wrestle with dozens of articulate reasons if they don’t want to have a repeat of October 9, 2017. Even though this wasn’t a paper about women’s ordination, the committee members who now take it on will have to wonder if there may be more people than they thought supporting equality in ministry.

One More Thing

A good thing happens when people talk through hard problems and wrestle with them: they begin to see the fallibility of their institutions and processes. It’s easy to suppose that an entity with a constitution, bylaws and policies is fully objective, fully graspable and controllable. But this kind of process shows up all the holes and gaps and slivers and snags. When Elder Wilson said, “We have no supreme court to appeal this to,” to a room full of confused people, it felt like being set loose on a raft in the ocean without a paddle. What do we do now? We have two choices: we can either give up and let the strong leader take over, or … we can think. Now we grapple, not just with the ideas, but with good people who think different than we do. We see that what holds the system together isn’t words printed on a page, but trust, reason, and empathy.

Meanwhile, spare a thought for those who genuinely believe women’s ordination is wrong, or who are frightened that the church is about to disintegrate without autocratic leadership. Be as sympathetic toward them as you wish they’d be toward you.

Obviously, some people never advance that far. Even major denominational figures like Doug Batchelor can’t do any better than “How long shall ye halt between two opinions?” and urge a crackdown with no thought for the future. To those who are discouraged by that, just remember: the angry, the vengeful, and the oversimplifiers, you shall always have with you. Even after women’s ordination is voted (I believe it will be in my lifetime) they’ll be weeping for some idealized past when women knew their place.

I write all of this to comfort those who are still angry because you think nothing happened for women’s ordination on Monday. Be encouraged. For the time being, ordained women (like my wife) are safe—and the likelihood that they’ll ever be pushed out of ministry has decreased a bit more.

Meanwhile, spare a thought for those who genuinely believe women’s ordination is wrong, or who are frightened that the church is about to disintegrate without autocratic leadership. In our press area this year we sat next to writers from Fulcrum7, and I must tell you that though I believe they’re dead wrong, they are nice, sincere people. As I rejoiced, they grieved. Be as sympathetic toward them as you wish they’d be toward you. 

The Lord has held back a coercive, prejudicial spirit for a season. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad.

Loren Seibold is a pastor, and Executive Editor of Adventist Today

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