When Women’s Ordination and Church vs State Rights are in Conflict

There are two sets of “rights” and authoritative powers that are enmeshed in every constitutional document for every level of the church. They are 1)Ecclesiastical authority 2)State authority. When the PUC General Counsel gave advice to the constituents, he was giving advice regarding the rights under the State of California not ecclesiastical authority. States rights and powers come from the State and used to determine the possession and disposal of church property in the event of dissolution and parliamentary procedure for conducting business. This is why we have “1st and 2nd readings” for membership transfers and published nomination committee announcements etc.

Ecclesiastical authority on the other hand is from the church. In this authority, doctrinal understanding from a Sacred text is used to determine procedure, appeals etc. The US Supreme Court and its district courts only rule on matters than belong to the State. Where there are doctrinal differences, it refers the plaintiffs to the highest ecclesiastical body if there is one according to the church governing documents and its interpretation of the mandates of the Sacred text. For some churches there isn’t one, for others like us, there is: The GC Session. Using the powers and rights granted by the States, the unions can assert their right to control their constituency as it pleases and vote in whatever it likes. However under ecclesiastical authority, the GC Constitution and its Working Policy hold sway.

What PUC did was during the constituency session it’s attorney’s reasoned that the Bylaws were suspended and therefore the Constituency Session could act contrary to its own Bylaws and pass new rules. The attorney tried to give the example of the GC Session doing the same thing to claim legal precedent. However, the problem there is that this sort of parliamentary procedure while correct under the State’s rights and powers granted to the Unions (and the GC Session) is not ecclesiastically sustained. The GC Working Policy and all its constitutional mandates weren’t suspended. The PUC’s status as a Union within the sisterhood of Unions that comprise the GC didn’t give it any special rights to do so. By claiming the power of the State and the rights given by it to make this change, it was to borrow a certain historian’s words very “Catholic” of them to do so. The irony of which is lost on many WO supporters who blindly quote an out-of-context Ellen White quote “dictation of the unions” in support of the actions of these unions.

If you were to go back and read Dr. Cooper’s precise written statement that he delivered ( and there is a legal reason for that) at the 2012 PUC meeting, you will find that according to his reasoning then, the GC Session could find any decision made by a lower body to be in error and chart its own course. He even cited examples of the GC Session finding the GC Exec. committee’s decision on an issue to be wrong and charted its own course. This means that even if the NAD were to not find both of these unions to be in “apostasy” or “rebellion” under B95, the GC Session in 2020 could come to a different finding.

By framing this issue as a policy one rather than an ecclesiastical one, wo proponents who support a unilateralist approach by these unions are actually endorsing a State-given right.

If we recognize that the church does determine from scripture who can be ordained, and I think both men and women can be, then it is an ecclesiastical issue to be decided by whatever level the Session decides is appropriate. Currently, it remains at the highest level.

One of the questions almost no one asks here or elsewhere is why these “Pro-Wo” union presidents never raised the issue of the Union having exclusive power to ordain at the GC Session in 2015. The PUC president and General Secretary both had opportunities to speak that day. Yet neither of them raised this constitutional issue. Either of them could have said, “Mr. Chairman, the right to decide who can or cannot be ordained resides with the Unions, therefore this meeting (on WO) is out of order.” There are several plausible reasons. I’ll outline the two most likely.

1)The Union president for the Pacific Union didn’t want to raise a spurious claim and have it shut down by GC lawyers. Ecclesiastical authority is clear that this is an issue that has remained under the Session’s purview.

2) They are preserving their options for court if such a time should come, and having such a constitutional claim shot down directly by the world’s highest authority would be problematic in court.

Take your pick. Both reasons are problematic.

If you chose 1, then Dr. Knight and all those who keep quoting him and deriving their analysis from his version of history are wrong. If you choose 2, then you really realize what our church is facing in a few years, if we cannot resolve this amicably. Currently, all the steps taken by these Unions have not removed the very real threat of dissolution at the Session level as per B95. Most constitutional experts that I’ve talked to in private believe that such a dissolution vote would be extremely rare however agree that the possibility is still there. The Unions can definitely assert their State-given rights to ordain women, but they lose ecclesiological unity and credibility with the rest of the church. Worse, they end up relying on the State to push through a measure that the ecclesiastical bodies above it are still working through the problem. If they do go to Court over this, the General Conference will fight back hard because it will not give ground on its ecclesiastical authority to the courts over an interpretation of Scripture. To do so, would be to give away our right to define everything from Scripture from Sabbath, to the rest of our beliefs. When faced with that possibility, it doesn’t matter if Wilson is the World president or anybody else is, they will gain Global support for a dissolution of the unions and a restructure of the work in that area.

So what we currently have is a self-defeating strategy to “pressure” the GC into doing the right thing. I think there is a better way, one that doesn’t involve our own immolation. Further, I’m not convinced that those who are pushing this strategy, and support the church are aware of every aspect of these administrative, legal, and theological precedents. But when they do become aware, they will likely look for better alternatives, like the one’s I and others are suggesting. For some on the conservative side, they view this dispute as a tool to “get the liberals out” others who perhaps are progressive and who reject structure/accountability etc. on well-established theological grounds as per their theological method also see this as their tool to strike a blow against the church and create precedents for other issue-driven stuff. Both of these sides are hijacking this debate and we need to move away from these groups and toward solutions that invite world-wide support and have a sound basis in our Constitution and Working policies and don’t make the world church justifiably feel threatened.

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