United Methodist Centrist Movement: The Problem is the Paradigm

When I first read the United Methodist Centrist Movement (http://umcm.today) blog, “No Room at the Table for Centrists,” I got an ear worm.  Does anyone remember Twisted Sister?  Irritated that “centrists” were left out of a conversation of five UM caucus groups with the Commission on General Conference, they have made their feelings known.

I should have felt like applauding.  This group is made up of people to whom, by nature, inclination and sentiment, I should feel the closest.  Instead, I was bothered.  And I still am.  Why?

Look at what happens when you follow their logic in “No Room at the Table.”  By positioning themselves in the “center” between the groups they put on the “left” and the “right,” they give the impression of avoiding polarization.  After all, there are two ends of the spectrum – both by definition “extreme” and they in the “middle,” by definition, not extreme. But here it gets tricky.  The blog  then puts all those caucus groups who talked to the Commission into one category – “absolutist.”  One category.  Very disparate groups in terms of thinking about specific issues all wrapped up under one word.  That’s the word – “absolutist” – used repeatedly in the blog.

In reality, then, the centrists contribute to the polarization they decry. There are the “absolutists” and there are the “centrists.”

The rest of us are then supposed to sort ourselves according to this spectrum. Or worse, someone else does the sorting and puts us somewhere. That’s what happens most often. And I hate it. Almost everyone I know – left, right or center – thinks of herself or himself as moderate.  These labels obliterate the serious and careful thinking people are trying to do about any given issue.  Once you draw a conclusion, your opponent puts you in some “camp” and you become identified with whatever the stereotype is for that camp.  Just because we now have a large and growing group of centrists does nothing to solve this problem.

By using this spectrum, we are doing nothing more than aping the American political culture in our church fights. This penchant for placing ourselves in the “center” between “extremes” is peculiarly Methodist. That’s what bothers me. That’s the problem. The problem is the paradigm.

When I look at the four points of the UMCM platform, I’m puzzled further.  Here they are:

(1) Fiscal responsibility

Who can argue with that, but what does it mean and what makes it centrist? Doesn’t everyone want fiscal responsibility?  It’s where we try to exercise “fiscal responsibility” that matters.

(2) Connectional realignment

Here they refer to regional conferences, which looks like some version of the failed at GC 2008 proposal.

(3) Itinerancy reform

This one calls for the end of “closed itinerancy,” described as a process more open to lay and clergy involvement at the local level.  Is this a call system? The first sentence of the platform statement tells us that the local church is the hope of the world. This is not our polity. Moving ever closer to a congregational polity dramatically alters how United Methodists have thought of their connection.

(4) Mutual respect

This one refers to our major church fight over sexuality. The centrists call for a moratorium on clergy trials related to homosexuality until 2020.

It fascinates me that someone can call this platform centrist.

Give me honest, substantive, thoughtful arguments, left, right, center, up, down, blue, red, purple. I don’t care a fig for the labels or where someone can place them on the political spectrum.

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.

Comments

  1. I confess I don’t know much about what they are getting at with the first three points. I wonder if those are West Ohio specific concerns. It IS clear that on matters of human sexuality, we are “not of one mind.” Some see those issues as being “at the heart” of what it means to be Christian and United Methodist. I simply do not. I’d like to see a theologically coherent way of articulating what is and is not “at the heart” of our doctrinal identity. I can do it, but haven’t discerned that anyone is waiting desperately for my opinion.

  2. Gary Bebop says:

    The presumption that factions are going to flock to assigned labels is foolish. Let the arguments play out, as you say. It’s probably TOO LATE for the UMC to be sorted out before General Conference 2016. And there doesn’t seem to be energy for it. The schemers will conceive mischief and weave their webs, but “Their webs cannot serve as clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make” (Isaiah 59:6).

    • I’m sorry, but there really is no middle ground; a moratorium on clergy trials is a capitulation, and would only delay the inevitable. We either believe and teach what the church has always and everywhere believed and taught concerning the nature of the human person, or we adopt a post-modern materialistic understanding of man (oops, I should have said humans) as merely trousered apes.

      Jim Lung, Greensboro, NC

      • Pardon the diatribe, but I honestly welcome (please!!) debate. Jesus once reminded me that He is Grace and Truth incarnate; if they killed him, what business do I have trying to convince anyone of anything.

        The rhetorical device utilized by the center (Oh me, oh my, woe is me!!. . . . .I’m trapped between two mean groups of ABSOLUTISTS . . . . . ) attempts to place both sides of the issue in the “mean party.” Both parties are theoretically out of bounds. If a United Methodist cannot count on the “middle way” troops to muster at the cry: ABSOLUTIST!!! then we by all means are most surely without hope.

        There is a sense in which there is a reality behind the contrivance. The two parties can fairly be characterized as dogmatic. I am proudly dogmatic when it comes to ultimate truth. I realize I might be wrong, we both may be totally out to lunch. But please, offer reasoned argument — not dirty looks and finger wagging. My shame meter burnt out at about age 15: “Jimmy, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

        I would argue that the dogmatism of the queer party (their term, not mine) is nominalist and materialist. Human beings are just so much meat. Sure we wear trousers, clean our nails and brush our teeth, but our essence is only what is apparent to the senses. We are defined in our essence (LGBTQ) by our preferred mode of sexual intimacy. The apparent exhausts the real; The senses are mere feelings absolutely the property of the sensate organism, to be embraced and defined autonomously without reference to any realm (whether of reality or of ought) outside of me, myself, and I.

        The queers (their term, not mine) are nominalist in their conviction that there is no complementary beyond subsisting in our natures of which our sexual differences is a shadow. The penis is made for the vagina, and vice versa. All other appendages and orifices utilized for orgasmic release are instruments only. There is no beyond (other than the void) for the various forms of same-sex sex. For the nominalist, nothing means anything. And surely the polarity and complementarity of male and female are social constructs manipulated by the heterosexist patriarchy to keep women, children, gays, and everyone else in subservience.

        I am dogmatically attached to the Great Tradition and to a blblical-christian anthropology. I want to believe and do hope that everything means something. I am convinced that the first clue we have to the mystery of what it means to be formed in the image of God is that we are male and female. I dogmatically hold to the proposition that husbands and wives cleaving to one another, becoming one, is central to our (Man’s) vocation as men and women–most certainly to our charge to mulitply and exercise dominion.

        (Please, avoid the sneers. Some are called and gifted with the
        possibility celibacy, singleness, sterility, and all of the various forms
        we see of our expressed image. See, even an absolutist can
        appreciate a rainbow.)

        Your honor I plead guilty to the charge of absolutism and dogmatism when it comes to what many thousands of years of the shared experience of the people of the one true God in time affirm to be the truth about God, Man, and our ultimate shared destiny.

        Let’s have an honest discussion, take off the masks, forget about stupid and irrelevant church politics, and engage each other as the image bearers we are.

  3. A stiff analysis of UMCM. Picking up for UM Insight. Thanks!

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