In a recent blog posting, Dr. David Watson asked several questions concerning A Way Forward, a middle way proposal that has been floated for maintaining the unity of the United Methodist Church. Watson is one of the most spiritually serious and gifted of those involved in the current discussion, bringing with him depth of piety rarely seen since the times of Paulinus of Nola. As such, his queries deserve serious and prayerful consideration from those in the middle.
I am not a signatory of A Way Forward, nor is it quite the proposal I would have written. However, as a United Methodist who favors a middle option in the contemporary crisis, I would like to take this opportunity to respond to Dr. Watson’s concerns.
Before I begin, it is important to get the right frame of comparison for answering the questions Watson asks, because many of the questions focus on the negative outcomes of embracing a middle position. Watson is right to highlight these. There is no such thing as a perfect way forward, and every proposal must face up to its own weaknesses. However, to adequately evaluate the options, we have to compare imperfect proposals to one another, and not one imperfect proposal with what the Church looked like before the current crisis.
So what are the options? I see three.
(1) The status quo. This would mean continuing on with the current position in the Discipline, and the current impasse over whether and how the Discipline should ever be enforced. Most probably, this leaves the Church facing the slow devolution of Disciplinary unity and eventual desertion of many conservative congregations. This will lead the Church to massive amounts in judicial costs to defend ownership of what will ultimately be empty church buildings.
(2) The separation or schism model. The Church agrees to separate into two or more different denominations. Presumably, individual churches, ministers, colleges, seminaries and other UM institutions will have to choose which denomination to go with. It is unclear what would happen with the global mission institutions of the UMC, presumably they would be reduced in size or eliminated in the process. It is unclear what would happen with the financial and legal obligations currently held by the UMC. It is unclear how the new denominations would be structured.
(3) The middle option. The Church agrees to allow individual churches or ministers to decide whether or not to perform homosexual weddings. The Church agrees to make determinations about whether to allow ordination of homosexuals on a Conference by Conference basis.
With these options in mind, let us turn to Watson’s questions (some of which I will summarize Watson’s question, hopefully fairly).
1. The middle position won’t stop, or even mitigate the debate. Won’t the progressives continue to participate in disruptive ecclesial disobedience if the middle position is adopted?
Watson is absolutely right that the middle option will not stop debate, nor is it intended to do so. To agree to disagree is not simply to agree, it is to recognize that we can disagree with one another in good faith, and within the structure of a common Church.
However, Watson is not just talking about debate. He is also talking about protest. Here, Watson is probably actually understating the problem faced by the middle position. Watson only highlights the problem of progressive ecclesial disobedience without acknowledging the ongoing anti-order threats of schism from conservatives. To balance the question, he should ask “Won’t progressives continue ecclesial disobedience and conservatives continue to threaten or act on schismatic plans?”
To this question, I think a person in the middle must answer: yes. The middle position will not make the progressive or conservative wings of the Church entirely happy. My own proposal has been rejected by some members on each side, progressive and conservative. I have been explicitly told by some progressives that they would continue to protest, and by conservatives that they would continue to seek schism.
But, I cannot see any way forward that would satisfy everyone. The separation position would allow these wings to go their different ways, but as many have pointed out, these options would leave the center of the Church without a home. We should not underestimate this, because as vocal as the wings are, there is no reason to think that they represent the majority of United Methodists, and fairly good evidence to suggest the contrary. (Witness, for instance, the 2004 unity vote in the GC).
I do think Watson overstates the situation when he suggests that the middle position would not “even mitigate” the situation. The whole premise of the middle position is that it is possible to reasonably and faithfully disagree on these issues. There are doubtless many people who are absolutists on either side here, but there are many who currently support extremes of protest because of the absolutism of the statements in our Discipline, which do not allow for disagreement. While it is unclear to what extent the debate would change, it is unfair to suggest that agreeing to disagree would not change the dynamics of our debate at all.
I should also note that the middle option is the only option that offers a long term solution that neither divides the Church nor leaves one wing dominating another via Church law. It is the one option that fully witnesses to the possibility of unity across the cultural divisions that scar our World. (As Jon Altman has noted in the comments, demographic studies point to the continued growth of progressive tendencies in the Church on issues around homosexual ethics. Since conservatives are not likely to cede much ground, it does not seem likely that the status quo option or some other “return to the current Disciplinary position” option provides anything but a continuation and expansion of our current strife. This, I think speaks strongly in favor of finding a more stable long term approach to the issue than is provided by the status quo. Thanks to Jon for the point about demographics.)
Watson’s question does, however, push us helpfully toward the question of whether and how we should go about restoring the enforcement of order in the UMC. I believe that any viable middle position will need to articulate a more robust position on this issue than we find in A Way Forward. The middle position is the best located of the options to find a way to get to an enforceable Discipline. At the present, progressives will be utterly resistant to beefing up enforcement because conservatives have control of the language about the issue in question. If conservatives do not give ground on the language, progressives are not likely to give ground on enforcement. Thus, the logistical/political power of the status quo option in the Church. If the language were revised to allow for disagreement, this might open a path to strengthening what the Discipline requires concerning the enforcement of Church law.
2. Having Conferences and local churches make their own decisions about ordination and gay weddings will tear these institutions apart.
Again, Watson is correct that adopting a middle position will bring about disruption in the Church and in particular churches. But is the disruption it would bring worse than the alternative options? The status quo position de facto already has some Conferences making their own policy on these issues, without any protections for ministers in the Conferences that disagree. The separation option would be far more divisive than following a middle option. Instead of holding debates and holy conferencing on whether to accept particular ministers or allow marriage rituals, the separation option would require Churches to decide whether they are now going with the progressive or conservative denomination. How many United Methodist Churches would fall apart if this debate is forced upon them?
I should note at this point that another element I believe should be added to any middle position is a protection of conscience clause to insure that ministers in the minority in their own Jurisdictions or Conferences should not be punished in any way for holding to a particular position on homosexuality. Crafting such a clause would take careful work, and may create more logistic problems, but it would be an important piece of allowing disagreement within the Church.
3. Does this type of action set a precedent with regard to other controversial matters? Are we going to take a similar position on, say, euthanasia or abortion? If so, on what basis should we say that the denomination as a whole should have any moral teaching at all?
The question here appears to be whether or not, in embracing a middle position we face a slippery slope. I do not think that we do. First, since the other issues listed are not tied up with institutional expressions (marriage and ordination) in the same way as the ethics of homosexuality, they don’t present the same issues for the Church. Second, in a different sense, many moral issues (like moral issues around war and peace and abortion) are issues that already occupy the kind of position that the ethics of homosexuality would occupy if the middle position were adopted. They are issues which we hold to be morally significant, but which we are able to disagree about without threatening the unity of the Church. As such, there is no slippery slope to slide on beyond the middle position in comparison with these.
Even those issues on which the Church does have a clear statement, agreement is not required for membership in the UMC, and it is hard to imagine a person getting queried, much less denied ordination, for dissenting from the Church’s position. What then is the function of our denominational moral teachings, and should we keep making them? That is a great question, but it is separable from the question we face in the current crisis, and I think we have enough on our plate as it is right now.
Finally, again, the problem of the slippery slope this is not a unique problem for those in the middle. We could similarly ask, if this issue is significant enough to warrant separation of the Church, why not take the same approach on other moral issues? Many churches in the US have ended up in exactly this situation, thus the growth of non-denominational Churches.
4, 5, and 6 go together. Does this not really divide us? Won’t it complicate the matter of ininteracy? Will it not make us congregationalists?
There is no doubt that accepting a middle path will allow different churches and different Conferences to select different standards with regard to gay marriage and ordination. In some sense, this necessarily makes the church more congregationalist in polity than it has been. However, we should not overstate the situation. Different Conferences already do have autonomy on some issues, including exactly what is required for ordination. And actually, given the different makeups of Boards of Ordained Ministry, who is qualified to get ordained can differ radically from one district to another and from one year to another.
It is also true that different congregations having different social, cultural, liturgical, and theological dispositions is nothing new. One of the great lessons that United Methodists had to learn during the process of racial integration was that it is extremely important to be sensitive to the diversity of congregational culture when appointing ministers. Even on the issue of homosexuality, congregation specific issues are not new. There are already congregations that have aligned themselves with the reconciling movement or confessing movements, and no one should be surprised to learn that there are both closeted and out homosexual clergy that already serve in the United Methodist Church. Bishops are already aware of these issues, and try to take them into account during appointment season (we can argue whether they do this well, but that is another issue). There is no doubt that taking the middle road would make some of these issues more explicit and would probably require new mechanisms for implementation. But this should not be entirely revolutionary to the process.
Contrast this with the other options though. As I suggest, the status quo option is already de facto regional and congregationalist in many of the ways that the middle path would make explicit. And the separation option can hardly claim to be preserving unity more robustly than the middle option. Indeed, the separation option raises a whole new set of questions, as the order of the Church may be entirely reworked in each of the new denominations. And each would face new questions about how to cover Churches, and what to do with clergy if they have more ministers than pulpits in some areas.
What then should be concluded? Unfortunately, history and political structure point toward the status quo option being the most likely outcome of the GC. If this is the case, I suppose we continue to slog away while the order of the Church collapses and we face church by church defection. The separation option seems least realistic in clearing political and juridical hurdles at the level of the General Conference. In terms of disruption, membership attrition, internal church strife, etc. the separation option comes with relatively greater problems than the middle position. Separation may end the ongoing debate in the Church, but would do so only by partitioning the Church, and the future viability of the two denominations created would be unclear, as would the future of all global missions of the current UMC. There are also other questions that should be raised about the separation option, concerning what kind of theology, polity, etc. these new denominations will embrace. (Notably no one has even tried to articulate a plan for separation – and I don’t blame them. If the logistics of adopting a middle position would be difficult … well, let’s just say things can get MUCH more convoluted if new denominations are going to have to figure out what they are even keeping as foundational documents). Following a middle option would certainly come with costs in terms of disruption, membership attrition, some church strife, etc. However, these would be less than in the case of separation. Debate over the issues of homosexual ethics, and some protests would continue, but could hopefully be eased by the new structures allowing for disagreement, and could be better controlled with a new regime of enforcement of the Discipline. Further, setting aside the extreme wings of the Church, this is the only option that presents a stable long term resolution that neither breaks the Church nor allows one side to dominate the other. Is a middle option realistic? Could it become church law at the GC? A great deal more work would be necessary to sort out and fill in gaps. Even then, no change happens easily at the level of the GC. Still, it seems to me the best option for the Church in a dark time.