The UMC is at its best when Brady and Ashland fight


The West Wing’s Team of Rivals

In the series The West Wing, the Season 5 episode “The Supremes” deals with the death of an arch-conservative Supreme Court Justice Brady. The Bartlet Administration (Democrat) has to choose a replacement justice that will be confirmable by the Republican-led congress. Even though he is supremely impressed with liberal Judge Lang (played by Glenn Close), President Bartlet is close to choosing a more moderate judge.

During Bartlet’s musings, he is visited by a crotchety former justice who remembers when the best law was decided by the Supreme Court:

Justice Mulready: Who’s at the top of the list [of Supreme Court nominees]?
President Bartlet: Brad Shelton [sees his expression] You don’t like him?
Justice Mulready: He’s a fine jurist. And in the event that Carmine, Lafayette, Hoyt, Clark, and Brannagan all dropped dead, the middle would still be well tended.
President Bartlet: [Chuckling] You want another Brady.
Justice Mulready: Sure. Just like you’d like another Ashland, who wouldn’t? The court was at its best when Brady was fighting Ashland.
President Bartlet: Plenty of good law written by the voices of moderation.
Justice Mulready: Who writes the extraordinary dissent? The one man minority decision whose time hasn’t come but 20 years later, some circuit court clerk digs it up at 3 in the morning. Brennan rallying against censorship, Harlains jeremiad on Jim Crow…
President Bartlet: There are 4000 protesters outside this building, worried about who is going to land in that seat. We can’t afford to alienate all of them.
Justice Mulready: We all have our roles to play, Sir. Yours is to nominate someone who doesn’t alienate people.

Presuming that the best law is written in contention, the administration comes up with an idea: what if we convinced another judge to retire, and then we could nominate two polar opposite judges: one liberal, one conservative. This “team of rivals” approach of President Lincoln’s yielded a strong cabinet to navigate the intricacies of the Civil War, so in The West Wing episode, the proposal ended up being acceptable to all involved. The model of two rivals (Brady and Ashland) searching out the best form of law became the depicted best makeup of the Supreme Court.

Team of Rivals or Too Many Rivals?

The metaphor of Brady and Ashland is one I’ve been drawn to: as our church and society becomes more polarized, what value is there in keeping different voices together? Is the best church still found in contention?

In secular society, we only have to look at Congress and its polarized factions being unable to get anything done, and an increase in landslide counties supporting the status quo. In the United Methodist Church, we only have to look at the “Do Nothing General Conference 2012” and the failed Call To Action as an example of what happens when you exclude reasonable voices from the table.

In an increasingly polarized group, for minority values and efforts (which are often progressive), change comes in two forms:

  1. Eventual tipping point of minority opinion over majority opinion either through demographic attrition or societal change.
  2. Pragmatic ideological opponents who get together to solve the problems in a novel way.

Schismatics don’t want a Team of Rivals

I believe it’s fear of both of these sources of change that drives the schism discussion in the United Methodist Church.

  1. For traditionalists, there’s a strong fear of change. The Baby Boomers who are retiring do not share some values (especially about LGBT equality) with the Millenials and younger Gen-Xers. Traditionalist advocacy groups oppose any form of compromise on the topic of LGBT inclusion, but may not be able to hold back the younger pragmatic traditionalists for long (ie. Hamilton, Slaughter, Rasmus). Change is coming and is inevitable if the UMC remains in its current state. However, if the UMC splits and segments off these disparate voices, then that might buy a few decades of church they recognize.
  2. For progressives, they know that history and demographics are on their side but the tipping point is too far in the future for their satisfaction. The progressive caucus groups have tired of the moderate piecemeal approach to justice (“justice delayed is justice denied”), and see that approach sustained by pragmatic progressives who are willing to compromise too much. Change is too far in the future. However, if the UMC splits, then that accelerates justice becoming fully embodied in segments of Methodism, which at least allows some parts of Progressivism to obtain the church of their hopes and dreams.

Nevermind the caucuses…what about LGBT persons? Honestly, it’s a mixed bag that perhaps is informed mostly by region. From the series of LGBT voices responding to “A Way Forward,” those from the Northeast (Massachusetts and New York) were most strongly opposed to AWF, whereas those in the South tended to be most appreciative of it. To those whose tipping point to a safe(r) church has already passed (unofficially), they oppose the piecemeal approach of AWF. To those who see safety and honoring their full selves to be so far away, AWF allows for pockets of resistance against the deeply Traditionalist south. I can’t presume to speak for LGBT persons: I’m just reporting what’s been written into me so far.

In summary, for the schismatic Traditionalists and Progressives (and many LGBT folks), breaking up the UMC allows both agendas to be satisfied: they can spin off from Brady or Ashland, leaving them to walk down the road to their own ruin or reign, and they both get the church they want.

Or do they?

Rivals coming to Consensus?

I think the hope for the UMC lies in the weathered churches and people that have gone through the fire and emerged on the other side.

The reality is that many churches don’t fall neatly along ideological categories and they view the current discussion about schism in the United Methodist Church with serious concern. In Amy Frykholm’s article on Schism in the United Methodist Church, she notes that schism would disproportionately hurt those churches that have done the hard work of Brady and Ashland:

To get to the point where two national churches could be formed, the church as a whole would have to allow individual churches to choose which newly formed organization they will join. There are no signs that this will happen without a bitter battle. And, as some point out, not every congregation or every United Methodist can be so neatly divided. The ax would fall hardest on congregations that have worked to bridge divides and maintain diversity in their pews.

Far from being mushy moderates, such churches could show what it looks like when the best of both sides is brought up. Like Brady and Ashland sharpening each other, the best way of being church might be formed in the crucible of ideas and polity. Unlike the rest of society that is becoming more ghettoized, the United Methodist Church has the potential to not only model unity in diversity, but also novel ways of being church to sustain us through the wave of secularism.

Maybe that’s Methodism’s gift to the world: not buildings or books or celebrity pastors, but a quiet method to life together that forsakes the ghettoization of the world around us.

And when one side feels like they have lost, they may write the extraordinary dissent, one that might be picked up in the future if the pendulum starts to swing again.


So, your turn:

  1. Do you think the best form of church will come from a team of rivals coming together or separate churches that seek out their own futures?
  2. Who ARE the churches that do not fall neatly into one side or the other and have done the hard work of bring progressives and Traditionalists together in ways that honor both?

Discuss. Thanks for your comments!

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  1. Thomas Coates says

    Thank you Jeremy– I believe we are truly better together. The challenge is, the current language in the BoD places nearly all the power in the hands of the conservatives, and any changes– many conservatives argue– would simply shift the balance in favor of Christian progressives (any change is too far).

    As a progressive Christian, I can at least respect conservatives, having been one before my own coming out experience, but I struggle with local churches in the middle– I have heard of few discussions and Holy conferencing, instead they seem to wash their hands of this: ignoring the suffering of LGBTQ persons on one hand, and the passion conservatives have in their beliefs on the other. They pretend this debate over LGBTQ persons isn’t happening. It’s so taboo that senior pastors discourage any discussion by leadership, and as your last post mentioned, this neglects the experience LGBTQ confirmations encounter during any catechesis, completely ignoring their struggles and questions regarding Scripture and faith. These churches in the middle completely write LGBTQ persons out of existence– most conservative local churches don’t even do this.

  2. says

    I don’t know that the Call to Action failed to pass because “reasonable voices” were left out, but because both extremes, who benefit from the status quo, rejected a streamlined church that could actually get something done. Otherwise, an excellent article. I think over at Via Media Methodists we are attempting to model and encourage that kind of healthy debate; also, on the new WesleyCast, we discuss the third or middle way with Allan Bevere about an alternative or middle way.

    Thanks for this, Jeremy.

    • says

      A further thought:Perhaps the catch is that Brady and Ashland have a shared language in which to fight – the language of Constitution, law, and precedent. I don’t know that Methodists have enough shared doctrinal and worldview commitments to have that kind of healthy debate – too much presumption of the liberal/conservative paradigm, too little ability to separate cultural context from discussion – and little shared language about the questions that divide us. That said, I like what you’ve written here very much – I just think we aren’t going to get anywhere until we settle our deeper and more critical matters.

  3. Creed Pogue says

    While The West Wing produced plenty of useful political anecdotes, it has some rather narrow limits. The Court continued to move to the right from 1969 when Burger was appointed to replace Warren until Ginsberg was appointed in 1993 to replace White as often mentioned by Justice Stevens who went from the “center” of the Court to the left.

    Also, in the reality that we actually inhabit, I don’t know if many of us think of the 1920s when Taft was chief justice with a conservative majority against Holmes and Brandeis as a golden time. While Harlan and Black were friends, the evidence that this added to the jurisprudence of the 1950s and 1960s is slight (to be polite).

    But, churches aren’t supposed to embody all streams of thought. The first obvious exclusion would be non-Christians. Recent evidence shows that trying to appeal to everyone results in appealing to no one.

    Finally, our problem in this context is that if Brady got a five-vote majority and governors in some states said that they would defy the decision because they believe in a “higher law” than the ones in the books. Many of us would probably agree with the impulse (others would agree if it were an Ashland decision) but we would also understand that we need to operate on a common basis if we are going to stay as one nation. The same is true of The UMC. United Methodism isn’t the state religion. No one is forced to be a member. It would be difficult to even make the argument that being a United Methodist is some sort of “benefit” in business or social interactions. Being ordained is a privilege and people take vows to obey the rules of the denomination. Those rules are determined by a democratically elected General Conference.

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