There must have been a time when life was simpler.
There must have been a time when there were conservatives, moderates, and liberals, and these categories were largely unconfused. And in this time of categorical clarity, it must have been possible to identify conservatives with the right side of the spectrum, moderates with the middle, and liberals with the left. What’s more, these categories must have commanded such allegiance as to generate a great deal of conformity within them, so that a liberal would not share certain ideas in common with a conservative or vice-versa, and a moderate might find sensible ideas from both conservatives and liberals, but would not hold these ideas as rigidly as either group.
What a beautiful world of clarity and simplicity…. Back in the good old days, you knew where you stood. You knew where your opponents stood. You could measure the extent to which you fulfilled the requirements of these categories on an ideological yardstick. There were, essentially, packages of ideas, one on the far right and one on the far left. And the extent of your commitment to one of these packages of ideas determined whether you should be deemed a conservative, liberal, or moderate.
If this world ever existed, however, it has gone the way of the flip phone. The categories of conservative and liberal are no longer hermetically sealed. They have been broken open and distributed piecemeal among Christians who have come to realize that these categories were not necessarily internally coherent.
Granted, there are Christian groups that differ vastly from one another with regard to their systems of belief and ethics, and it is helpful at times for us to have some shorthand terms to describe ourselves and others. So, for example, terms like “orthodox,” “progressive,” and “evangelical” can be useful and generally call to mind a range of positions that those who self-identify in these ways are likely to hold. But when we speak in these terms, we are speaking of tendencies. The categories are more porous now, so that one might speak of “progressive evangelicals” or, a more recent group, the “orthodox and affirming.” The spectrum of religion and ideology no longer looks like a measuring rod. It looks more like a three-dimensional puzzle. Yes, some people and some groups fit nicely into the traditional categories of “conservative” and “liberal,” but a great many do not.
I call attention to the complexity of these matters because of a recent proposal by the United Methodist Centrist Movement. I have never thought that the name “Centrist” was an accurate designation for this group, though they of course can call themselves whatever they like. But when we get down to material positions in their proposals, one wonders how the term “centrist” describes their platform. Their affirmations of fiscal responsibility, connectional realignment, itineracy reform, and mutual respect don’t necessarily relate directly to the platforms of evangelical or progressive caucus groups in the UMC. In other words, these positions don’t stand between two extremes. They stand off the to the side. We’re no longer in a two-dimensional landscape. This is denominational politics in 3-D.
Additional difficulties emerge with the term “centrist” when we look at what they identify as the core of our United Methodist tradition: “The main connective links of our Wesleyan Christian heritage are Works of Piety and Works of Mercy.” What holds us together as Wesleyan Christians, then, are actions, not beliefs. By taking belief out of the picture altogether, they have located their movement outside of the doctrinal and ethical pinch points that are causing such consternation in our denomination. Again, this is not a centrist position between two extremes. It is an altogether different discussion, standing off to one side.
It would be more accurate to call this group the United Methodist Organizational Unity Movement, because their main goal seems to be to prevent a split in the church. I applaud this goal. But what does unity mean under the conditions that they propose? Their most recent proposal is as follows:
Title: Resolution Petitioning the 2016 General Conference to Form a Task Force to Consider All Middle-Way Plans to Keep our Church United Despite Differences on Same Gender Marriage and Ordination Eligibility.
Whereas Jesus Christ has made clear his intention that His Church live and witness as a united body (John 17:20-21).
Whereas when the Church was deeply divided on the question of to what degree were gentile Christians expected to adhere to the law, the early Church followed the leading of the Holy Spirit in crafting a compromise measure at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-29).
Whereas the United Methodist Church is deeply divided on questions of same gender marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.
Whereas committed, Spirit-filled, fruit-bearing disciples of Jesus Christ reside on all points of conscience in regard to these questions.
Whereas there is an undercurrent within our blessed church believing “schism” or “amicable separation” is an option in response to our differences on these questions.
Whereas there are persons who have or are in the process of crafting “middle-way” plans which will result in United Methodist Christians and congregations to continue together in shared ministry within one denomination while making space for both progressives and traditionalists to live out their convictions on these questions.
Whereas the monumental work of considering all of the middle-way plans, choosing one and perfecting it for consideration by the 2016 General Conference over the course of just ten days is both virtually impossible and unwise considering the size of our denomination and all the resources at stake.
Therefore, (insert your annual conference) calls for the 2016 General Conference to create a theologically balanced task force charged with prayerfully considering all middle-way plans to keep our beloved church united in Jesus Christ. The task force will choose one middle-way plan and work to perfect it over the course of a quadrennium (2016-2020). The plan will be considered by the 2020 General Conference.
Recognizing that new possibilities may emerge via the Holy Spirit’s leading, the task force will also be given wide latitude to create a new middle-way plan not yet conceived with the purpose of allowing the United Methodist Church to remain united despite our differences on the questions of same gender marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.
The United Methodist Centrist Movement (West Ohio)
(Feel free to insert your name or group if you have not yet organized a UMCM group in your conference).
The problems with this proposal are quite serious. The Centrist Movement’s call for “middle way” plans doesn’t indicate what the characteristics of the “middle way” are. Is A Way Forward a “middle way” plan? Is the recent proposal coming from the connectional table? Is Chris Ritter’s Jurisdictional Solution, or his “Restore and Release” plan? Instead of providing content regarding what might constitute a “middle way” plan, this proposal lays out a false dichotomy of two extremes: “‘progressive’ plans (full inclusion),” and “‘hard right conservative plans’ (strengthening the Discipline language with automatic expulsion of those who violate).” If we look at the material content of the positions put forward by those who identify as “progressive” or “traditionalist” on matters of LGBT inclusion, however, it is hard to see them on a continuum in which one can identify less extreme versions that constitute a middle ground. These positions are rooted in sharply contrasting notions of the interpretation of scripture, theological anthropology, and the Christian life, as evidenced by the passion and emotion that attend the current debate in the UMC. For those who support full inclusion, partial inclusion of some sort would violate some of their most basic underlying convictions. The same could also be said for those who support the current language of the Discipline. What would a true middle ground look like? What would a position look like in which neither group would feel that the church was engaging in ethically unacceptable practices?
Additionally, while there are plans for full inclusion that will make their way to General Conference, I’m not aware of any plans that match the description of “hard right conservative” put forward in this proposal. Are they perhaps thinking of the proposal that Bill Arnold and I put forward? In this proposal, we never suggested strengthening the language of the Discipline around human sexuality, nor have we argued for “automatic expulsion of those who violate.” Rather, we simply suggested that ordained clergy who violate the Discipline as it currently stands on this issue should be held accountable. This, in and of itself, is no more conservative than our current Discipline. The “hard right conservative” position described by the Centrist Movement appears to be a straw man they have set up to create boundaries around the “middle” position for which they advocate. I acknowledge, however, that there may be plans out there of which I am unaware.
The main problem with this proposal, as I see it, is that it lacks content. There’s just no “there” there. It rests on the fictive construct of left-right continuum with a viable middle position.
I don’t like writing this post. I don’t like arguing with my friends or being in tension with my brothers and sisters in Christ. Nevertheless I’ve become increasingly concerned with the positions of the United Methodist Centrist Movement. I offer these thoughts only to move our denominational conversation forward. I hope they will be taken in that way.