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In Worldly politics a common rhetorical strategy for those advocating for a right wing or left wing option is to try to label all other options as extremist in the opposite direction. Thus, for some Republicans, all options that include any government activity can be labeled as “socialism,” etc.

This kind of argument is a mixture of two fallacies, (1) the excluded middle, and (2) name-calling. It “excludes the middle” by falsely suggesting that there are really only two options. It is a form of name-calling because it seeks to sway the listener by associating a complex proposal with a simplifying and misleading label that has a negative connotation.

Unfortunately the Church occasionally borrows from the World without baptizing what is coming in. A Way Forward, a middle-way proposal for dealing with the current crisis in the United Methodist Church, has been met with many arguments that follow the above form. Here, I wish to explore a few:

A Way Forward is the Progressive Position

Stephen Rankin explains that on his analysis A Way Forward “is not at all a middle position.  It is a milder version of what most of us recognize as the progressive position.”

Why would Rankin make this claim? Having reviewed Rankin’s post multiple times, I have failed to find supporting reasons. Rankin does point out valid questions about the feasibility of the proposal, he also posits that A Way Forward is proposed merely as a stop gap by progressives until they are able to fully take over the Church. (I find this a strange reading of A Way Forward. There is one paragraph in A Way Forward that provides an underdeveloped demographic argument against schism, and suggests that a conservative Methodist denomination might have trouble reaching out to youth. But, it is an odd hermeneutic choice to to read this as a global theory of the future of power relations within the Church and/or to locate it as the driving force behind the proposal). But nowhere does Rankin articulate why the proposal itself is progressive.

How, then could we adjudicate the claim? Well, let’s lay out three options: the conservative, progressive, and A Middle Way, and see how they might compare. I will assume that the conservative and progressive are composed of diametrically opposed claims about the ethics of homosexuality, and the propriety of same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexuals. For ease, I will lay out the comparison in a chart:

Con A Way Forward Pro
Proposes a normative account of the morality of homosexuality which is to be accepted by the full church Yes No Yes
Allows some level of freedom about whether to perform same-sex weddings No Yes No
Allows some level of freedom about whether to allow the ordination of homosexuals No Yes No
Is grounded in the belief that we can find ways as an institution to agree to disagree No Yes No

So, how is this a progressive proposal any more than it is the conservative proposal?

I will admit, however, that in the details, A Way Forward is actually biased. It is biased toward conservatism. According to the proposal, the current conservative statement on homosexuality in the Discipline would become the default position that every church would assume if the proposal were enacted. Only “at the request of the senior pastor AND with a supermajority of the members of the congregation AND only after a process of prayer, study and discernment” could a Church decide to accept an alternative position. As such, it would be descriptively more accurate here to say that A Way Forward is a milder form of the conservative position.

At the very least any claim that A Way Forward is a progressive proposal requires further supporting reasons. Better, I suspect, would be to avoid the labeling process entirely in order to focus exclusively on the substance of the proposal.

A Way Forward is Congregationism

You can find this in various places, but a nice clean (over)statement comes from Bill T. Arnold: “This proposal would turn us into Congregationalists.”

A Way Forward clearly does move some decisions from the level of the General Conference to the level of the particular congregation. And, since there are only two options (either we are connectional or we are congregationalists) this is clearly a congregationalist proposal!

Anyone who is familiar with the way that the United Methodist Church actually works will recognize the problem of the excluded middle here. As it turns out, our polity is a mixture of decisions made on the level of the General Conference and decisions made at the level of the local Church. Local churches control their own budgets, when to have communion, whether to celebrate Memorial Day, whether to have a blessing of animals service, and on and on and on. None of this makes us congregationalists.

Congregationalist polity  is commonly taken to be “a system of church governance in which every local church congregation is independent, ecclesiastically sovereign, or autonomous.” Is this what A Way Forward has proposed? Did the proposal suggest the elimination of Bishops? Annual Conferences? Jurisdictions? The Discipline? The General Conference? The Confession of Faith? The Articles of Religion? Even Our Theological Task? By no means. It suggested that we find ways to allow the institutionalization of more localized decisions on issues of homosexual marriage and ordination. As has been pointed out by myself and others, in many cases, this is actually institutionalizing conditions that already exist on the ground in the Church.

There is one point at which Arnold tips his hat to the overstatement he is involved in.  Immediately after concluding that accepting A Way Forward would be “officially bringing to an end our connectionalism,” he states: “This would essentially create a congregationalist polity, at least on this single issue of same-sex practices.”  What does this even mean?  Does a church “officially end connectionalism” if it treats one issue as falling under the authority of particular congregations?  Is it this conception of congregationalism that Arnold means to suggest is contrary to our “Catholic > Anglican > Methodist tradition”?  Does he not recognize that congregational authority on some issues is part of that tradition?   Does he mean that this issue is so significant to our identity that how we treat it should be taken to define our whole polity?  The oversimplified original charge of congregationalism crashes on the shoal of the details that it obscures.

So again labeling A Way Forward as “congregationalist” is just that, labeling. It oversimplifies the issues at hand and obscures what is at stake in the proposal and in the life of our Church for rhetorical gain.

A Way Forward is Amicable Separation

Dr. David Watson, in a comment following one of his blog posts, has labeled the proposal in “A Way Forward” as “close to amicable separation.”

Since those who have advocated for schism in the United Methodist Church have not proposed anything like a realistic plan of schism, it is hard to know what exactly what Watson is comparing A Way Forward to. This is a good reason in itself to think that what is happening her is probably obscuring rather than aiding our dialogue. But we can go further in establishing the point. It is not hard to lay out some of the probable, and extremely stark distinctions between the two different options. For instance:

Separation A Way Forward
Would create two new denominations Yes No
Would eliminate the General Conference as we know it Yes No
Would allow (and perhaps require) the adoption of new doctrinal standards Yes No
Creates problems for the existence of global UMC missions institutions Yes No
Would require every Church to vote on how to locate itself in the new scheme Yes No
Creates problems for the existence of global UMC missions institutions Yes No
Requires significant changes to the Trust Clause Yes No

There are some notable overlaps between the Amicable Separation movement and A Way Forward. They both aim at creating sustainable frameworks for continued civil and mutually non-harmful existence in the midst of disagreement. Of course, even here, one must immediately qualify that the “frameworks” that they propose are aimed at entirely different goals; namely, unity across disagreement or separation to allow for disagreement.

There would also be some similarity between the two in terms of the potential they create for congregational disturbance in implementation (this would notably be true of any realistic proposal).  To adequately treat this, one would need to go into the particular provisions in A Way Forward (see, for instance, those listed above), and one would need an actual picture of what schism would look like in detail.  At the very least then, it is necessarily unclear whether A Way Forward is “close to Amicable Seperation” on these grounds, and given the differences between the two, there seems a very good prima facie case that they would not be similar.

So, again, it seems that such labeling does little to actually help us to discern faithfully what is at stake in the current discussion.

Back to the details

In none of this do I mean to suggest that A Way Forward should not be critiqued. I have myself, suggested some places where I would not have gone in quite the same direction as the authors of the proposal. More importantly, some of the people I critique above have offered important and probing questions about the viability of the details in the proposal. In order to figure out whether the concerns they have expressed are definitive, we will need to wait for further proposals to be put forward so that we can better compare the options. But one thing I know. We would do well, in the coming discussion, to focus on the specific content of the proposals at hand.