In a surprise effort to appease the General Conference and its Unity Commission, the Netherlands Union Conference (NUC) Executive Committee has “decided to postpone the ordination of female pastors until after October 2017 to contribute to the process of dialogue and reconciliation” within the Adventist Church.
The statement came as part of a 25-page question-and-answer document for NUC delegates, written in preparation for their upcoming Constituency Session held on May 4-6. The document was uploaded on April 21 to a secure part of the union’s website accessible only by delegates.
The response regarding the postponement of women’s ordination followed the question (translated from Dutch):
“Many are under the impression that the Union is trying to slow down the reconciliation process with actions that delay acceptance of the San Antonio decision on the matter. To avoid more difficulties in the church, why hasn’t the Union embraced both the San Antonio decision and the reconciliation process, by implementing a moratorium on women’s ordination to the Gospel ministry?”
The response, written by Wim Altink, president of the NUC, read in full (translated from Dutch):
“A. The Dutch Union regularly consults with TED on this issue; B. On April 27-28, the Executive Committee will hold a meeting with the GC Commission on Unity In Mission – Procedures in Church Reconciliation; C. The Dutch Union is always open to discussion and prayer; D. The Executive Committee has decided to postpone the ordination of female pastors until after October 2017 to contribute to the process of the dialogue and reconciliation.”
The announcement, as noted in Altink’s response, came just days before the GC Unity Commission attended the Trans-European Division’s (TED) Executive Committee session held on April 27-28. Present at the meeting were Elder Tom Lemon, head of the Unity Commission, TED officers, and the officers of four unions within TED.
Long-time proponents of women’s ordination, the NUC Executive Committee voted in November 2012 to support the ordination of women and stated in an announcement that they had “decided to ordain female pastors, recognising them as equal to their male colleagues.” In September 2013, the Netherlands became the first union in Europe to ordain a female pastor.
Immediately following the discussion and vote on ordination at GC Session 2015 in San Antonio, the Netherlands issued the following statement, holding firm to their decision from almost three years prior:
“The delegates of the Dutch churches voted at their Session in the autumn of 2012 to ordain women in an equal way to their male colleagues. The vote took effect in June 2013 and will remain in effect. The decision of the General Conference Session in San Antonio does not change this.
Female pastors will continue to be ordained in the Netherlands Union Conference. We thank God that he calls men and women to serve him. We want to enthusiastically confirm that call by the laying on of hands.”
The Trans-European Division (TED), which oversees the NUC, unanimously voted in February 2017 a “strong request to the General Conference that consideration be given to issuing a single credential for those in ministry or to alternately amend existing credentials making them more inclusive.”
The situation within the European divisions is more complex than in other world divisions due to legislation under European Union law that requires men and women to be afforded equal opportunity for advancement. Because of this, European unions have taken their own routes to fulfill this law. While the Netherlands and Germany voted to ordain women, Norway, Denmark, and Belgian-Luxembourg unions suspended ordination for both male and female pastors following GC Session 2015.
In its February statement, the TED Executive Committee expressed a desire “to work closely with the GC to find a solution that will both fit within the needs of national legislation and resolve those variance issues. Within that remit the committee also requested unions within the TED to put on hold any variation to working policy in regard to credentials while discussions are in progress up until the time of GC Annual Council.”
So although the Netherlands new hold on ordination has come as a surprise to many, officials within the NUC and TED say the NUC is simply showing good faith by upholding TED’s previous commitment to the GC.
When asked for comment, Victor Hulbert, communications and media director for the Trans-European Division, stated that the aim of TED remains the same as it was in February, and that while the latest meeting was a “significant part of the continued process of dialogue,” it was also “a low-key consultation that took place in an atmosphere of mutual respect, understanding and prayer.”
He added that, “we call on all people of good-will to continue in prayer and positive dialogue as we continue to seek ways to share God effectively across the 22 countries of the Trans-European Division.”
Another official, who requested anonymity, stated that the NUC’s compliance with the hold on ordination was decided in March by the outgoing Executive Committee whose 2012-2017 term ended during the Constituency Session held May 4-6. This is the same committee that voted to ordain women in the first place.
An almost entirely new team was voted in during the May Constituency Session. The elections include Rob de Raad, who replaced Wim Altink as President, Enrico Karg (new Executive Secretary), and Istrahel Schorea (re-elected Treasurer).
The postponement of ordination has had a direct impact on at least one female pastor who inadvertently became caught in the middle of the ongoing policy debate. Last year, the NUC voted to permanently employ Tabitha Cedenio-Cummins, known as Pastor Purple to her congregants. Her date of permanent employ was set to begin in March 2017, and in keeping with the NUC’s previous policy, this meant that Pastor Purple would be ordained at that time.
However, the pressure from the GC’s Unity Commission, and the February statement from TED, complicated the situation. The NUC decided to postpone Purple’s ordination until after Annual Council in order to fall in line with TED’s request. In the meantime, the NUC decided that a commission would serve as a placeholder to ordination, thus allowing her to exercise the full abilities necessary to do her pastoral work. For instance, a commissioned minister has the authority to baptize, lead communion, and perform weddings.
Several officials within the union confirm that the commission ceremony was originally scheduled to occur at Pastor Purple’s local congregation. However, because of the highly charged political atmosphere surrounding the recent meetings between the Unity Commission, TED, and the unions, several pastors fought to have her commissioning occur at the union level instead. They felt this would add a level of transparency and show that Purple’s commission is fully backed by the NUC. The pastors succeeded and the commissioning was moved to Sabbath, May 6, following the Constituency Session. Markedly absent from the event was the laying on of hands that an ordination ceremony would have included.
“[Pastor Purple’s commissioning] caused a lot of confusion internationally due to a number of factors,” an official close to the situation admitted.
The official continued, “It is perfectly logical that internationally, this would raise questions whether the new leadership has changed current policy. This is absolutely not the case! Nor is the (almost) complete change of leadership tied in any way with the topic of women’s ordination…The newly elected administration will meet after the 1st of June for the very first time. Up until that time, nothing has been decided nor discussed. They have been elected with extremely huge support from the delegation.”
It should be noted, the official added in closing, that “a very large majority of the membership in the Netherlands is highly in favour of women’s ordination. That hasn’t changed.”
Regarding her commissioning, Pastor Purple stated (translated from Dutch), “I thank God for this moment of blessing. My family and I are thankful that the Dutch church and Pastor Audrey Andersson have created such a special moment. I’m looking forward to continuing to serve God in His churches.”
Departing President of the NUC, Wim Altink, said, “A growing church is blessed by the calling of new ministers. I am particularly pleased that Tabitha, together with her family, has successfully strengthened the work of God. We wish her much wisdom and ambition.”
It remains to be seen whether TED will get its wish to unify its unions under a single, inclusive credential during the GC Annual Council, scheduled for October 5-11, 2017. Meanwhile, NUC officials say that Pastor Purple’s ordination is still scheduled for October, after Annual Council concludes.
Alisa Williams is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.
Image: Tabitha Purple’s commissioning ceremony. Photo courtesy of http://www.adventist.nl