Still Looking for the Middle

On occasion, I write a post that I’d rather not.  This is one.  Many people are blogging about the proposals floating for United Methodist division or unity.  I feel obligated to add my two cents’ worth.

With fervent sincerity I want to say how much I appreciate the bloggers and editorialists who, with generosity and restraint, have entered the lists.  At the same time, I feel obligated to say a word about those who have written with more or less unveiled animus toward the 80 or so pastors who have called for division.  Because I readily identify myself as a United Methodist evangelical, I feel warm friendship with many associated with Good News.  They are not pariahs.  They are as loyal to United Methodism as anyone I know.  I do not (yet) agree with the call for amicable separation, but I want to state very plainly that I think they are acting with integrity and love as much as anyone else in our deeply contested attempts to find a way forward.

I also know that this knife cuts both ways.  Some of you reading this post have heard or read hateful, ugly comments from traditionalists.  I grant that point without hesitation.  But I don’t think that the 80 ought to be labeled schismatics.

Looking at the list of signees on “A Way Forward,” I see, likewise, quite a few of my friends and highly-regarded colleagues.  For those of us who would rather hang on to some version of the current iteration of United Methodism, it illustrates the conviction that we can stay together and leave each other alone – to some degree – on the questions of same-sex marriage and ordination.  It does so on the basis of a particular belief about the trajectory of history – that an increasing number of people are accepting – and will accept – same-sex marriage.

And this is exactly why I have a problem with the proposal.  I think it operates on the assumption that, given how popular opinion is changing, we can ride out the present storm and eventually the traditionalist holdouts will see things differently, get over their opposition and the UM church (minus the traditionalists who have already left) will stay together.

If I have analyzed adequately, “A Way Forward” is not at all a middle position.  It is a milder version of what most of us recognize as the progressive position.  (I’m not the only blogger who has noticed.)  I really hope I am wrong, but if I am not, “A Way Forward” is chilling in its implication.

Regarding the specific matter of leaving things up to the local congregation or the annual conference, I have a question.  Given our current connectional structure, how feasible will it be to change our polity to allow for what the proposal envisions?  To accept it will require extensive revisions in structure, with far-reaching consequences.   For example, Boards of Ordained Ministry will need to be given prerogatives they do not now have.  Imagine the consultative process that bishops and cabinets will need to undertake.  I know it can be done, but we should realize the complex results of making such changes to polity.  My friends who signed the proposal: do you truly believe that we can actually accomplish the planning and negotiating necessary to make this drastic a change to our structure?  How is it any less improbable than an “amicable” separation?

“A Way Forward” refers to the disciplinary paragraphs which acknowledge the local church as the primary location for making disciples.  But we still regard the annual conference – formally, at least – as the basic unit of the church.  What are we saying in this proposal?  Is the annual conference now a secondary structure?  I am a member of an annual conference who serves in a pastoral capacity in church related university.  What about all the campus ministries, the Wesley Foundations?  Those of us who serve in extension ministries surely must be wondering what will happen if such changes take place.  I asked this question of the amicable separation group.  I ask the same question of the “A Way Forward” group.

What will happen to our apportionment formulas?  Will local churches have veto power over the parts of the connectional budget they do not want to support?

I just don’t see the “middle” in this “middle way” proposal.

If there is a middle, it is more likely made up of the rest of us who have not signed on to anything.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.


  1. Stephen: I likewise am loath to speak ill of fellow UM’s, but I also believe that it is important to be honest. If those who are “calling for division” are not schismatics, what’s a better name? And is the label really the issue? What they are saying is that they know the true will of God, and that there is no dialog to be had on that point. Despite the fact that today we have a radically different understanding (biologically, socially and emotionally) of what it means to be homosexual than what the Bible speaks to, despite the fact that there is nothing new to say in support of our denomination’ prohibitions (just rehashings of the historic positions), despite the fact that our greatest commandment is the love one another (not love the sinner, hate the sin) and that out of that love we are to make disciples – despite all of this “There is nothing to talk about.” I’m sure that there were good Christians – even good United Methodists – who fervently held Biblically-based beliefs supporting slavery and against women’s ordination; it doesn’t make them any less wrong.
    I would ask what the “call for division-ers” (is that better?) hope to accomplish through division. Do they truly believe that if there were a progressive UMC and an orthodox UMC that they could go head to head in Disciple-making to determine who’s right? Has it really been the push for inclusion that’s been holding us back? I think current research would argue against that. We are toying with the viability of our denomination. We must grow – we must be about making disciples – or we will continue to die. Peace…

    • I’m going to take most of your questions as rhetorical. But I will try to answer a couple of points.

      First, you must admit that you think your viewpoint is right. Your language suggests that you find it troubling that someone would “presume” to know the mind of God on some issue, but I would hazard the guess that you are just as confident in your opinion. The tone of your reply suggests so. In this regard, you are no different than the “schismatics” who think they know the will of God regarding sexuality. It is unfair to criticize someone for having a strong opinion while expressing your own strong opinion.

      Second, you make references to a number of positions and assumptions that I question. I simply do not share your conclusions. One example: you draw the analogy between same-sex marriage and the slavery/women in ministry references, as if to say that they’re essentially the same. We finally got it right on slavery and women in ministry and eventually we’ll get it right on homosexuality. I deny the analogy though I’ve seen it many times.

      Finally, virtually every assertion and generalization you make, I can contest. I won’t, but at least it shows how complicated this matter really is. Many people make assertions. Few people make arguments.

    • Ron Allday says:

      “…today we have a radically different understanding (biologically, socially and emotionally) of what it means to be homosexual than what the Bible speaks to…” So you’re suggesting the Holy Spirit inspired Paul didn’t understand homosexuality when he wrote to the Romans? If we have a different understanding than Paul, who had the better insight? And what else of scripture do we have a better understanding? That’s a very troubling assumption.
      There will be no peace in Israel until there is an agreement to the right of Israel to exist. The same may be true of the UMC “traditionalists” and “progressives”. I am certain the UMC will not thrive unless and until the focus returns to missions, evangelism and discipling and away from growth.

  2. Joel McMahon IV says:


    Thank you for these good comments and observations. After reading through, “A Way Forward,” the other day, even though a great deal of thought went into it, it seems flawed. Here are just some of my questions:

    How would it not sew seeds of further division and cause harm to local churches as problems are forced down to the ones who have asked the Church and its leaders for guidance? Would Annual Conferences have the right to refuse to recognize the ordination of pastors from other Annual Conferences? Since there seems to be no accountability to the denominational structure, laws, and expectations now, how does this not ultimately lead to an obvious congregational system of church governance?

    Just to let people know, even though I don’t know the vote, I do know that the 80 pastors participating in the vote that so many are talking about were not unanimous in their decision.

    Joel McMahon IV

    • Joel, the questions you ask are the kinds of questions that I think need answering. At this point, I think “A Way Forward” takes insufficient account of the complexity of the structure changes that will need to follow.

      Let me try this analogy from my line of work. Schools are struggling with the line between free speech and hate speech. Some campus codes of conduct are leaning toward designating as hate speech what some people would still regard as free speech. I have experienced a little bit of opposition on my campus that verged on attempts at censorship (what we were talking about had nothing to do with sexuality, but was in fact much more uncontroversial; my opponents just didn’t like what I said about the Christian theological foundations of the school where I work). Here we have to think about who has power and how it is used. In a Board of Ordained that approves of same-sex marriage, a candidate in that annual conference who does not agree with the prevailing view might find it difficult to be approved for ordination. Of course, candidates do not get approved for various reasons already, because there are prevailing ways of thinking on boards of ordained ministry. I’m trying to say that “A Way Forward” assumes freedom of conscience when, in the long run, I’m not confident that such would be the case.

      • Gary Bebop says:

        Steve, you are “spot on” (as N.T. Wright would say) regarding the power plays which assert themselves in the ordination process; indeed, this is NOT a FUTURE scenario, it is real and happening now and it is oppressive. Evangelicals in the West are especially vulnerable (elsewhere, too), because their resistance to redefining morality is perceived as a threat to a progressive ascendancy. Read the progressive blogs as stormy petrels, harbingers of the wrath to come.

  3. Steve,

    Thank you for your prayerful engagement with this and other proposals that have been floating around the bloggosphere. Given the short window of the actual GC, and changes that the Judicial process might reject anything that passes, at this point, it seems to me, we are near “fish or cut bait” time. By this I mean that we need serious proposals to be offered, so that we can begin to sort through the relative advantages and disadvantages of the alternatives.

    I agree that there are serious costs that would come with embracing a middle option, and you have suggested several of those here. However, as an advocate for a middle position, although not the specific proposal one in question here, I would like to challenge a couple of your suggestions.

    First, I think it is misleading, and a bit dismissive, to label this proposal as a kind of watered down “progressivism.” Trust me, as an advocate for the middle, I have received vociferous, and sometimes mean-spirited critique from members of both “wings” of the Church. I was told, for instance, by a member of Love Prevails, that the middle position was the kind of compromise that would serve the interests of straight, white, male. I often wish we could just get rid of the language of conservative and progressive in the Church, but here is a case where we too often are slipping into the practices of worldly politics, and naming positions to alternate extremes in relation to the other end, to which we lean. I suspect, at least in this case, that it is better to focus on the content of the proposal, and avoid labels.

    Second, you read the proposal as offering a modus vivendi, that is, a compromise entered into due to the inability of either side to overpower the other; an agreement that will last until one wing (you suspect the progressive wing here) gains enough power to overpower the other. I admit that I would have to go back and read the proposal at stake here to see if that is suggested. However, it is, at least, not necessitated by a middle position. It is the nature of compromise that different people will accept it for multiple reasons. As an advocate for a middle position, I can tell you that my own proposals are grounded in my deep respect for many of those who disagree reasonably and faithfully on these issues, and not upon any simple modus vivendi calculation. I am perfectly willing to argue in terms of a modus vivendi for those who do not share my convictions about the fruitfulness of faithful disagreement, but this should not be taken to indicate that my concerns are merely prudential.

    Third, you conclude by suggesting that you are still looking for a position. This presents a problem for your general argument here. The beef of your argument, I take it, is grounded in an account of the disturbance that enacting the middle position would bring to the church. On this point you are absolutely right. But this is a prudential argument. In order to have a realistic prudential argument, we need to know what the alternative realistic options are. It will not do to compare one actual proposal to our hopes for what might happen. As I have suggested elsewhere, we should be thanking these and other authors in the middle for having started out with a substantive enough proposal that it allows for critique. Hand waving at “amicable separation” in contrast has not gotten far enough into the weeds to acknowledge the massive costs that would go along with an actual implementation. As for other realistic options, I only see one more: the status quo. Notably, the status quo is the slow de facto implementation of something like the middle position via the continual erosion of the authority of the Discipline. We have come to this point because we are unwilling to actually process the reality of our massive disagreement.

    Finally, if we are going to talk weaknesses, we ought also to talk strengths. The middle position is the only option currently out there that would correct this mistake, return to an enforceable Discipline, and not break the Church. I hope that those who are still looking for a “middle” position will come forth with their proposals soon, so that we can do more critical comparison.

    • Kevin, I think you may be over-reading my post. First, by using the word “mildly” I did not imply (and certainly did not intend) “watered down.” With regard to practice – either to do same-sex weddings or not – there is no middle way. Either a pastor will officiate or will not. To allow for freedom of conscience to do or not is, as I understand the history of recent General Conferences, at least one of the proposals that progressives have sponsored or supported. This is why I deem “A Way Forward” as progressive, but “mild” in that it allows for difference of opinion to continue in practice. Again, “mild” did not mean “watered down.” Maybe I could have chosen a better word.

      Beyond the pastoral question, the proposal does have significant implications for our current polity. This is a distinct question from whether or not a pastor does same-sex weddings, even though, of course, the two matters relate. I think the change in polity associated with “A Way Forward” is pretty dramatic. As I said in the post, it can be done, but it will produce a number of fundamental questions.

      You may be right. I may have a problem, but I still maintain that I don’t yet have a firm opinion about the best way forward. That’s all I mean by not taking a position. As you mention, one option is to let our policies remain as they are now rather that trying a proposal either to divide or to allow for the “local option” as David Watson called it. At this point we have three options. I don’t know which is the wisest.

      • Steve,

        I am not as worried about the “watered down” or “mild” part as I am about the “progressive” part. It seems to me that the further we stand to the extreme right, the more all other alternatives will appear to be left, and vice versa. As such, I am suggesting that maybe we should focus more on content than on positional labeling.

  4. I used to know a guy who would ask people to pray about an issue and he would keep asking people to pray until they all agreed with him. 🙂 I also think if anyone is saying something absolutely is, it almost surely isn’t– in much the same way as a Buddhist will say if you meet the Buddha– kill him– so too should we as Christians not worship ideas but a living God. It isn’t when you meet Christ, kill him, but rather if you have an idea of Christ, kill him. Then the living God will introduce himself.

    Paul clearly met the living God and was influenced by the Man and the Holy Spirit, and inspired. But nobody is perfect and every word written in the Bible is not literally true including the marginal notes. If you meet the Bible you should consider killing it it you think it is all literally true.

    Jesus is alive now, before Abraham was– I am– and even still the same. What Paul wrote is true, what Jesus said is true, the Bible is true– but no idea is worthy of worship– only the living God.

    Methodists should go with that warm feeling and be spiritual not religious– in my humble opinion. The true middle path would be closer to the old military don’t ask and don’t tell policy.

    Personally I wish people would shut up about their sexuality and leave it in the bedroom where it belongs.

    Nice rambling post, Ted.

  5. Don Yeager says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I too have serious reservations about this proposal. One of the main question I have is this: does it preserve denominational unity (possibly) at the expense of annual conference and congregational unity? Doesn’t it just push the controversy down the organizational chart?? The AC and local church in many ways are just microcosms of the UMC as a whole.
    Don Yeager

  6. It probably does, Don, but some people would say that doing so is not a problem. Or it’s at least less a problem than how things stand now.

  7. Before I formally entered ministry I worked part-time in a church under the tutelage of very wise and experience pastor in his last two years before retirement. I was exploring a call to ministry at the time, and as part of that exploration was preaching very occasionally, sometimes on my own, sometimes in a “generational dialogue” with the church’s pastor. After one of those dialogues (on the issue of varying Christian attitudes toward homosexuality, to be truthful) I came back to the office to find a multi-page letter railing against raising the topic in general and specifically on my “immoral” positions on the issue.

    I had just started reading the letter when my senior pastor walked in. He asked what I was reading, and when I told him he asked who had written the letter. When I told him it was unsigned, he took it from my hand, folded it, said a very sincere prayer for whoever wrote it (he did not seem to know either), tore it into many small pieces, and put it in the trash. He told me that as I went forward in ministry I would experience conflicts with those in my parish. It is part of a pastor’s duty, he said, to listen the honest expressions of the faith, the pain, the blessings and even the anger of others with respect and compassion.

    But, he said, an anonymous letter is not an honest expression. Its writer is not attempting to communicate and restore relationship – they are asking the receiver of their “missive” to be open to their opinions while at the same time treating their own beliefs as above critique. He called it an act designed to sow fear, not nurture faith.

    Now I suppose at this point you can accuse me joining with those vilifying those who have called for division, and perhaps I do. But not based of the content of their message – because of the method of its delivery.

  8. Steve, I’d like to pick up this post for UM Insight. Please email me if you have any objections. Thanks!

  9. I respect your views on the Hamilton/Slaughter proposal, so I will offer up an alternative. As a matter of fact, I would love to hear your opinions on this proposal.


  1. […] Rankin explains that on his analysis A Way Forward “is not at all a middle position.  It is a milder version of […]

  2. […] Rev. Stephen Rankin, University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University, observes that the Hamilton-Slaughter plan “is not at all a middle position” but rather “a milder version of what most of us recognize as the progressive position,” with potentially far-reaching consequences. […]

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