In reaction to the documents being proposed at Annual Council next week, two main possible outcomes seem to be envisioned; peace with honor and massive centralization of church authority with serious consequences. Those who wrote the document (and many conservatives on issues like women’s ordination) hope for the former, that these processes will achieve peace with honor, a solution to the impasse that has been in place for several years. The processes introduced in the documents provide church leadership a way to show that it is doing something without actually hurting the parts of the church that would be affected by the processes. The long process of working over the documents resulted in many safeguards being introduced against “kingly power.” In reality very little is likely to happen as a result of these new processes.
A careful analysis of the documents seems to support this view of things. In reality, compliance committee action is so cumbersome it is unlikely to get far in most cases. First a recommendation has to move up the ladder from conferences to the GCADCOM. If ADCOM can agree that the problem is serious, they will then refer to the appropriate compliance committee. The committee will then engage the organization that is under scrutiny to investigate the charges, exercise diplomacy, engage in prayer, listening and conversation, allow 60-90 days for a counter-proposal that could resolve the issue. If after all these attempts the problem is resolved the committee will recommend that ADCOM close the case and give its blessing on whatever action had been in question. If the problem is unresolved, the compliance committee can recommend that an entity is “out of compliance” and should be dealt with. If the GCADCOM accepts the recommendation (no sure thing), it would be referred to GCDO (ADCOM plus division officers—about 70 people) which meets once a year before the Annual Council begins. If GCDO accepts the recommendation that an entity is dangerously out of compliance (no sure thing), it is passed on to the Executive Committee (GCEC—300 members from around the world for action at Annual Council. If GCEC approves (no sure thing), the entity receives a warning. If nothing changes, a similar process the following year can result in a reprimand to the president of that entity. If nothing changes, a similar process the following year could result in the president being removed from membership in the GCEC. And that would have to occur on the basis of a two-thirds vote, perhaps a little more likely than the impeachment of an American president in the Senate, but unlikely nevertheless. The safeguards built into the system are such diversity at the lower levels of the church is unlikely to be much affected. Something has been done, but it is a something that, in itself, won’t hinder the work among the minority. The main damage would be psychological and spiritual, the loss of people who would see the whole process as evidence that the church no longer deserves their respect and support.
But what about the more ominous outcome, a slippery slope leading to massive and unintended (by most at least) consequences for the church. This fear arises from a lack of trust in the collective wisdom of church leadership. Is that lack of trust founded? It depends on who you speak to. I don’t think things are this bad, but humor me for a moment on what could happen. Once this process is voted, it will be treated with all the status of policy even if it is not at that level (guidelines). Leadership would then come under pressure from the minority to compel recalcitrant unions to come around even if the process fails to achieve that. The case can be made that leadership itself is out of compliance if any entity is out of compliance and not forced to recant. Pressure could build to vote unions out of the fellowship, in which case a “unity document” could end up splitting the church. Unions out of compliance love the church and want to be part of it. They would never choose to leave, but some might not mind being kicked out and accept that as the will of God. The unity documents could then have forced the very schism in the church that they were designed to avoid.
This scenario reminds me of a story. An Arab in the marketplace of Baghdad was horrified to find himself face to face with Death. Death had terrible look on his face. The man was so frightened he jumped on his horse and rode all the way out of Baghdad to Samarra. Someone else approached Death and asked him why he had given the man such a frightening look. Death replied that he was not trying to frighten the man, he was just surprised. “I was surprised to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him in Samarra tonight.” In fleeing to Samarra the man assured the very outcome that he was trying to avoid. All actions have a reaction and in church history many outcomes ended up far from what those who made those decisions intended. This could be the case with these Annual Council documents. I hope and pray not.