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

  1. I doubt evangelical exiles within the boundaries of “progressive” regions would regard this plan as centrist. It’s not “centrist” if (by its modalities) it further marginalizes those who have endeavored to faithfully live into scriptural holiness within the United Methodist Church. Here in the West, the plan would codify what is already de facto. Is that centrist?

  2. I am sick of hearing people call themselves “centrist” or state that they are in the “middle” and everybody else is on the extreme. Would somebody please tell me what the “center” is? Apparently, it’s neither left nor right, up or down, hot or cold.

    When I hear “centrist,” I hear the message that a particular group wants things in the UMC to stay the same. They want a nice comfy place where they can sit around in nice comfy places and do the same old crap they’ve been doing for years (the “Cracker Barrel” denomination). Man, that’s not going to happen – not at all. There are too many factors at work.

    What I want to hear is not a message about staying together or anything like that. I want to hear a message about getting our act together and actually doing the mission. And when I say mission, I’m not referring to something vague but something well defined: proclaiming the gospel, making disciples of Jesus Christ (not disciples of our own personal opinions, doing in the ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit instead of the power of our flesh. Thankfully, I’m seeing some movement in those directions in my own conference and I hope others are as well.

    But no – these centrist plans are just a waste of time. There are some major problems that go way beyond the whole debate about homosexual marriage – some very deep-rooted problems.

    • Pastor J, I hear you, but I don’t think necessarily that when people say they are centrist, it means that everyone else is extreme. It can also mean that they don’t adhere to the whole package of claims associated with the right or left wing of the church. Some people may well mean it the way you do, but I don’t think all do.

      • David, I just went and read the imbedded post you had in yours from Brent White and I have to agree with him. Man, this plan sounds a whole lot like the whole Slaughter-Hamilton proposal. There are a lot of things I like in the proposal such as reworking the clergy system and such but the whole idea of suspending church trials is a no go for me. Also, the idea of “holy conferencing” might sound all great and Wesleyan and all but I have learned through my six years of serving as clergy in the UM that “holy conferencing” is a lot of BS. What that really means is, “Let me try and shove my views down your throat for several hours straight – wasting your time – and if you don’t agree with me at the end, I’m going to call you names and slander you.” Dude, I just don’t you know how bad it is on a clergy level. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. But it’s bad. If it wasn’t for God’s call on my life, I would have walked away from ministry in the UMC several times because of my experiences. And I still may . . . who knows.

        I think a big thing is trust. I simply don’t trust people like Adam Hamilton or Mike Slaughter anymore. Honestly, I feel betrayed by them. I’m glad that people are trying to work on a way that does not include a complete split but some bridges of trust have been burned. I personally think that we are going to stay together simply because we cannot agree how to separate and the end, it’s going to be survival of the fittest. Liberals/progressives can’t grow churches/ they can only leech off of the work of others. And so, maybe we’ll act straight when it comes to doing mission. It’s not the best outlook for the future but I don’t see it working out any other way.

      • I honestly don’t know how you think the bell can be unrung or the egg unscrambled in regard to the trial issue. People are not going to comply with a law they perceive to be unjust. Seeking to “bind the consciences” of those who won’t be “bound” isn’t going to happen. This is something to be treated as “meat sacrificed to idols.”

  3. Thank you for posting this. I have read quickly the proposal and am impressed by the willingness to speak candidly to the deep issues facing us and by the solutions offered. I will read it more carefully in the days to come, but I do want to thank those who put much effort into this proposal.

  4. I’m going to say that there really is not a “way forward” that insists on continuing to prosecute clergy who conduct same sex unions. If YOU are not required to perform them, then “live and let live” is going to have to be the way to go. The genie is out of the bottle on that.

  5. Lets see if someone can produce a coherent paper on what “centrist” theology is and see what it looks like. I think it would quickly reveal what this is.

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