#UMC Unity Yes, “Centrist Movement” No

Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, just before becoming Two-Face in The Dark Knight. Courtesy Fansshare.com.
Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, just before becoming Two-Face in The Dark Knight. Courtesy Fansshare.com.

In this post, we will examine together the curious phenomenon calling itself the “United Methodist Centrist Movement.”  We begin with a thought experiment, then explore whether the UMCM lives up to its claims, and finally close with some thoughts about the unity to which God is calling the UMC at this time.

A Thought Experiment

Imagine a marriage on the rocks.  This couple has been drifting apart for quite some time.  Their friends notice it.  They are not very happy together.  Their vows and common history don’t seem like enough to hold them together.  Everything they do to come back to their first love seems to backfire.  It looks as if they are heading for a split.

Then, an idea comes.  At first it seems strange, even morally questionable.  It goes against their own inclinations and the expectations of their friends and family.  But desperate times call for desperate measures.  They try out something they’ve only seen on TV: an “open marriage.” Each partner can sleep with other people, as long as they are open about it with their spouse and with the other person.

A radical step? Yes.  But it just might preserve the institution.  The unity of the covenant can be maintained, it just takes a little negotiation of the boundaries.

The So-Called “Centrist” Movement

bankruptcy
There are at least two meanings. Read on.

If you aren’t familiar with the UM Centrist Movement, it’s likely because you don’t live in Ohio.  In some ways, it is the Holy Roman Empire of United Methodism.  Just as the Holy Roman Empire (in Voltaire’s words), was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire,” so the UMCM is not Methodist, not centrist, and not a movement. That is a bold claim, but one which I think is clearly justified by their written statements and actions.

  • Methodist? Under “Our Theological Foundation,” the UMCM lists works of piety and mercy as “the main connective links of our Wesleyan Theological Heritage.”  Of course, the problem with this is two-fold.  First, there is nothing unique about the emphasis on both works of piety and mercy (this remains true even if you add in their concocted neologism, “prophetic piety”).  Most of the great Christian traditions (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox) would tell disciples of Jesus to live out the faith through piety, mercy, and prophetic action and speech.  Secondly, even if these were uniquely Wesleyan, they are far from our “main connective links.”  As I’ve said before, the main realities for Christians in the company of the Wesleys are relational: class, band, society, conference.  The soteriological and the relational are always found together for the people called Methodists, and it is this radical insistence on “social holiness” (rightly understood) that has made the Wesleyan way of discipleship both unique and effective.
  • IMG_3722Centrist? The UMCM was quite open that its recent success in terms of getting delegates elected to General Conference was the result of an alliance with West Ohio progressives.  On June 11, they posted to their Facebook page: “Final election results from the West Ohio Annual Conference. In a historic partnership with our progressive friends, we elected 12 of 16 clergy (all clergy elected to GC) and 7 of 16 lay delegates to General/Jurisdictional Conference.”  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize we’ve been had.  You cannot both claim the centrist moniker and ally with one “wing” of the church.  If I’m wrong, I’d invite someone from the UMCM to tell me a substantive difference between the goals of the UMCM and the goals of West Ohio Conference progressives.  This alone, to be blunt, showed the whole “Centrist” notion to be a ruse.
  • Movement? This is a pet peeve of mine, I’ll confess.  Just calling something a “movement” does not make it so.  In one of my favorite scenes from The Office, Michael Scott screams, “I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY!!”  He doesn’t realize there is more to it until someone gently reminds him that it takes more than verbalization.  Likewise, the UMCM, as best I can tell, does not represent a “movement,” but a very clever ploy to encourage the dominance of progressive views in the West Ohio Conference.  (And it certainly can’t be much of a movement until successes are repeated across the UMC, and not just in its home turf.)  I love to blog and chat and discuss with my fellow WesleyCast hosts and Via Media contributors, but we are realists enough to know that what we have is a blog and a podcast, and perhaps a budding community of similarly interested Wesleyans.  To call what we have a “movement” would be only slightly less laughable than applying the same term to the UMCM.

Unity – In What?

Francis Asbury is ordained at the famed
Francis Asbury is ordained at the famed “Christmas Conference” in Maryland, 1784. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The most grievous issue with the UMCM and similarly motivated groups is that the only unity envisioned is institutional in nature, which is to say it is superficial.  Like the hypothetical married couple in my opening paragraphs, those who want unity “at any cost,” or a unity in institution, are missing out on the biblical and Spirit-gifted reality to which the ekklesia of God is called.  To stay together for the sake of appearances, or pensions, or property, is not a unity worthy of the name church.  I fully agree with the UMCM that unity is Christ’s will for the church, and have written here and here to that effect, but the path unity they are currently offering is thin gruel: an institutional unity built on a barely-veiled progressive platform (their plan for “regional conferences” lines up nicely with what the Northeast Jurisdiction called for) relying on the fog of fear (“schism is coming!”) and the false piety of lowest common denominator agreement.  Christ has called us to do better.  As David Watson noted,

“Simply saying we want to “avoid schism” isn’t enough. The only real Christian unity is unity in the Holy Trinity, which means mutual love, mutual accountability, and the proclamation of the faith once delivered to the saints. Institutional commitments themselves cannot serve Christian unity unless they are visible expressions of our unity in God.”

Conclusion: We Can (and Must) Do Better

Superficial unity that maintains a connection while destroying Connectionalism is not God’s will for the United Methodist Church. That’s why the UMCM platform is bankrupt. Like the desperate married couple above shows us, not every method offered to save the institution is worthy of the institution itself.  Unity is a pneumatological reality, and to reduce it to vaguely-defined virtues and financial self-interest is to risk blaspheming the Spirit who makes the church possible.  And finally, no United Methodist should reward any movement that claims the center and subsequently aligns with one side to get elected.  Duplicity is a poor path the unity to which Jesus – as the way, the truth, and the life – has called us.

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13 thoughts on “#UMC Unity Yes, “Centrist Movement” No

  1. Interesting view. I’ve learned through politics that words like “centrist” and “independent” don’t always mean what we think they mean. Whether by design or accident, centrist has tended to be a cover for progressive without using the word.

  2. As a member of the West Ohio Conference, I need to tell you that you are way out of line here. The opening analogy, one of an insidious ‘open marriage,’ is an unfair, unfortunate, and ill-conceived one.

    You have slandered good people who have worked hard in this conference for the good of all. Most of the folks involved in the centrist movement would be far from “progressive” in their theology. The coalition was born of those in the center and those on the left finding ways to compromise and work together in the face of what many have perceived as ugly, mean-spirited attacks from those on the right. Blog posts such as this one simply reinforce that perception. (It is my understanding that overtures were made to those on the right, who chose not to be a part of the coalition. You will note, however, in the Facebook post that you quoted, that the centrists (without the progressives) and the evangelicals co-sponsored a couple of pieces of legislation that were passed by wide margins).

    I dare you to have the courage to sit down with one or more of these centrists and read this to them in person.

    If we are to find a future together in the UMC, this sort of slanderous and shameful ranting must come to an end.

    1. Don, I am not on the right. I am a critic of both extremes, as well as those who pretend to centrism and then align with one wing to get elected. I have posted and tweeted this virtually everywhere, and I hope it is seen by the UMCM supporters. The duplicity is troubling.

      1. Drew – Your comments that you are “not on the right” seem disingenuous. As Don said, and I have said elsewhere, your commentary is uninformed, divisive, and perhaps un-Christian. You have accused people you DON’T EVEN KNOW of being liars. Without any substantiation. Oh… Wait. There’s a video we can’t see (which I don’t think you’ve seen either).

        Drew – you’re being called out on this. Please withdraw your comments and apologize to those you have insulted. If you don’t, it will tell everyone all they need to know about your true colors.

    2. I’m not a Methodist, but part of your response might be what Drew is responding to. You say: “The coalition was born of those in the center and those on the left finding ways to compromise and work together in the face of what many have perceived as ugly, mean-spirited attacks from those on the right. ” The problem with that is that it become an us vs. them move which is not about unity. If it were, then there would be representatives from all sides and there would be moves that were inclusive of all. None of this is to excuse the right, but if you call something a unity movement then it should act like it and not say that is when what it really is a united front to counter and those you disagree with.

      1. The problem with having groups from both sides is that one side sees compromise as a dirty word. If you’ve never been in the room with the conservative interest groups, let me try to give you an analogy to explain what I witnessed.

        Attempting compromise with those who align themselves with groups like “Good News” is like attempting to compromise with extremist “Tea Party” members of Congress. They do not want to give an inch, even to the detriment of the country (I.e. Not funding the government). It generally takes moderate republicans and democrats negotiating with progressive democrats to get anything passed. The result is something that progressives don’t love, but is better than nothing.

        Does that help?

  3. “the main realities for Christians in the company of the Wesleys are relational: class, band, society, conference.” I found this phrase striking, because I think it gets at the root of our current “dis-ease”.

    Since my first exploration of ministry I’ve heard a repeated mantra: “the basic unit of the United Methodist Church is the Annual Conference.” The other “realities” listed, though historical, have been effectively dead for over a century in much, if not most, of the UMC. They have certainly not been a part of my own life experience to any major extent (and I have attended/served churches 10 different churches in 4 different Annual Conferences across the country) outside of participation in a few covenant groups which were not integrally connected to the life of a congregation.

    The widespread loss of these basic units – and the relational formation they provided – has undercut any sense of “conference” as a relational event. Sure, we see old friends – but it’s more like a high school class reunion than an experience of “holy conferencing”. And our legislative process – well – lets just say overall I’m not convinced that the our connection has been much more than “superficial” institutionalism since the UMC in its current form was brought into being.

    The saddest irony is that one at least one level we all know this, at least enough to rail against it when the things aren’t going our way (or should I say the way our theological/interpretational biases lead us to think God wants it to go). But no one of any political/theological “flavor” is willing to risk their own power in the system in an attempt to change it.

  4. Before we start blasting our brothers and sisters, could we at least try harder to understand their stated intentions and positions? You provided a link for UMCM, but your blog shows you do not understand how their positions differ from the progressives. Why not ask first instead of accuse first? Clearly the UMCM list is more institutionally-focused while the progressive list is more specifically justice-focused. While there is some overlap (especially in avoiding clergy trials over same-sex marriage), there are also many differences and different priorities.

    There really are more than two points in the ideological spectrum. You of all people should know that centrists do exist. And Mike Slaughter – one of UMC’s foremost church-builders, evangelists and teachers – is a centrist. In years past when centrists and progressives didn’t coordinate, a plurality of evangelicals won outsize influence on the W.Ohio delegation. This year, after all the concerns over trials and threatened separation, it was natural that centrists and progressive found common cause on delegates. That does not make centrists into progressives. And it doesn’t mean the progressives share all the institutional proposals of the centrists.

    While differences exist between progressives, centrists and evangelicals in W.Ohio, we should have no doubt that each wants what’s best for the UMC. While their proposed solutions differ, let’s credit them with being well intentioned. When we critique, let’s be respectful about it.

    Your concerns, Drew, for theological coherence and creedal orthodoxy are well noted and provide a sound basis for Christian unity. But picking that fight with the UMCM folks is mixing apples-to-oranges. They are presently gathered around institutional matters. I’d guess they tend to agree with much of the Via Media Methodist project (when you remain focused as usual on theology rather than this detour into church politics). And while I understand your high value for creedal unity, it is shortsighted to dismiss the need for institutional unity which is, indeed, at stake in 2016.

    (BTW, announcements from centrists and evangelicals gave conflicting tallies of who won what. By my imperfect scan– comparing slates to final election results – I counted18 centrists+progressives to 14 evangelicals in the total of 32 voting slots for bishop at Jurisdictional Conference. And 10-6 at General Conference. I already discussed this a bit more in a comment to the David Watson post you linked in your blog).

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