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? 

9 comments:

Sky McCracken said...

The via media was the tradition that birthed the Wesleys. If being united is dependent on exact agreement on everything, no family in this world would qualify as "united." Much less a church or communion!

Matt O'Reilly said...

Thanks for your comment, Sky. Yes, so the origin of the term "via media" goes back to the Anglican tradition as a middle way between Protestantism and Catholicism. In that way, I think it was a technical term with a fairly clear meaning that showed up in the critique of the Reformation and Rome.

Now, however, it gets tossed around in a variety of other contexts. So, I'm seeking clarity on what constitutes the middle way in our day. I'm not sure we have as much clarity as the term had in its original usage.

Philip J. Brooks said...

This was my attempt at identifying the middle. It's not so much the middle in since of being moderate as it is feeling caught in the middle of this issue dividing the church without feeling an overwhelming identification with either of the two main sides. http://memphispj.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/meeting-the-middle-further-response-to-schism-proposal/

Matt O'Reilly said...

Joel Watts offers a reflection on the questions I raise: http://unsettledchristianity.com/2014/07/is-it-about-positions-or-priorities-umc-umcschism/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A%20unsettledchristianityblog%20%28Unsettled%20Christianity%29

His take: via media is about priorities not positions

Dalton said...

Some good stuff here, Matt. Thank you. You verbalize a good deal of what I am feeling.

In all of this I am realizing that the "middle" is a theological claim, in the midst of a discussion about structure. Theology and structure are not totally separate, of course, but they're also not equivalent.

Those in the theological middle (like myself, much of the time at least) have strong beliefs about the structural solution, but it is important to remember that just because someone is moderate theologically doesn't mean their structural solutions are any better than the rest. We need a way to account for difference, not make everybody moderate. As Sky says, unity is not the same thing as all believing exactly the same way about everything!

boardsailor said...

It's not clear who is in this amorphous "middle."

When I have talked to people who want to maintain the status quo (i.e., those who take the supposed "middle ground" and want no schism, no severe punishment for covenant-breaking clergy, etc.) they are typically among the least informed in the denomination. I believe if people became aware of the facts they would gravite toward the traditional side.

We have had “dialogue” about homosexuality since 1972. We have cussed, discussed, and “holy-conferenced” it to death. Clearly there has NOT been an unwillingness to do so, usually in response to a very small but very vocal—often belligerant—minority who insist on having their way based on the flawed (and unChristian) notion that loving someone requires accepting their behavior, and the even more flawed notion that one’s personhood is mainly defined by their sexual predilections.

The UMC’s Christian witness has suffered immeasurably over this; and, while there are excesses to be found all over, this has NOT been caused mainly by traditionalists---indeed, it is they who are responding to the provocations of others.

The GC has consistently voted to maintain the language in the Discipline, which does not condemn anyone to hell, does not put locks on the church, does not relegate anyone to second class citizen status, does not say homosexuals are not children of God, does not violate Biblical teaching, does not advocate hatred, and most assuredly does not violate the teachings of one John Wesley.

Moral truth, Christian theology, natural law and common sense are not determined by who has the greatest degree of power and influence at the moment, who can garner the most political support for a particular cause, or who can simply scream the loudest. They are not dependent on who is President, Governor, UMC board director, Supreme Court Justice, theology school dean, bishop, or clergy. They are not based on opinion polls, calendars or statistical samplings. Neither are they determined by who has the most clout in media, entertainment or academia. They are not dictated by who can most cleverly construe Christian Scripture in a way that supports preconceived notions or foregone conclusions that have more to do with cultural accomodation than anything else.

I disagree that the Via Media is in the tradition that birthed the Wesleys since it is the Wesleys who placed primacy on Scripture before cultural accomodation. The Via Media capitulates to covenant-breaking and is simply another route toward incoherence, divisiveness and eventual disintegration.

Dave Nuckols said...

Three points:

(1) Alan Bevere made great points on recent WesleyCast (#$?). Identified a weakness to the discussion predicated upon a 2-dimensional spectrum defined by the political left and political right. This should be church; not politics. The discussion mixes up theology, polity and structure.

(2) It's too simplistic to think of "left &. right" and thus flawed to envision any split into two camps of "progressive UMC" and "conservative UMC." And merely acknowledging a "middle/3rd/alternative way" doesn't rectify that either. Split becomes shatter/splinter.

(3) So, why not we agree to disagree concerning same sex marriage? Not so as to say our individual convictions are not important to each of us. But rather to say that our difference is not -- and should not be -- a barrier to our denomination nor to our denominational mission of making disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world. Let's support each other in ministry rather than coerce conformity on this subject.

James W Lung said...

Thinking out loud, the Anglican via media basically affirmed de Laurens' formulation: Always, everywhere, by all. The 39 Articles describe this middle way.

There is no "middle way" between "too orthodox" and "not orthodox enough." Either you is, or you ain't.

The Discipline, despite its flawed anthropology, simply states what the tradition states: Image bearers are bent to sinning.

Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

It seems to me that everyone assumes that his own position is in fact the middle way.

This is in part because Middle Way is entirely dependent upon what conversations/contexts we have already been involved in.

Middle way begs the question, "mid-way between what and what?" I believe the UMC is already offering a middle way between a fundamentalist and a liberal understanding of sexuality, by holding out instead a "gracious orthodoxy."

But if you want to find a middle way between Adam Hamilton and Bishop Talbert it will look different than if you are seeking a middle way between Jerry Faldwell and Joel Olsteen. If the society (or church) as a whole moves to the "left" or to the "right" on any issue, the middle moves right along with it - this is why I think middle way is a slippery idea that you cannot ultimately nail down. I like "Gracious Orthodoxy" better.