How moderates and “Middle Methodists” are on the menu for the next 3 years of United Methodism.
During the November 2017 Uniting Methodists conference of moderate and “Middle Methodists,” there was a crazy uptick in posts at one of the paid caucus groups’ websites. Within six days of the conference, the Institute on Religion and Democracy* had published seven blog posts containing 11,366 words on the topic. While most posts by that organization are that long (and unreadable), it’s still surprising to have so much single-topic content in a short span of time. Two more posts in the days following resulted in a total of 15,554 words spent talking about moderates and Middle Methodists.
The volume of writings on one topic doesn’t bother me–this website has even more written on the Wesleyan Covenant Association, after all. But this particular group doesn’t attack the powerful. Like birds of prey searching for the wounded, they write most about vulnerable classes of people (LGBTQ and allies and their UM staff have a unique obsession with Bishop Oliveto) and vulnerable institutions (seminaries and conferences). We know from years of engagement that their pattern is to focus on folks who they think they “have something on” or just want to bully publicly.
So why would middle Methodists, who constitute the majority of American Methodism, suddenly be perceived as vulnerable enough to merit sustained dives from those circling above?
Wary and Wounded
Perhaps moderate and “Middle Methodists” are feeling like they have something to lose. In truth, if schism is in United Methodism’s future, they do stand to lose a lot.
Moderates occupy the churches that are most vulnerable to an either/or split. Churches that are 60/40 might lose half their congregation if they were forced to choose with which denomination to affiliate.
Already congregations are holding harmful votes to join the Wesleyan Covenant Association—votes that Reconciling churches have long avoided because they don’t want to harm churches that haven’t done the long discernment. 60/40 or 65/35 splits are harmful to the church, and LGBTQ inclusion advocates have long tried to avoid them out of care for the congregations.
So moderates and Middle Methodists are vulnerable, perhaps for the first time in a long while. Is this why everyone focused on the Middle Methodists all of the sudden?
Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.
~ Archimedes, 3rd Century BCE (various versions on wikiquote)
Maybe they are being focused on because of what Middle Methodist support could mean to the future of United Methodism.
A fulcrum is a pivot point where a larger object can be moved with a long board (a lever). No matter how long the lever is, it is the fulcrum that matters most.
In this analogy, Middle Methodists are the fulcrum, the pivot point that enables the agendas of several competing groups who are vying for their participation:
- To conservative evangelicals, retaining Middle Methodists allows them to stop the flood of secular and ecclesial inclusion of LGBTQ persons by walling off a large evangelical, mainline denomination for the next generation. They would be able to claim the only one of the “Seven Sisters of Protestantism” that hasn’t allowed partial/full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of their denomination. The Wesleyan Covenant Association entices with fundraising, large pulpits, and veneration of success to appeal to Middle Methodists.
- To progressives, Middle Methodists are a community that can tolerate full or incremental inclusion of LGBTQ people. Also, to have the largest Evangelical denomination yet to affirm the inclusion of LGBTQ persons would be a significant step forward—just as Methodists ordaining women was a step forward for women inside and outside the Church.
- In tandem with conservative evangelicals, outside paid caucus groups like the aforementioned Institute for Religion and Democracy profit off of silencing progressive and Middle Methodist social witness that years of schism would cause. Expulsion of Progressives would also be the only “win” that the IRD can claim, having failed to turn The Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) to full exclusion and instead had to settle for being funded by smaller breakaway (and waning) denominations.
Everyone is out for the Middle Methodists as the keys to transforming the social and ecclesial landscape. Each group wants them on their side for their preferred future for the Church.
They have to go somewhere
I’m not a Middle Methodist. I serve a progressive church in a progressive conference in a progressive jurisdiction (Seattle: Pacific Northwest: Western Jurisdiction). It is a place of privilege where I get to live out progressive United Methodist values without fear of retribution, and I’m thankful to be building that perspective (it’s a new appointment for me as of July 1st, 2017)
From the outside, then, my view is that Middle Methodism feel like an endangered species in the United Methodist ecosystem. Like any species, when its natural habitat is threatened, they have to either evolve or move.
They can choose the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Like people who voted for Trump, there is an appeal to a populist movement with gilded sanctuaries and massive crowds. But just as the Trump Presidency has revealed to be subservient to the powerful, the only beneficiaries and decision-makers are the same power players that have run the Good News, Confessing, and United Theological/Asbury Seminary for decades. Nothing changes and gay kids are still born to straight parents, leading to this cycle all over again.
But I hope the Middle Methodists will be part of whatever future that leads to full or incremental inclusion of LGBTQ people. It was hard for the Middle when clergywomen got full ordination, and when African American clergy could serve white churches. It was hard for the diverse and divided Middle…I get it. But look at how much stronger we are than before–and how much trouble contemporary denominations born of schism have with women.
A Way Forward Together
Ultimately, I hope there is an ecosystem for Middle Methodists, Progressives, and Conservative Evangelicals. I believe all the elements are there: a robust Wesleyan theology that has constantly evolved since its inception, a track record of placing mission above theological disputes, and younger successful evangelicals in the South who are not anti-gay. It will take concerted conservation efforts, but it’s possible.
But I know the cultural elements against such an ecosystem are also very strong: anti-institutionalism, uncertainty leading to embrace of bombastic authority, polarization in our media diets, and the incredible wealth driving either a progressive expulsion or ecclesial division, fueled by wealthy Baby Boomers desperate for a win their children and grandchildren don’t want.
May we overcome all that and no longer see one another as fulcrums for agendas but rather fellow listeners to the Spirit that calls women, persons of color, and LGBTQ persons equally to serve God and transform the world.
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* The IRD’s practice is to not link to Hacking Christianity and instead refer to the blog and blogger without links (Riley Case has the same policy). Therefore, we also do not link to the IRD. Google them if you like.