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
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.
- Centrist? 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?
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.