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

    • Now that I have the book and looked again at the statement, I am not at all certain there is much correlation between them other than the notion of “center.” To suggest there is a correlation seems to me to be a huge leap between Bishop Jone’s work, and the group and its objectives as they are stated.

      • I was going to say the same thing. I don’t see how the proposal flows out of theology from the center. It sounds like “let’s stay together for a while and keep on doing what we’ve been doing.” I think it’s disingenuous for this group to call themselves “centrist.”

  1. A view from the pew: The centrist plan just re-enforces the problem of what we have become: a diverse church with no belief in common when it comes to doctrine/theology or an understanding of what the church’s role is in regard to society and culture; the only thing we have in common is a name; beyond that, we are peddling and talking apples and oranges. If we are going to share a name, then there has to be a consensus as to who we are, and what we need to be doing. Diversity would be in how that is carried out in different locales. A common name implies a common reason for existence.

    The hard truth I keep coming back to is that with our current structure–which has basically fueled the divide–there just may not be an easy way to come to a consensus; our best hope just may be to keep doing what we are doing–stay together and keep arguing. There is already a spiritual renewal in the works and has been for quite a while.

    A hard truth we have lost sight of is that we are not in existence because John Wesley decided that he was going to start Methodism or change the church or society; his only decision was to explore what it meant to live a holy life centered in God and that led him to unexpected places. Methodism came into being after he started field preaching and people asked him “What does this mean for my life?” and he responded. The structure of Methodism came into existence in response to what he was doing: enabling individuals to live a holy life centered in God each and every day of their lives regardless of/in spite of their worldly circumstances. Early Methodism is the proof of what C.S. Lewis stated:

    “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought most of the next. The apostle’s themselves, who set out on foot to convert the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become ineffective in this one. Aim at heaven and you will get earth “Thrown in.” Aim at earth and you will get neither.” C.S. Lewis

    John Wesley aimed at heaven with his life and enabled others to do the same–England and America were “thrown in”.

    • If the “center” is “Love God and Neighbor,” (which has a pretty good amount of support from Wesley), then what does loving my LGBT neighbor look like?

      • For the Church loving God and neighbor entails reaching out to and welcoming all who desire to become disciples of Christ. Within that inclusive process being loving sometimes entails saying “no.” Sometimes it entails saying “yes.” A lot of people today, unfortunately, cannot conceive of the fact that saying “no” can be the very essence of love, and saying “yes” can in those situations be the very essence of neglect.

      • The designated chief ethicist of the Southern Baptist Convention has repudiated “reparative” therapy for LGBT persons. It is rapidly becoming consensus that sexual orientation cannot be changed. That leaves “traditionalists” to claim that ALL LGBT persons MUST remain celibate for life, while such a requirement is not imposed on those of us who are attracted to people of the opposite gender. I can’t reconcile that with love or justice.

      • Want you to know that I do hear you, and have listened and participated in those discussions for many years. Where we disagree, I think, is on the science, psychology, and theology of the issue. That dilemma is also beyond both of us and that is why our denomination is at this crossroads.

      • If you agree that persons of equally serious commitment to the Gospel and to love and justice might disagree, why would we continue using the coercive tools of trial and charges to enforce one viewpoint?

      • If you want to love somebody, then let them know that the cultural assumption that a person’s identity is rooted in the desires that arise up from within is a total lie. This idea that we – in order to be our true selves and find fulfillment – we must act and obey every whim that comes from within is what the scriptures call the “doctrine of demons.” This sort of thinking blatantly ignores the Gospel’s proclamation that we are ALL broken by sin and filled with brokenness. Can you imagine a world where everybody acted on every urge that arose up from within them?

        Also, you are misrepresenting what the SBC ethicist (I forget his name). He said that the idea found in some reparative therapies that believes that it will always work and people will never ever have a desire arise up to engage in sexual acts with someone of the same sex – that kind of thinking is false. And it is.

        And this is not shocking to most of us who hold to orthodoxy. Nobody is totally free from the power of bondage to sin (sinful desires arising up from within). It takes time, it takes the power of the Holy Spirit, it takes spiritual disciplines, it takes a community of grace, love, and holiness, it takes the God to do it. It’s call SANCTIFICATION and ol’ John Wesley was pretty high on (too bad some contemporary “Methodists” don’t).

        Let me give you a real life example. I am a former drug addict but after my conversion I still found that I had inclinations to do drugs. One of the darkest times in my life was when – after walking with the Lord for several years – I had a minor surgery and found myself talking way more pain pills than I was supposed to. Those old addictive desires were arising up from within. But I knew it was wrong, I knew God loved me, I knew (and still know) that He had the power to deliver me – and so I asked for help, received it, repented from gratifying these desires – and boom, here I am today still drug free.

        Here’s another example: Growing up, I encountered pornography in my own household and in my friend’s household. It really got a hold me and stuck in my mind. I still today get urges whenever I am on the computer or I see something in the media – and I call out to God, ask for help, receive it, and move on.

        All these urges are the same. They will all destroy you if you give in to them. It is not an act of love to tell somebody that it’s O.K. for them to fulfill desires that God has said are NOT good. That is an act of hate.

  2. A moratorium on clergy trials until 2020 will not work unless there is also a moratorium on performing same sex marriage ceremonies. If not then one side gets six years to perform as many marriages as they can and flood the denomination with same sex couples who will then be asked if they want to leave after 2020. In fact this is an incentive to conduct as many such ceremonies as they can. I do not see how this will work. What we will have by then is a change in policy in practice although maybe not in the BOD.

  3. The problem I see is that the LGBT movement arose not from within the Church, it arose as a civil rights movement and one closely associated with the 60’s if it feels good do it American culture. The situation was different with the movement towards racial equality. Calls for abolition often arose in a Christian context and was carried forward strongly by church leaders such as Rev Martin Luther King. While the LGBT movement attempts to say they are identical, there are important differences. A very important difference is the strong Biblical argument against homosexuality. In the legal cases proceeding through our courts, because of the First Amendment establishment clause, religious arguments cannot even be advanced. That leaves it to the Church to take a moral stand if any is to be taken. I have heard homosexual Christians take the position that they want full civil rights, perhaps even civil marriage, but they recognize that homosexual marriage is not ideal or even appropriate for clergy or church Holy Marriage. Such a homosexual could also not insist on homosexual marriage in the Church or ordination of homosexuals knowing what damage that position could cause in the worldwide Church–and is causing in the Methodist Church. The Church would become like the US Government where we say to developing countries, we are not going to give you food or aide unless you legalize homosexual marriage and provide full equality. I think even many in the LGBT movement are not insisting that a sexual orientation is unchangeably established at birth. Many simply say as an adult or teenager, I am attracted to a person of the same sex, I am going to act on it, there is nothing wrong with that. Even a bi-sexual person feels no moral obligation to seek a heterosexual marriage despite Mathew 19. I support the Centrist Movement because it expresses a concern about the Church and does not place highest priority on sexual “identity”. Maybe these issues will become clearer with time, but based on my observations of the strongest Christians that I have known, we are either to follow the Bible or reduce it to a love ethic, much like Thomas Jefferson or Leo Tolstoy.

  4. Convolution and gridlock, as we see in these ripostes, eventually lord it over our attempts at Methodist table talk. But a purpose has been (eloquently) served: to expose the dangerous fantasy of the “middle way.” We have been warned to flee the futility of such a scheme. There is no middle way for this church; there’s only Jesus’ “narrow way”…and “few there be that find it.”

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