Reblogged: What Does the Methodist Middle Look Like?


Kevin Carnahan recently wrote a brilliant post, a theological and ecclesiastical manifesto of sorts, on the middle way as it pertains to The United Methodist Church. With his permission, we are reblogging that post here. The three of us who curate Via Media Methodists have found deep resonance with this post: we appreciate its theological rigor and integrity, its ecumenical approach, and its attempt to reasonably move forward for Jesus Christ in the Wesleyan spirit. Given the caricaturing and misunderstanding by many on both the right and left of a UMC via media, we in the middle have needed a clear, persuasive, hopeful middle position. We are thankful that Kevin has offered just that.
What about you? What is your via media statement? What do you see as vital and necessary for a sound middle way? Let us know in the comments.

From conversations I have had with many across The United Methodist Church, I feel that there is a fair amount of stability within the stated concerns of the more “progressive” and “conservative” wings of the Church, and there is a growing consensus concerning the content of the position embraced by most in the middle. In an effort to move beyond the usual debates, I propose the following as draft of a statement from the middle. The purpose of this document is to facilitate the development and refinement of a middle position which might form an alternative to a schism within, or collapse of the United Methodist Church.

It is clear that some will immediately reject the possibility represented by the ideas that follow. I do not doubt that, some, in order to prevent the development of a consensus middle position, would like to shout it down before it is able to take shape. And it is always possible that coming up with a position that will stabilize the Church is impossible. For some members of the conservative and liberal branches of the church, the impossibility of compromise is a self-fulfilling prophesy. In order to avoid making this document the site for a continuation of the current impasse rather than an opportunity to move beyond it, I encourage those who do not have an interest in compromise to read no further. I am interested in constructive proposals here, not rejection of the entire project. So, if you are interested in the possibility of the development of a Methodist via media in these troubling times, I encourage you to read on and suggest further ideas or counter proposals.

Draft of A Statement From the Middle

 “Unity and holiness are the two things I want most among Methodists.” ~ John Wesley

We affirm and celebrate the Christian Church’s unity in the orthodox theology of the tradition as reflected in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds and the United Methodists Church’s theological unity as reflected in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith found in the Book of Discipline.

We affirm and celebrate the Church’s unity in the practice of the sacraments of Baptism and Communion, which the United Methodist tradition affirms as means of grace to all who choose to participate.

We affirm and celebrate the Church’s unity in our goal to live out the Great Commandment (Matt: 22:36-40) and the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20), and in the particular statement of those commands in the mission of the United Methodist Church: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (1).

We affirm and celebrate the distinctive unity of the United Methodist Church in its emphasis upon the many forms of God’s grace (prevenient, justifying, assuring, and sanctifying) which aid us in all stages of our own development in relation to God.

In conformity with the fifth Article of Religion of the Methodist Church, we affirm the authority of the Bible as the touchstone of the Christian tradition. “The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation” (2).

We affirm the reality of original sin, which “is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually” (3).

In the light of our acceptance of original sin, we reject an uncritical endorsement of human desire, recognizing that human desire after the fall is always tainted by sin. However, with John Wesley also recognize that by the grace of God, all people have some access to the “approbation of their own conscience” (4). Thus, while we reject any uncritical acceptance of human desires and inclinations, we recognize that they are, under proper restraint and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a potential source of moral knowledge.

In the tradition of John Wesley, we reject antinomianism and ethical relativism. The grace of God is what allows us to live lives sanctified into God’s moral order. It does not eliminate the need for moral order. Where there is room within the United Methodist Church to disagree on exactly what God’s law requires on some issues, it is never possible to set aside the recognition and, in some cases, the enforcement of standards of justice and righteousness within the Church.

We affirm the need for Order within the United Methodist Church, and believe that part of the role of the Bishops of the United Methodist Church is to enforce the Discipline of the Church. As such, we endorse taking necessary steps to hold those guilty of violations accountable when charges are brought against them.

We affirm that sexuality is a good gift to all persons from God.  We hold that sexual relations are only fully affirmed within the bonds of marriage between two consenting persons. “We believe that sexual relations where one or both partners are exploitative, abusive, or promiscuous are beyond the parameters of acceptable Christian behavior and are ultimately destructive to individuals, families, and the social order” (4). We oppose the “casualization” of sexual behavior in contemporary society.

We affirm the sacred worth of all people, and believe that certain “basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation. We see a clear issue of simple justice in protecting the rightful claims where people have shared material resources, pensions, guardian relationships, mutual powers of attorney, and other such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationships that involve shared contributions, responsibilities, and liabilities, and equal protection before the law. Moreover, we support efforts to stop violence and other forms of coercion against all persons, regardless of sexual orientation” (5).

We affirm the possibility of full membership of all people in the United Methodist Church, and full participation in the sacraments as means of grace for all people, regardless of sexual orientation (6).

We affirm the role of the Church in witnessing an alternative order to the World (Romans 12:2). In a World that is broken by increasingly vicious political partisanship, we believe that the Church’s ability to be bound in unity by the love of God in Christ across our divisions is an important part of this witness.

We affirm the oft quoted dictum: “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters (or non-essentials), liberty; in all things, charity.” As such, we distinguish between issues deemed essential to the Christian and United Methodist faith, on which we require unity, and issues which are non-essential, on which we allow continued debate and discernment.

We recognize and appreciate that the United Methodist Church has been able to maintain its unity despite disagreement on a number of issues that have been located as non-essential.  For instance, United Methodists are free to fervently disagree with one another about the morality of war per se, and about the morality of particular wars.  Within bounds, United Methodists hold different positions on abortion, divorce, economic policy, and a myriad of other issues.  In practice The United Methodist Church has already allowed for differences between Congregations on non-essential moral and theological issues, and has found ways to match pastors with church congregations appropriate to the particular shape of each congregational community.

We acknowledge that Christians of good faith disagree on how to interpret scripture and nature with regards to the moral status of homosexual intercourse. Given the diversity of positions embraced by Christian scholars both within and beyond the United Methodist tradition, we accept that this is a debate in which it is possible for different people to hold rationally respectable and yet contradictory conclusions (See, for instance, 7, 8, 9, and 10). As a result, we recognize that people of good faith and sound reason disagree about the propriety of homosexual marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals.

In the light of these disagreements, under the pressure of the universal charity which is demanded of us as Christians, and wishing to reflect a witness of unity of focus on the mission of the United Methodist Church, we advocate locating issues of homosexual marriage and ordination in the category of doubtful or non-essential matters on which the Church allows some level of freedom to its members, particular congregations, Conferences, and its clergy.

We recognize that shifting to allow disagreement on this issue within the Church will require changes from the status quo. We do not propose or conceive of these changes as a “win” or “loss” for either side in this debate. We reject the model of a zero-sum game that is at times proposed for this issue. Rather, we seek to identify a structure which allows for mutual respect in the midst of disagreement that has structural implications.

We believe that decisions about whether to participate or preside at any marriage ceremony should be left to the conscience of particular members of the clergy, as this conscience as it is formed by meditation on scripture as enlightened by reason, tradition, and experience of the movement of the Holy Spirit. As such, we advocate for a change in church order so that, following that change, no minister should be punished or rewarded for either participating or refusing to participate in such a service.

We endorse the development of a model of ordination that allows for the ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals within the United Methodist Church. However, we demand that, given the freedom of disagreement, this model will require openness to discernment about qualifications for church leadership on regional or local levels. We respect that the will of individual church bodies will often be determinative in this process, as congregations are free to disagree on this qualification of leadership. We are open to the possibility that this process of discernment may be worked out on broader levels, including by the Conference or Jurisdiction.

We affirm, as the United Methodist Church learned in the aftermath of its struggle with integration, that in order to celebrate and preserve the beautiful diversity that exists within the unity of the Church, it is essential to find clergy who fit culturally, theologically, and liturgically with their congregations (11).  We encourage the further development of mechanisms that would expand this principle in order to allow for a diversity of views on the issue of homosexuality.

We hold that embracing this position is entirely compatible with holding strong views on the morality of homosexual behavior. We do not embrace this position because we hold weak beliefs about the morality of homosexuality, or because we are neutral on the issues involved. We embrace the middle position because we respect those who rationally, and in good faith disagree with us on this issue and recognize ourselves as bound to live together within the body of Christ with them.

Though we recognize that this position does not substantially resolve the issues around disagreements about homosexuality within the Church, in embracing this position, we are hopeful that the Church will be free to focus more upon the essential matters that bind us together in the body of Christ, and expend our energies more effectively in pursuing the mission of the Church.



Kevin Carnahan is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Central Methodist University in Missouri and has occasionally taught Christian Ethics at United Theological Seminary in Ohio. He earned his Ph.D. from Southern Methodist University, where he received a Dempster Graduate Fellowship from the United Methodist Church and The Schubert Ogden Fellowship for Academic Excellence in Theology.  Kevin is President of the Niebuhr Society and book review editor for the International Journal of Public Theology.  In addition to several academic articles and many blog postings, he is also author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010).

32 thoughts on “Reblogged: What Does the Methodist Middle Look Like?

  1. Evan,

    I believe that the following statements from the essay move Rev. Carhahan’s position well beyond the middle and into the left. A friendly left, not a combative one, but a left with which conservatives by & large cannot cohabit.

    We hold that sexual relations are only fully affirmed within the bonds of marriage between two consenting persons.

    We endorse the development of a model of ordination that allows for the ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals within the United Methodist Church.

    In addition, by placing the ethical burden squarely in the hands of the clergy, Rev. Carnahan’s position overlooks the role of the local congregations who, after all, pay the salary of said clergy. I’ve not heard a good response to the inevitable conundrum of a clergy who performs a same sex wedding while serving a congregation who believes such ceremonies & marriages run counter to the will of God.

    1. Talbot, I believe that congregation – pastor situation is easily overcome. If a pastor supports same-sex marriage and the church does not then the pastor abides by the church’s wishes as does not perform any SSM at that facility. That does not preclude the clergy from holding the ceremonies at other venues. If the church support SSM but the clergy does not then the pastor does not conduct the SSM ceremonies scheduled for that church but another pastor can be brought in. Seems reasonable to me.

      1. I doubt that the minister’s congregation would think that that approach is reasonable. If a minister were to do that (and I think that the vast majority would respect their congregation’s stance even if they themselves would have reached a different conclusion), I do not think that the church would survive at the same level of membership and effectiveness. In our church (and I do not think that our church is atypical), much smaller matters would cause scandal and outrage.

    2. Thanks for the comment Talbot.

      Let me note why I don’t think that the two quoted claims move the statement to the “left.” Neither are meant to function as ecclesial endorsements of homosexual practice. The first is actually a restrictive statement. It explains where we take it that sexual relations are not fully affirmed. The second calls for the establishment of ecclesial policies that allow for freedom within the church on this matter.

      It is helpful here to take a parallel case to make the point. Take the issue of the morality of war. Imagine that we: “endorse the allowance of for the ordination of avowed practicing pacifists within the United Methodist Church.” Would this mean that the Church endorses pacifism? No, presumably not.

      As concerns the relation between clergy and congregation, please see the third paragraph up from the end. I actually think that we agree on this point. In matters of marriage, it seems reasonable to locate the responsibility with the clergy member inasmuch as this is already where the church locates the ability to refuse services. Clergy are not obligated to perform any marriage ceremony.

      Thanks again for your comments.

      1. Rev. Dr. McCarnahan,

        I’ve seen this statement floated around, and I appreciate it very much. Personally, I am a socially conservative but pragmatic, let’s-focus-on-the-big-theological-and-missional-issues Methodist pastor, and this statement at least serves as a starting point for moving forward. However, I have two concerns that I hope you can address if you have the time. (1) Does it not come across as imperialist for American Methodists to tell our fellow Methodist brothers and sisters in Africa that they must adhere to our view of marriage, but that American pastors to alter the definition of marriage per their own views and/or context? If we want marriage to be defined locally, let’s allow pastors/churches to define it locally, with all of the awkwardness and uncomfortableness that it brings. I obviously think God installs marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and would prefer our church keep that understanding. But frankly, those in non-Western contexts who support polygamy at least have specific examples to support their side. (2) Does this set of principles move us away from connectionalism and itinerancy, and mroe towards congregationalism? I can’t think of a way to prevent an active LGBT pastor, or pastor who will officiate at a SSM, from serving a more conservative/evangelical congregation without devolving into congregationalism. Further, I think the move away from having clear moral standards for clergy behavior moves us more toward congregationalism, though in slight fairness, the UMC does need to get less bulky with respect to things like education standards for clergy throughout the world. Still, that part makes me a bit uncomfortable. Then again, I think part of the dilemma we face results from rarely enforcing biblical/Discipline moral standards for clergy except with respect to LGBT issues, but that’s another can of worms.

        Again, despite my criticisms, I do appreciate your statement as a starting point for pragmatic, mission-focused, historically orthodox Methodists. Personally, I’d be a fan of General Conference exerting pressure on bishops to comply with the Book of Discipline while simultaneously finding ways to remain open-minded with respect to dialogue on these issues. But I’m not entirely sure if that’s feasible.

        In Christ,

    1. There is no one middle, there are many. This is one expression. Some in the middle may find it attractive, others may not. The lovely thing about the middle is that you don’t know what someone is going to say before they open their mouths.

  2. Without commenting on the substance of the document, could I suggest alternative wording to the following sentence:

    “We acknowledge that Christians of good faith disagree on how to interpret scripture and nature with regards to the moral status of homosexual intercourse.”

    Part of the problem with language has to do with the ambiguity of the language in the Discipline of “practice.” However I think using “same sex relationships” (though also ambiguous) avoids the pitfall that it’s all about the sex.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion Karl. I have gone with intercourse here since that is the “practice” that is usually seen to be problematic by those who read the Bible as condemning homosexual “practice.” I would agree that same sex relations are not all about sex. But, I assume that within the bounds of reasonable disagreement no one should be condemning anything other than the sex in the relationship. Thanks again!

  3. Good work! I can agree with about 90 % of this document. My “10 %” problems are two-fold: (1) This language seems to be a recommendation for secular same-sex marriage: “We see a clear issue of simple justice in protecting the rightful claims where people have shared material resources, pensions, guardian relationships, mutual powers of attorney, and other such lawful claims typically attendant to contractual relationships that involve shared contributions, responsibilities, and liabilities, and equal protection before the law”; and (2) leaving decisions about same-sex marriage ceremonies (especially when legally binding) and the assignment of non-chaste gay/lesbian clergy to the church or minister level; I think that these decisions should be made at a higher level, so that all UMC churches in a community would have either a “individual church option” or a “no to same-sex marriage” policy. No church or clergy should be forced to participate in a same-sex marriage ceremony if their consciences object.

    1. Cynthia. Thanks so much for your comments.

      I suspect that the first quoted passage does de fact amount to endorsement of something like “civil unions.” (Personally, I wish that we could better distinguish the State’s legal authority from the Church’s ecclesial authority on these issues, but that is probably another discussion). In endorsing this language, I am not adding anything to the language already endorsed by the United Methodist Church. If you follow the link after the quote, it will take you to a site that locates this language in the current Discipline.

      I don’t think we actually disagree on #2 so long as you are willing to have something like an “individual church option.” Mostly here, I call for the development of appropriate mechanisms to manage and protect the bounds of freedom within the church on this issue. The statement is meant to be open on exactly how this is achieved. The statement above explicitly endorses your last sentence.

      Thanks again for your thoughts on this important issue!

      1. Thank you for your kind reply. I think that a local church option is not a good idea. It will cause churches to have lots of in-fighting and will lead to “segregation” of churches — mass exodus from one church to another in the community. We need to talk with and fellowship with others, not just those with whom we agree. To me, having an individual option sounds a lot like a de facto break in the denomination. I also think that having a single “pro-same-sex marriage” congregation in a city (in some parts of the country like the South) will likely cause many people to leave the whole denomination, even if their congregation would be against same-sex marriages. If “mixed communities” are permitted, it would also make it difficult to evangelize. I see such a path as potentially being devastating to church membership in my home (Dallas), even within the “traditional” churches. In Dallas, we would definitely have a few UMC churches choose the local option of performing same-sex marriages, and they would be big news in the Dallas media. The fact that most churches would opt not to engage in that practice would not protect those traditional churches from the negative effects of that activity — in terms of tithes, membership, outreach, missions, and membership. Thanks for the opportunity to present a slightly different perspective. I appreciate having this discussion.

      2. Thanks for this Cynthia. I suspect that there is no way forward that does not involve any disruption within the Church. So on this point we certainly agree. However, having spent several years in the UMC in Dallas (I am an SMU grad), I think you might be surprised at the extent to which some congregations have either already worked through some of these issues on their own terms. There are a few churches in the Dallas area that I know are associated with the Reconciling Movement, for instance, and many others have found ways to “agree to disagree” within their own congregations. This does not mean that moving ahead in the middle direction would have no costs. I think those in the middle are all trying to find a way ahead that will maintain as much of the unity of the church as possible. Whether or not we agree on this proposal, I appreciate your effort in contributing to the guidance of the church in this troubled time.

  4. Dr, Carnahan, Thank you for this thoughtful offer. As someone who learned much (believe it or not) in your ethics class at UTS This is probably the best and most reflective document on our (United Methodist) doctrine and theology. It maintains the connection to the past while seeking to meet the needs of the current world in which we live and reside in. As a UTS student my only burn would be the non-inclusive language…LOL

    1. When my younger sister and I were kids, my sister developed an awesome response to insults. Whatever was said to her, she would repeat it back with “Your face” before the insult.

      So, for instance, if you said “you are an idiot.” She would respond with “Your face is an idiot.” This was a fairly good strategy for her for multiple reasons. First, it illustrates and kind of celebrates the absurdity of insult as a means of dialogue. Second, I always found it absolutely hilarious. So even if I was mad, it would make me smile.

      So, to you Wesley, I respond: “Your face is ludicrous, it can’t be serious.” And I mean that in the best possible sense.

  5. Nothing more than some honest thoughts, not as mean spirited, but as hopeful in helping to move things forward man. Take them as you will, but my hope is that they are taken in the best light from a place of honesty ad love. Here goes…
    I commented in a different forum, but will do so here in the hopes of moving the conversation forward. A few thoughts then. This is in the statement: “We affirm the need for Order within the United Methodist Church, and believe that part of the role of the Bishops of the United Methodist Church is to enforce the Discipline of the Church. As such, we endorse taking necessary steps to hold those guilty of violations accountable when charges are brought against them.”
    For me to be able to say that I support this (and for many that I know as well), there would need to be clearly defined penalties and a clearly defined process of arriving at them. While not everyone who desires ‘full inclusion’ has violated the discipline and then been protected by bishops, etc. enough have that it has broken the trust. The only solution I can see to this is a clearly defined penalty for infractions that can not be commuted so easily. It’s unfortunate that it has come to that, but I think it has.
    I do not believe that I would be comfortable with a homosexual pastor. This is not said out of malice, but rather because I believe it to be sinful behavior. I would also not be comfortable with a pastor who was actively addicted to gambling, was a habitual liar, a serial shoplifter, etc. Should a practicing homosexual be appointed to my church, am I left only with the recourse of leaving to find a new church? If so, I fear that we might make itinerant congregations instead of itinerant pastors. You did mention congregations having some say in this, but at the end of the day, pastors are appointed.
    “We affirm and celebrate the Christian Church’s unity in the orthodox theology of the tradition as reflected in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds and the United Methodists Church’s theological unity as reflected in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith found in the Book of Discipline.” I appreciate this a great deal and think it is the only hope as a starting point for unity. That being said, I also recognize that there has been in the past, and perhaps currently, strong undercurrents of universal-ism, Sophia worship, etc. If we are to use a statement like this as a starting point for unity, then that sort of theology must be dealt with as well. We can not claim to be of the creeds and then allow theologies to exist in an official or semi-official capacity to exist outside of those creeds. In the interest of the unity we are hoping for, how would that be dealt with?

    1. Scott,

      Sorry I have been so long in waiting to respond. I wanted enough time to read your post carefully since you suggested at the beginning that we might disagree. I am, however, happy to say that I agree with you on every point. I could, perhaps have been more specific in filling some of this in. However, what you have suggested in terms of extending the statement is right along the lines of what I would also suggest. Thanks for helping clarify where I was going!

  6. Thanks for thinking about these matters seriously. You’ve written an engaging piece. Here are my two cents.
    One can debate whether its an example of wisdom or foolishness among our Methodist ancestors, but throughout Methodist history in America, the BoD generally regarded marriage (and, therefore, to a certain degree, sexual morality) as an area in which variations of practice were acceptable. Said another way, a uniform policy on marriage hasn’t usually been a source of unity among Methodists. We’ve only had a one size fits all policy since the late 1960s which I think had more to do with Loving v. Virginia than anything else.
    The earliest BoD wasn’t too keen on Methodists marrying non-Methodists, but pastors could marry persons without parental consent, especially when the woman was pregnant. It stands to reason, then, that two pastors could reach different decisions regarding marrying a couple.
    Fast forward to the 1950s. Here the BoD speaks of couples who have legally obtained a marriage license. Of course, in 1950s America, anti-miscegenation laws meant that, by church law, a Methodist pastor on one side of a border between states could marry an inter-racial couple, while a pastor on the other side of the border could not.
    I wonder if this was a point of debate in 1939? I assume that a universal policy on marriage would have been a deal breaker on church unity. Should the deal have been broken, then, or was coming together to form what we now recognize was a seriously flawed church a useful step in the right direction? Are we in a similar place today?

  7. Hi Kevin! I’m wondering if you are suggesting a clear distinction among clergy, such as our Roman Catholic friends have? i.e, some are of the Dominican order, some are order of the Precious Blood, or the order of St. Francis, etc. That would seem to be where logic would eventually take us. However, I’m sure that you realize that our theological differences are far wider than which exists between the Catholic orders, and their discipline via “church law” is much tighter than our, regardless of what the current pedophilia flap might lead us to believe. A further question–how would we keep the statements above from becoming “the camel with its nose under the tent?”

  8. You can’t have an agreement between two sides without confidence that the agreement will stand. Instead, we have a situation where bishops reserve to themselves the right to unilaterally remove chargeable offenses from the Discipline. Considering that the African conferences and the Southeastern Jurisdiction will have 51% of the votes in Portland, how do you figure that 40% much less a majority agree to allow gay ordination? If we are really talking about each area doing its own thing, then how do you ask everyone to support the Western Jurisdiction bishops for example? What do the “stranded minorities” do? There are a large number of orthodox congregations in the Western Jurisdiction. Do all of them suffer the fate of Ed Johnson? Do you believe that heterodox clergy in orthodox areas are suddenly going to obey? Or, are we going to have “prisoner” exchanges? The problem is that no one forces you to be a United Methodist or any other denomination.

  9. How does this solve anything? It won’t make the orthodox happy. It won’t make progressives happy for very long. Only institutionalists will like it.

    In Christ,


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