By Walter Fenton-
In his recent respectful, but critical appraisal of so-called United Methodist “centrism,” Dr. Kevin Watson, Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, says he has “no idea to what extent [the Rev. Adam] Hamilton desires to be seen as a leader of… the United Methodist Centrist Movement.”
Question asked, question answered. Hamilton has quickly responded with an essay of his own entitled “In Support of United Methodist Centrists.”
But here, we want to consider whether self-identified “centrists” are actually at the center of the worldwide United Methodist Church.
For Hamilton, a centrist is a compassionate, faithful United Methodist who recognizes that other compassionate, faithful United Methodists “disagree on how to interpret the Scriptures cited as relevant to the questions of same-sex marriage.”
The centrist caucus appears to promote a new UM infrastructure where some pastors preside at same-sex weddings and where some annual conferences ordain openly gay clergy, and, at the same time, some pastors only miles away decline to preside at same-sex weddings and some annual conferences refuse to ordain openly gay clergy.
Presumably, the centrist caucus would also promote legislation where some annual conferences could discipline a pastor who declined to receive an openly gay person as a church member, and, at the same time, would defend a pastor’s right to decline administering the membership vows in a different annual conference.
For a moment we will set aside this rather novel approach to a Christian church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, ordination standards, and even its membership vows to consider how Hamilton arrives at his definition of a centrist. For him, if two Christ loving, warm hearted, passionate United Methodists reach different conclusions regarding a given ethical issue, it most likely means the issue in question requires us to see gray even if what we want is a clear cut answer (see his book Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White and also Dr. Bill Arnold’s Seeing Black and White in a Gray World). This philosophy comes to the conclusion that the ethical issue is gray. In response, the best approach appears to be to sit loosely on the matter, allowing plenty of room for faithful people who have legitimate differences.
This is often a fair-minded, generous, and practical approach to some thorny ethical issues, and the church has decided to handle some of them in just this fashion. However, as Hamilton himself acknowledges, there are some ethical issues that cannot be handled this way. And that is the crux of the matter when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards.
Both LGBTQ advocates and the UM Church (through the General Conference) do not think we can sit loosely on these matters. The former believe justice is at stake and therefore there is no room for compromise. They are so fervent in their convictions that they have defied the church of which they are members.
The UM Church believes its standards are firmly rooted in Christian teaching and are reflective of what the church universal has taught at all times and in all places. With compassion and grace, it calls on Christ followers to do the hard work of warmly and compassionately engaging with people who feel – often justifiably – marginalized and mistreated. However, it maintains it cannot yield on an issue that has paramount ramifications for the community of faith, for some of its core theological and ethical convictions, and for families and society in general. As challenging as it can be, the church believes it must speak the truth with grace and charity. And it believes this is done most effectively at the most basic level, where pastors and lay people open their doors, befriend others, listen, and speak kindly and warmly at the right time.
Judging from the declarations on the new centrist website, it seems as if it is advocating that the theological and ethical issues surrounding same-sex marriage, ordination, and church membership are not of paramount importance and that global United Methodism can move forward where some pastors joyfully preside at same-sex weddings, and others are firmly convinced such weddings are contrary to Christian teaching. This version of centrism appears to neither warmly promote the church’s teachings, nor will it wholeheartedly advocate for the full and unfettered inclusion of LGBTQ people. While no one would question the sincerity of their beliefs, the centrist caucus errs in believing that this puts them at anything approximating the center of the church. It does not; it puts it at odds with the church.
Wittingly or unwittingly, the centrist caucus is attempting to usurp the center of the church from the duly elected delegates who are sent to represent United Methodists at its General Conferences. This global body – representing people from Africa, Europe, The Philippines, and the U.S. – either reaffirms or modifies our Book of Discipline, and it alone constitutes the actual center of the church. Those who want the church to adopt a novel, laissez faire approach to its sexual ethics, its teachings on marriage, and its ordination standards may well be sincere, good-hearted people, but it’s a stretch to call this centrism.
To be fair, the new centrist caucus – complete with high-profile clergy as well as the past and present top executive from the United Methodist Publishing House – are not completely indifferent to the teachings of the church or the demands of LGBTQ advocates, but they are apparently willing to champion an exotic approach that is almost certainly a recipe for disaster.
For example, the centrist caucus would have us believe the UM Church could function as a healthy and vibrant denomination where two ministers, in the same community, teach diametrically opposite things about marriage and sexual intimacy. One teaches same-sex marriage is morally unacceptable, while another maintains LGBTQ marriages are to be celebrated. One teaches sexual intimacy is meant to be monogamous, heterosexual, and expressed in the confines of a marriage; the other warmly approves of LGBTQ understandings of sexual intimacy and marriage. This is not a credible way forward.
Practically speaking, particularly for bishops and district superintendents who have to appoint pastors to local churches, it’s a train wreck in the making. But even more importantly, their exotic plan of accommodation will solve little or nothing.
Previous versions of this “local option” plan were met with contempt by some ardent LGBTQ advocates. It was seen as an unacceptable vision of “gradualism” or “accommodationalism” – institutional leaders willing to sell them out whenever this or that annual conference has the votes to deny them full inclusion.
To those who find themselves in the center of the global United Methodist Church – those who actually support the church’s teachings, abide by its polity, and respect the will of the General Conference – the centrist caucus looks like it is willing to perpetuate an on-going division because they continue to see only gray.
Both sides – LGBTQ advocates and the UM Church – want the centrist caucus to take a stand on an issue where the church cannot have it both ways. Do they support LGBTQ advocates’ cry for full inclusion? Or do they stand with the center of The United Methodist Church, which believes what Christians at all times and in all places have taught regarding our sexual ethics and teachings on marriage.
Seeing only gray is no longer a luxury LGBTQ advocates or the UM Church can afford.
Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and an analyst at Good News.