Some Thoughts on the United Methodist Centrist Movement

CentristA new proposal for the future of the UMC has come forward. It is called the United Methodist Centrist Movement Platform. It is not affiliated with any particular caucus group. In fact, that’s kind of the point. These folks believe that our dialogue and decision-making has become too heavily politicized (and I am inclined to agree with them). They feel that the UM’s who don’t line up with any of the prominent caucus groups should have a voice. After all, political parties and caucus groups often ask us to hold together packages of ideas that we may wish to unpack and take one piece at a time. For example, a person might be pro-life and simultaneously in favor of same-sex marriage in the church. In such cases, groups such as Good News and MFSA may be an uncomfortable fit. These folks would call themselves “centrists,” then, not because they lack passion or conviction, but because they would stand more to the right one issue, more to the left on another, and perhaps with neither polarity on a third. While this isn’t the language that I use to self-identify, I appreciate the perspective of those who do.

This plan actually comes out of my own conference, West Ohio, and was written by some people whom I really like and respect. It has already been criticized as “disingenuous,” as if it were actually a progressive agenda disguised as a moderate or centrist proposal. I don’t believe, however, that there’s anything disingenuous about this piece. I don’t agree with all of it, but I would be shocked to learn that the writers of this plan intended some type of bait-and-switch as a way of manipulating our denominational politics in favor of progressives.

As the group who developed this proposal describes itself:

The issues we face as a denomination are well documented and complex. We watched with dismay, as the 2012 General Conference failed in any substantive way to address these issues. Now, as we look toward to the 2016 General Conference elections, we believe our situation has deteriorated to the point where words like “schism” and “amicable separation” have become commonplace in our conversations, social media newsfeeds, and email inboxes.

Hence, we now call for a new direction. We want to make clear that we do not represent any organized body or political action committee. We did not come out of an “MFSA” meeting or a “Confessing Movement” strategy session. We do not have a mouthpiece like the “Institute for Religion and Democracy” or “Good News Magazine” or “Reconciling Ministries Network.” This is a “grass-roots” movement that started with a casual conversation that simply has not concluded.

In our own West Ohio Conference, we are dedicated to organizing lay and clergy leadership to initiate reform with the aim of creating more effective and efficient local churches, district and conference ministries. We also are engaging in the necessary work to send to General and Jurisdictional Conference, clergy and lay delegates who have been both effective and creative in local church ministry and who appreciate the diversity of our denomination. Finally, we want to elect bishops who put politics aside and make their highest priority thriving local churches of every type and stripe with the purpose of making disciples who change the world.

There’s a lot to like here: the grass-roots origins, the desire to move beyond political polarization, and the concern for the wellbeing of the local church are all admirable characteristics. I actually think that there are a great many people in the UMC, probably a “silent majority,” who would see a fair bit of common ground with a group like this one.

As with all of the proposals that have come out regarding the future of the UMC, however, there are some difficulties that attend this one. It’s going to have trouble gaining traction with anyone right of center for two reasons. First, there is the issue of a moratorium on clergy trials over same-sex marriages. Many will see this as a de facto change in UMC standards around this matter. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the writers of the document are trying surreptitiously to do an end-run around the Discipline. I think they just don’t believe that the ongoing church trials related to LGBTQ issues are helping us to succeed in our mission. Removing the possibility of a church trial, however, will be seen by many as a tacit acceptance of a practice that our most significant governing body, the General Conference, has not affirmed.

This brings us to the second major difficulty with this platform: the proposal to do away with the General Conference and replace it with regional conferences. I affirm quite strongly a few of the points that they make in this part of the platform. For example, they state, “We believe the bureaucratic and administrative structures currently used to guide our general church need reform.” They go on to say, “The time, expense, and complexity of this gathering makes it impossible to engage patiently in Holy Conferencing which is at the heart of our Wesleyan heritage.” Amen. I couldn’t agree more. The writers of the plan do not believe that the General Conference can be reformed in such a way as to allow for true holy conferencing. Perhaps this is true as well. But the plan to replace the General Conference with regional conferences leaves no clear decision-making body in place for the entire denomination. The general boards and agencies and the Council of Bishops remain in place, but it is unclear how their authority relates to the regional conferences. I would also want to know how funds would be allocated through the regional conferences. Further, if every regional conference functions as a largely autonomous body, is this altogether different than dividing the UMC up into regional denominations?

One other factor makes this plan a bit difficult to envision: it will require a constitutional amendment at the General Conference, and that is no small task.

As with every plan that has come out, I appreciate the time, energy, thoughtfulness, and commitment that went into this. I appreciate the commitment to making the UMC better and fostering dialogue around the shape of our future, and I appreciate the willingness to subject oneself to criticism for the sake of a greater good. While I see some real problems with this plan, I’m grateful for it because I think it helps us to see perspectives and think in ways that we didn’t before.

25 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the United Methodist Centrist Movement

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