July 30, 2014

On Priorities, Positions, and the #UMC Via Media (@eJoelWatts)

I raised a few questions last week about the current call among United Methodists for a via media (or a middle way) that might preserve our unity through our current and very deep division. My questions were focused around this central point: 
If two people with irreconcilable views can both be said to occupy the middle, it's not clear to me that language of "a middle way" really gets us very far. It may help us have a conversation without it devolving into fisticuffs, and for that it is commendable, but it's not clear to me that this is sufficient to bring about a unified United Methodist Church, which seems to be a goal of those who see themselves in the middle.
The post provoked a variety of responses. Some agreed with the call for a middle way; others were suspicious of it. One post that aimed to answer some of my questions came from Joel Watts. He suggests that the via media is more about priorities than it is a position on any particular issue. Joel puts it this way:
I would say it is not a way of thinking about an issue but about priorities. I have argued consistently for a return to a theological grounding. I believe if we focus on affirming the proper role of Scripture, on what it means to be human, and how to stand as a Protestant in the Great Tradition, we can slowly began to answer the questions posed by all of the fields related to the issue of inclusion.
For me, via media is not the middle between left/progressive and right/conservative — because those two sides are usually defined, or start with, the issue of LGBT. Rather, the via media is about placing orthodoxy before other issues. Thus, we argue for orthodoxy and attempt to build up from there.
I'm grateful to Joel for taking my questions seriously. I've been tossing his response around for the last few days and now want to offer a couple of thoughts in reply. First, it seems to me a false step to set our theological priorities against the positions we hold. Is it not the case that our priorities influence, perhaps even determine, the positions we hold? For example, Joel prioritizes order and episcopal oversight. This leads him to take a position that opposes the various current acts of ecclesial disobedience happening in the UMC. He argues for LGBTQ inclusion, but not at the expense of order and discipline. This ranking of priorities results in particular positions on specific issues. Sometimes priorities are positions.

Second, Joel suggests that human sexuality is not a doctrinal matter on the level of the Trinity, Christology, or baptism, to mention a few. But this claim raises at least one question. How does the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity relate to marriage and sexual ethics? In Genesis 1, the relationship of heterosexual covenant monogamy is intimately interwoven with the bestowal of the image of God on the man and the woman. At the very least, this raises the possibility that our doctrine of God and our sexual ethics have much to do with one another and cannot be so easily separated into distinct levels of priority. This may give us some insight as to why matters of sexuality are such lightning rod issues. Perhaps different attitudes towards human sexuality emerge from fundamentally different visions of God and what it means to bear the image of God. So, I'm not quite satisfied with the claim that we can find a way forward by prioritizing orthodoxy over sexual ethics. 

Again, I'm grateful to Joel for the seriousness with which he took my questions, and I'm grateful to him for taking the time to offer some thoughts in reply. Likewise, I've aimed to take his suggestions seriously (even if I'm not finally satisfied by them) by reflecting carefully on them before posting my reservations. As many of us have said before, we need respectful dialogue on matters over which we disagree, and I'm always grateful for the opportunity to be involved in that sort of conversation. In the end, though, I find unhelpful the suggestion that the middle way is about priorities and not positions. Our priorities and our positions are bound tightly together and likely determine one another. It is essential that we recognize this if we are to understand ourselves and each other. 

July 28, 2014

New SermonCast: "Why Church?" #UMC

It's a question that many regular churchgoers may never ask. Church, for a lot of us, is the default position. It's just what you do. Why ask why. However, more and more people are finding the Church unnecessary. And a growing number are looking to places other than the Church to find spiritual fulfillment. Recent years have seen the rise of the "spiritual but not religious," who find great importance in spirituality but don't see traditional expressions of the Church as good places for spiritual growth. One poll even found that 33% of Americans think of themselves this way. Spirituality matters, but for the spiritual but not religious it's not to be found in the Church. In this increasingly post-Christian climate, the Church must be always asking the "why" question. Why Church? Why does it matter? What does the Church have to offer a world that cares less and less? This week's SermonCast on Ephesians 3:7-13 drills down on these questions as we consider the possibility that Church is not an option. Church is the plan. 

July 23, 2014

Defining the Methodist middle: Is there a via media for the #UMC?

The United Methodist Church is increasingly embroiled in an ever more polarized debate over human sexuality. As the debate rages, many have called for and attempted to articulate a via media, that is, a middle way between the two divergent sides. In recent weeks and months especially, though, I've found the call for a middle way to be curious at least and baffling at worst. The reason? Given the diversity of those associated with the middle, it seems difficult to actually define the middle. And terms that cannot be defined are by necessity meaningless. Allow me to illustrate the difficulty. 

Earlier this year, Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter outlined a proposal that articulated what they see as "A Way Forward" for the UMC in light of the sexuality debate. Hamilton has done a good job of associating himself with the idea of a "middle way," and his plan for the Church reflects that attitude. It outlines the progressive and conservative sides and then presents a local option that the authors take to be a compromise or third way. You can see how Hamilton applies his approach to a variety of issues in his book Seeing Gray in a Black and White World.

Bill Arnold has shown (quite conclusively, in my view) that Hamilton misconstrues many of these polarizing debates by not taking account of  the many and varied views on each issue in question and by assuming that a middle way is always available and preferable. Arnold levels a heavy critique of Hamilton's way of reasoning and argues that the position of the UMC is already a middle way on a number of issues. See Arnold's book Seeing Black and White in a Gray World On the issue of human sexuality, Hamilton proposes as a third way that local churches and Annual Conferences make their own decisions about LGBTQ unions and ordination. In contrast, Arnold argues that the current UMC position that all persons are of "sacred worth" even though same sex practices are "incompatible with Christian teaching" is the true middle way. Hamilton affirms same sex practices; Arnold does not. Both believe they are the via media. How do we make sense of this? 

Another example comes with regard to the same issue. Steve Harper's new book For the Sake of the Bride has been touted as a "third way" through the current division. Harper's book has quickly become well-known because, though he has been aligned with conservatives in the past, he now takes the progressive view on sexuality. In contrast, just last week Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy was said to have "joined the middle" after offering a conservative case against UMC schism. Again, Harper and Tooley come down on opposite sides of the sexuality issue, yet in the last week or so both have been described as part of via media. How do we make sense of this? 

One forum that is gaining prominence in the UMC is the Via Media Methodist blog. If you haven't seen this one, be sure to stop by. The contributors always have thoughtful insights on UMC issues, and their tone is commendable. The blog aims "to offer an alternative beyond the current polarization" in the UMC, and "raise the level of discourse within" our denomination. I've found this site very helpful in modeling Christian charity and respect while engaging in difficult conversations. However, for reasons outlined above, I'm still unclear on what it means to be in "the middle." I did find an interview with Allan Bevere on the most recent edition of the Wesley Cast to be helpful. Bevere described the middle way as involving more a way of reasoning rather than a set of specific positions. Okay, so maybe the middle is a method, not a position.

But this still leaves me with questions. If two people with irreconcilable views can both be said to occupy the middle, it's not clear to me that language of "a middle way" really gets us very far. It may help us have a conversation without it devolving into fisticuffs, and for that it is commendable, but it's not clear to me that this is sufficient to bring about a unified United Methodist Church, which seems to be a goal of those who see themselves in the middle. If the via media is a way of thinking about an issue and not an actual position on a particular issue, how does it actually move us forward? Who can help me? What is the via media? How do I know it when I see it? What am I missing? 

July 22, 2014

New SermonCast: "First Things First" #UMC

Every organization that wants to be around and be effective for the long haul must, at some point, ask the question: What is the most important thing? They must decide what matters most, and then they must resolve to keep that most important thing always before their eyes, always in front of them. They must pursue it relentlessly. They must keep first things first.

The Church of Jesus Christ is no different. Like any other organization, we must decide our priorities and keep first things first. Check out this week's sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 to find out what the Church's "first thing" is and why we must keep it always in front.

July 17, 2014

New Podcast: Hungry? #UMC

What comes to mind when you hear the word "appetite"? Most of us probably think of food. Right? Appetite is, of course, primarily about our desire for food. But we use the word to express our desire for other things too. Maybe we have an appetite for popularity or status. Some people might have an appetite for power or control. We hear of people with an appetite for destruction. All of us probably have an appetite for relationships. Maybe our appetite is for entertainment or sports or (dare I say) college football. 

Given the widespread application of appetite, we shouldn't be surprised that Jesus has some things to say about the subject also. And when Jesus talks about appetite, he zeros in on one thing. Listen to the podcast to find out what that one thing is and how to cultivate an appetite for it. 

July 8, 2014

New Sermon Podcast: "See Holy, Be Holy" #umc #wesleyanaccent

I'm excited to announce that I've just begun a new appointment to St. Mark United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama. It's a great church, and I'm honored to be the pastor. Yesterday was my first Sunday in the pulpit. I had a great time and am grateful for a very warm welcome. The church will be podcasting my sermons each week. You can easily subscribe to the podcast in iTunes, put the feed in your reader, or check out the player widget in the column to your right. Sermons will also be archived on the church website

My first installment is called "See Holy, Be Holy" and digs into Isaiah 6:1-8 and the prophet's vision of God's holiness that led to his being completely set apart for a holy mission. I always enjoy hearing from readers and listeners. So, feel free to share your thoughts.