I’m very thankful to Shelley Walters who sent in the following guest contribution as she advocates for a resolution to be considered by annual conferences as they begin their 2023 season. I certainly resonate with her call to “stop settling for crumbs” at such a time as this, and to reclaim the middle ground from those who have scorched the earth. Read on.
Have We Lost Sight of the Middle?
A Resolution for Annual Conference Consideration
Early in its inception in England, the people called Methodists found themselves caught between contentious factions of the Anglican Church’s “High church” and “Low church.” Their ultimate solution was to seek and use a third path. With awakened insight and a focus on the needs of common people, future Methodists moved forward using a via media, a middle way. Even in the present day – especially here in Texas – when a Southern Baptist and a Presbyterian get married, often they find a middle way for their family in The United Methodist Church.
Given this “middle way” tradition and the splintering currently taking place in our U.S. churches, it is understandable that many in our denomination are wondering, “Who are we now?” “Where is our new middle?” And, “What is the middle way?”
“Middle Way” Resolution on the Table
A resolution being proposed in a number of Annual Conferences taking place this summer leans on our tradition and offers a middle way. The resolution expresses support for removing current language and practices from the Book of Discipline that exclude and harm LGBTQ persons. But as the resolution gets shared, it is clear that we do not understand where our ideological middle exists now.
Here in Texas, as we circulate this resolution, some have said the plan is divisive and polarizing, or that it is not the time for any such legislative tactics. This feedback makes me wonder what reaction a truly polarizing approach might receive, a resolution that actually counters the extreme measures of exclusion and punishment that the “Traditional Plan” adopted in 2019 brought to our Church.
The resolution being proposed is not a “progressive” resolution. A “progressive” resolution would likely include things like the following basic, non-discriminatory and non-punitive policies:
- Protecting LGBTQ employees of UM churches so they cannot be fired or forced out of employment for reasons related to their sexual orientation, or
- Preventing boards from including sexual orientation or gender identity as a factor for ordination, or
- Recommending pastors marry same-sex couples, or
- Encouragement of giving to organizations that support LGBTQ-related causes, or
- Ensuring that spouses of LGBTQ pastors or transgender children of pastors have health benefits.
For decades, progressive-leaning members of The UMC have not dared to dream of these kinds of “radical” (healing, non-discriminatory) possibilities. Instead, we have been faithfully compromising and working hard for what few safe spaces, policies, and practices can remain. We have been settling – settling to ask only for crumbs, begging for basic human rights. Thus, the false middle now appears to be somewhere between the passive “please just don’t hurt people anymore” and a threatening “punish them all or we’re out.”
Instead of claiming a center path–a middle way, with a simple striking of the harmful language–fearful attention is being paid to every conservative church’s disaffiliation vote, while those working for inclusion are yet again pleading for an already-compromised, basic, and bare-bones way to stop harm.
Changing the Narrative
It’s also important to note that, while conservative church disaffiliations are making news and being allowed (directly and indirectly) influential power in decision-making, some progressive United Methodists have exited. And they’ve chosen to exit much more quietly in order to preserve their well-being and protect their families. They have been leaving without luring local churches with them, and without leading disinformation campaigns to rally deeper divide. This conservative influence, coupled with the loss of a vocal progressive contingency, has produced an even more obscure view of where a Methodist middle might be.
Those fearful of losing more members need to know that progressive United Methodists share our denominational leaders’ goals of spreading the Gospel, making disciples, and growing the Body of Christ – even though the steps progressive churches are taking are different. Many of our inclusive churches are thriving, in part because we have made public statements of commitment to ending harm to our LGBTQ siblings, because we have pledged support to qualified queer candidates in their ordination process, because we have stated openness to perform same-sex marriages, and because we have withheld a percentage of our apportionments and instead given them to organizations that help undo the harm to the LGBTQ community – harm that we have taken part in.
These actions may – especially to those who have fallen prey to fear – look divisive on a larger scale. These actions may even look extreme if you cannot see where the middle path might be. But these are faithful actions we have needed to take as a part of keeping our communities whole and unified to the larger body.
With a skewed understanding of the middle, the resolution to remove language harmful to LGBTQ people can appear to be a radical progressive move, but it just gets us back in neutral instead of in reverse.
When my car engine failed on the highway mere weeks after I got my driver’s license, I was glad my dad had taught me to put it in neutral to coast to the shoulder safely. I do not proclaim to know much about cars, but I do know the neutral gear is very helpful during emergencies and mechanical failure. That “N” on the gearstick is in the middle, between D and R for a good reason – a third option that is neither drive or reverse.
What would it look like for this Church we call United Methodist to shift into neutral on LGBTQ inclusion as we struggle in mechanical failure?
This resolution only removes language and practices actively harming people – it does not drive us in any direction. This resolution would only stop the bleeding, and place us in neutral or coast – it would not even begin the journey toward a bridge of healing.
What might it look like if we looked to tradition and found a via media to help us navigate this challenging time? What if the best via media in today’s context is going into neutral?
What might it look like to meet in our true middle and stop the harm?
About the Author: Shelley Walters is a lifelong United Methodist who has served in ministry for over 17 years. She holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Texas and her MDiv from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Shelley co-curates the weekly curriculum Bread for our Journey and serves as Director of Faith Development at Saint John’s United Methodist Church in Austin.
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