Will the Center Hold?

Things Fall Apart 

Perhaps W. B. Yeats got it right.  In the aftermath of the horrendous slaughter of WWI and at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, he wrote:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.  (The Second Coming)

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

In his newly-released history of civil religion (American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present), Philip Gorski says that our problem is that “the chorus of shouting drowns out the quieter voices of the vital center.”  He calls for “a new vital center” that isn’t “a mushy middle that splits the difference between Left and Right.  It is a living tradition that cuts across these divisions…something much older and also more radical.”  

When it comes to our nation, I’d say that both Yeats and Gorski are correct.  But what about the United Methodist Church?

The Vital Center Holds!  

There is a “chorus of shouting” that has been drowning out “the quieter voices of the vital center.”  They picture the UMC on the brink of disaster or division because equally faithful United Methodists hold differing biblically-rooted convictions about same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy.

But Yeats didn’t stop with a center than can’t hold.  He went on to say:  “Surely some revelation is at hand.”  

I caught a glimpse of that “new vital center” when I gathered in Nashville this week with 48 church leaders from all five Jurisdictions of the church, 27 of whom were under 45 years old.  The spirit of the gathering was as energizing as it was encouraging.

We were drawn together because we share a Spirit-led conviction that there is still a vital center in Methodism that is neither a mushy middle of ecclesiological niceness nor casual compromise of conflicting convictions.

The “vital center” is faithful to scripture, formed by our Wesleyan spiritual and theological tradition, passionate about our mission, energized by disciplines of prayer and utterly dependent on the leading of the Spirit of God.

We believe the genuine center of United Methodism is composed of faithful disciples who are connected at the center of our mission and ministry while honoring our differences around the circumference. In the spirit of John Wesley, we say, “Though we may not think alike, may we not love alike? If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.”  

No one was naïve about the depth of our differences or the possibility that our denominational debates may pull us apart. We know that the denominational structures through which we’ve done ministry in the past are inadequate for the future. But we are committed to searching together for the means by which we can bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in our mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world.

This gathering was just the beginning of a witness that will gain clarity as more people “whose hearts are as our hearts” are drawn into the conversation.

A Witness of Hope 

I’m convinced that the hope of the UMC is in its new generation of leaders who are committed to “a living tradition that cuts across these divisions.”  It’s a deeply Wesleyan tradition that is “much older and also more radical” than institutional inertia or denominational politics.

It’s time for the quieter voices at the vibrant center of United Methodism to rise up with a hope-filled, Spirit-energized, world-transforming affirmation of the “vital center” of our life together.  A deeply polarized nation is desperately in need of our witness!

Grace and peace,

Jim

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14 thoughts on “Will the Center Hold?

  1. Amen and amen!!! Thanks for this Jim.

    In Christ,

    Pastor Debbie

    “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians‬ ‭5‬:‭16-18‬ NIV)

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  4. Brilliantly written and encouraged by the possibilities of hope and grace! So grateful for your leadership!

  5. Pastor Jim,

    I appreciate this, but I am really struggling with the Center approach. (This is a long email. Written mostly to get this out of my head and heart). It is not the theology or the Wesleyan principle that is the challenge: I understand and believe it is the righ spiritual work to discern what is central to the our Christian (or better yet Christ-like) calling and accept that the rest is open for debate and not division. But in practice, it is challenging because the Center is decided by the people in the church (all of our denominations) who have the most power and privilege.

    As an African American woman, I have learned about the work that it took for the UMC to formally abandon discrimination against African Americans. Even though I am only 47, I have been subject to much “preaching” on the scriptures that support slavery (“even though now we understand that their is a new plan”), the unoriginal sin of discrimination against black people in American, how blacks should not be enslaved, but are separate from whites as the “cursed descendants of Cain” or “offspring of Ham”. The challenge with all of this, is that the voices in the UMC deciding the issue were the center of privilege as white males. In practice, white males were assumed to be fully accepted in the kingdom and then they were deciding who else to let in. Ultimately, it was determined that African Americans could be “let in”, and we are still fighting to erase racism and the divisions it creates in the UMC. I believe that the progress we have made is because there has been a significant shift in the perception of what was considered the center of the Gospel.

    I am not a lesbian, so I am speculating about the similarities between race and sexuality. It seems as though the practice of discerning the center is still vulnerable to the same bias b/c we as a denomination are trying to make the case for whether homosexuals are (1) like heterosexuals (2) who are accepted without any reference in the Book of Discipline.

    It seems as though, on these issues, that Jesus was decidedly outside the center. Eating with people who were, without ambiguity, unclean by the Scripture of His day: lepers, women who had committed adultery, Samaritans. His ministry put them at the center – it was for the rich, the pious, the adults – to get themselves in.

    I just watched a documentary on the Freedom Riders, so I my head is full of the Movement today. I am not suggesting that this decision has to cost the unified UMC, but I don’t think we really get to “do justice” if we keep all of our privilege intact. Methodists were willing to exclude blacks, and Richard Allen started a new Methodist branch. I can’t imagine accepting a spiritual exhortation to accept being less than whites in the Book of Discipline for the sake of the unified UMC. I think for the arc of the moral universal to bend towards justice, the center has to shift. . .when the center shifts doesn’t that cost something for those of us who are use to privilege?

    Maybe this is what I’m wrestling with: When the young rich man came to Jesus asking to follow Him, Jesus told him to sell his possessions to the poor. Getting Jesus cost something. Jesus had to lay down his and his culture/religion’s prejudice against Samaritans to heal the Samaritan mother’s child. I don’t know that this has to cost the unified UMC, but it seems as though our history shouldn’t be repeated: the excluded pay the cost of unity.

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  7. Dear Jim,

    I don’t think you have to draw together a group of younger clergy to know where the broad center of the United Methodist stands on the issue of homosexuality. Over the past 40 years, the broad center has articulated, refined and voted on its position over and over again, formalizing it in the Book of Discipline. The broad center has said that every person has sacred worth. As compared to many other denominations and churches this is a centrist position. Our current position which takes the views of our fellow Methodist from around the world and the traditional stance of the Church seriously is a centrist view.

    The broad center of the United Methodist Church believes in a plain reading of scripture. They are not biblical literalist, but they believe that overall the scriptures are clear on sexual ethics. They see in scripture clear teaching on homosexuality that is not diminished by the clear and high view of God’s love found in the Bible. They don’t believe that you should have to ignore one part of the narrative in order to embrace another part of the narrative. They choose an understandable, rational and holistic interpretation of scripture.

    The broad center of United Methodist Church still believes in sanctification. The love of God is a fundamental teaching of scripture. But another pervasive and fundamental teaching of scripture is that people who put their faith in the LORD are transformed. The broad center understands that they are being transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit and are in the process of being made holy. The broad center rejects the claim that homosexuality is somehow exempt from sanctification. Just because something feels natural and instinctual does not make it holy and right. Most of us in the broad center have things that feel natural but must undergo a transformation in the process of sanctification.

    Jim, you and the group you are meeting with are welcome to offer solutions and insights on how the United Methodist Church can move forward, but there is no need to try and speak for the broad center. They have already spoken.

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