It can often be a strategic move, though not always an honest one, for candidates in U.S. politics to try to tell everyone that they are “centrist” or “moderate” in the midst of divisive controversies.
Such wording is intended to try to convince as many voters as possible that this politician is reasonable, and that the positions s/he takes are the sort that as wide a range of voters as possible may find tolerable.
I have seen similar dynamics at work in mainline church politics.
This week, there is a big meeting of a new unofficial caucus of some within the United Methodist Church calling themselves the “Uniting Methodists.” This group claims to occupy a “centrist” or “Methodist middle” position within the spectrum of our divided denomination.
Indeed, lately I have anecdotally noticed a trend of some aggressively liberal leaders within the UMC recently making a big point of claiming the “centrist” label for themselves, without any apparent moderation of their views.
Some confusion may have been caused by how some of this particular group’s leaders were once evangelicals, and have built reputations on that basis, but then (most tragically!) recently shifted to become much more theologically revisionist. Others are not as well known. And for other leaders, well, let’s just say that if a national leader of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a long-time senior staffer for resurrection-denying Bishop Joseph Sprague, and enthusiastic supporters of Karen Oliveto are all unquestionably qualified as “centrist United Methodists,” then the phrase has little meaning.
If we look beyond our denomination, and even beyond lily-white dying oldline American ones, then arguably a United Methodist involved in a renewal caucus like IRD/UMAction is much more “centrist” within the wider body of Christ. After all, there are many more Christians who would raise eyebrows at my support for women’s ordination than have even heard of folk like John Shelby Spong or the Jesus Seminar.
Several attempts to seek concrete answers of “Uniting Methodists” beyond the lofty rhetoric have not been fruitful. One of my own inquiries seeking basic information from a “Uniting Methodists” leader was met with an extreme and unprovoked degree of hostility. Scott Fritzsche has publicly asked several good questions, while observing “I’m really trying to understand and ask questions to do so like I keep getting told I need to, but it is proving difficult to get any sort of actual answer.” Rev. Dr. Stephen Rankin also raised several good questions, and reported having reached out in writing to some of the “Uniting Methodists” leaders and not hearing back. Rev. Dr. Bob Phillips wrote an extremely gracious, conciliatory blog post asking six key questions of the caucus, including:
- “Do any of the board members personally believe and publically affirm agreement with the existing teaching of the church that ‘the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching?’”
- “What is the UNIMETH prophetic word to the Western Jurisdiction and conferences and bishops currently operating in open disobedience of the Discipline?”
- “Is the movement basically a single-issue lobby group?”
If for the sake of argument we limit our scope to the United Methodist sliver of the body of Christ, it would seem that a fair measure of “centrism” would be to see if a professed “centrist” advocates some truly middle position that would involve significant concessions from both major sides of polarizing controversies within the UMC. Or if someone outspokenly promotes an unabashedly liberal position on one major issue, they may perhaps be no less outspokenly conservative on other issues. There are many like this within the UMC.
So how have the leaders of “Uniting Methodists” been involved in key denominational controversies? Has it been in a “centrist” way? While there has been some talk of this particular group representing “centrists,” is this really fair to genuine United Methodist centrists?
Given the lack of responsiveness from leaders of this caucus, I have examined what I could find in the public record.
For talk of a “center” within an ideological spectrum, we should focus on controversies related to theology and/or values within the UMC, rather than more boring, non-ideological administrative questions. Given how some people’s beliefs change over time, I will focus on activities since 2011, the year of preparation for the General Conference before last. And rather than try to read anyone’s minds or betray the contents of any off-record dialogues I have had, I will focus on only times when these individuals have valued and prioritized issues enough to take a clear public stand.
What I have found is that on one major divisive issue after another, there is a remarkably consistent pattern, for the most part, of “Uniting Methodists” leaders individually and/or collectively aligning themselves with a narrow minority faction of liberal Americans, and in direct opposition to more traditionalist and genuinely centrist perspectives.
In the days ahead, I will have separate articles examining the public record of the “Uniting Methodists” leadership team on the following issues:
For the record, if anyone from within this caucus sees some real common ground and would be willing to work with me as an ally on any of these areas above, even while we disagree with others, I would welcome that. But of course, this would require a commitment to honestly addressing the extent of the challenges in our church, and moving past the rhetoric, posturing, and claiming “Peace, peace” when there is no peace.
I would also welcome correction in the comments of any of my articles if I have missed anything major.
For now, it is noteworthy to observe the significant overlap between the leadership team of “Uniting Methodists” and leading activists of other factional liberal caucuses. (I have put stars by the names of members of the former.)
*Dave Nuckols is a national board member of the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), the main unofficial caucus seeking to liberalize the UMC’s morality on marriage and sex. At last year’s General Conference, *Ginger Gaines-Cirelli spoke at an RMN press conference. The previous year, she and her associate pastor at the time, *Theresa Thames appeared in a pro-same-sex-marriage video on the RMN website. Gaines-Cirelli and *Rachel Baugham both pastor congregations which have formally affiliated with RMN. *James Howell has written multiple pieces for RMN.
Anyone terribly familiar with the activities of the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) has seen how while it is technically an apportionment-funded agency of our whole denomination, it de facto operates like a factional caucus group of only the most liberal American United Methodists. *Lonnie Chafin and *Howell were both GBCS board members in the 2012-2016 quadrennium, and *Chafin has continued in that role.
*Doug Damron and *Mike Slaughter are both founding leaders of the misleadingly named “United Methodist Centrist Movement” (UMCM) within their West Ohio Conference. Not long after its founding, this group formally aligned itself with the conference chapters of RMN and MFSA to support their shared goal of trying to ensure that as few evangelicals as possible were elected as General and Jurisdictional Conference delegates. Page 11 of the Summer 2016 Katalyst magazine reports that * Damron gave RMN a public donation in honor of David Meredith, a homosexually partnered clergyman who remains under complaint, and his “husband.”
I am not aware of any “Uniting Methodists” leader with a similar level of involvement in a traditionalist caucus like the Wesleyan Covenant Association or any member group of the Renewal and Reform Coalition.
On the other hand, several “Uniting Methodists” leaders have strongly criticized more conservative caucuses, especially IRD/UMAction and the Wesleyan Covenant Association. For example, *Damron and *Slaughter’s UMCM group has repeatedly cast itself in opposition to IRD/UMAction and the Wesleyan Covenant Association. *Abby Carter Stanton has expressed her agreement with the judgment that her fellow United Methodists at IRD are “the cancer on American religion.”
Several years ago, *James Howell’s congregation hosted a showing of “Renewal or Ruin?” a supposed exposé against United Methodists involved in IRD/UMAction and our “revolting” and “diabolical” intention it claims we have of “destroy[ing] the United Methodist Church.” *Howell’s new caucus now claiming to champion of “mutual cooperation with Christ-like love and honest, humble conversation” hardly squares with his own evident willingness to spread blatant false-witness-bearing against fellow United Methodists. And while seeking election as delegate to the 2012 General Conference, *Howell at one point declared on social media that his “primary reason for staying in” the running was to “stand up to Maxie,” in apparent reference to civil-rights hero, former Asbury Seminary president, Confessing Movement leader, and evangelical United Methodist titan Maxie Dunnam.
I am not aware of any leader of “Uniting Methodists” offering any remotely equivalent level of direct criticism of liberal caucuses, let alone of declaring that their “primary” goal at General Conference was to “stand up” to liberal leaders from the Western Jurisdiction.
The bolded sentences above are invitations to leave comments below if I have missed anything major.
UPDATE: The initial “uniting conference” for this group featured an RMN employee as one of its key speakers, and an outspoken activist from the UMC Queer Clergy Caucus as one of the co-leaders of closing worship. The latter caucus had earlier released a statement with a lot of rhetoric complaining that the Uniting Methodists Movement (UMM) was allegedly not moving quickly enough towards the shared goal of LGBTQ liberation, but ultimately making clear that this far-left, covenant-breaking caucus “look[s] forward to working with … our kin in the UMM.”