Left, right and center: Some misconceptions

May 12th, 2017

I really have had no desire to re-enter public debate regarding the UMC. In fact, I have had a great desire not to do so. For the most part, I think the die has been cast. The 2019 General Conference will bring some form of “restructuring” that will allow parties with divergent views to live their ecclesiastical lives as they see fit. Because this is a family dispute, the process leading up to the restructuring will be full of bitter invective, and by the time it is all over, we will all be ready for a change.

Nevertheless, after reading Jim Harnish’s recent blog post, “Will the Center Hold?” I feel it necessary to address some of the misconceptions that seem to be making their way into the public consciousness within the UMC.

The quiet center

Harnish writes,

"There is a “chorus of shouting” that has been drowning out 'the quieter voices of the vital center.' They picture the UMC on the brink of disaster or division because equally faithful United Methodists hold differing biblically-rooted convictions about same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy."

The basic scenario then, is that the “conservatives” and the “progressives” are in a shouting match that is drowning out the quiet, sensible voice of those in the “middle.” This does not ring true for me. I know lots of sensible, reasoned conservatives and progressives who hold their convictions strongly, but who are not shouting at one another, writing blog posts excoriating each other, or dropping Facebook napalm on their ideological foes. To be a “conservative” or “progressive” in the UMC is simply to hold a broad set of convictions normally associated with these categories. These labels say nothing of the ways in which we go about making those convictions known or advocating for them. Of course there are conservatives and progressives who go berserk on social media. That’s the world in which we live. Bad behavior, however, has no particular ideological home.

As for the quiet repose of those in the middle, again I must disagree. Adam Hamilton, the most visible spokesperson for this group, has been far from quiet. My friend Mike Slaughter has not been quiet. Both have vigorously promoted the local option as a solution to our present disagreement. They have argued this point on the floor of General Conference and written various blog posts about it. Hamilton in particular has been active in social media in attempts to advance this cause. In a related volley, he has written a book on Scripture that comes to bear in significant ways on our debates related to LGBT people. I do not fault them for their advocacy. I believe strongly in vigorous, respectful public debate. There is no way to argue, however, that these proponents of the “local option” have been quiet in the midst of our denominational discussions.

The United Methodist Centrist Movement has not been particularly quiet, either. They implemented a highly effective social media campaign before the election of 2016 General Conference delegates in West Ohio, one that cast evangelicals as schismatic. They then formed an alliance with progressives that strongly affected the outcome of the election. Since that time they have maintained an active presence on social media.

And what of others whom we might think of as occupying moderate territory? Bishop Scott Jones, for example, coined the term “extreme center.” He has been more vocal than most others in the Council of Bishops. My good friends at the Wesleyan Way, formerly Via Media Methodists, have long eschewed ideological polarities while taking an active role in denominational debates. I can hear some saying now that Bishop Jones and the gentlemen of Wesleyan Way are conservatives, not centrists. I can only reply that if these good souls no longer sit somewhere in the center, then the center has shifted so far to the left as to be unrecognizable to many.

There are indeed those in the “center” who have maintained a quiet composure, just as there are conservatives and progressives who have done so. To hold this up as the defining characteristic of the center, though, is not consistent with what I have witnessed.

The Catholic Spirit

There is a widespread misconception that John Wesley would have approved of the breadth of theological, ethical and ideological diversity that we witness today within the UMC. Most often this misconception is accompanied by quotations from his sermon, “The Catholic Spirit,” such as, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.” Let’s look at the wider context of that quotation, though.

"But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works." [Emphasis mine]

What Wesley is saying, then, is that, while there are differences of both opinion and modes of worship that prevent various Christian groups from formally uniting with one another, they can still love one another, and even work together in some ways. That’s it. It is absolutely not a statement that the people called Methodists should within themselves hold and live out a variety of perspectives on important matters of faith and practice. It was never intended as a rallying cry for Methodist unity.

A stronger argument for diversity of belief and practice would be grounded not in the history of the Wesleyan movement, but in the beginning of The United Methodist Church itself. We began in 1968 as an experiment in ecumenism amidst the fervor of the ecumenical movement. The first iteration of the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” was a clear statement of doctrinal pluralism. A diversity of perspectives was part of the very foundational philosophy of this denomination.

Within such a diverse denomination, it would be necessary for us to have processes for dealing with complex issues of faith and practice. For major ethical decisions, those processes take place through the General Conference. The “big tent” of United Methodism could hold together as long as, in the midst of our disagreement, we were willing to respect the outcomes of our decision-making processes. This meant that at times we would all have to live with policies and practices that we didn’t like. When considerable numbers of United Methodists began to reject our decision-making processes, some form of division became inevitable.

According to Harnish, the “shouters” on the left and right “picture the UMC on the brink of disaster or division because equally faithful United Methodists hold differing biblically-rooted convictions about same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy.” This statement, however, does not seem to take into account of how serious our situation is. I am not much of a shouter, but the fact that we stand on the brink of division seems patently obvious. I would also suggest that our focus on disagreements over homosexuality is causing us to overlook numerous other denominational fault lines.

The local option

Many people see the “local option” as a way of resolving the most significant matters of dispute in the UMC — marriage and ordination of “self-avowed, practicing” LGBT people. I’ve long opposed this solution, and I still do. It is incoherent. By what criteria are we deciding which matters should be decided at the level of the General Conference and which should be decided within the local congregation? If a particular issue becomes too controversial or divisive, should we then punt from the General Conference to the congregations? Should we make decisions about homosexuality at the local level, but retain the General Conference’s prerogative on ethical decisions about war, abortion, care of people with disabilities, divestment, capital punishment, whom we should and should not ordain and other such matters?

If we are going to move to a “local option” on homosexuality, we are saying that the General Conference cannot actually make reliable ethical decisions. If this is the case, we should move to a local option on all major ethical issues. We should then dispense with the Social Principles, since we no longer view the General Conference as a proper venue for ethical decision-making.

At the end of the day, we as United Methodists are either a church or we are not. And if we are a church, then we are also a moral community. If we are not a church, but a loose association of churches, that is another matter altogether. The next two years, and particularly the 2019 General Conference, will tell us a great deal about who and what we are.

This post was first published at davidfwatson.me

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