by Bishop Mike Coyner (Retired)
Recently I received a phone call from a friend, a retired UM pastor, to discuss the events of the 2019 General Conference. He then asked me, “Do you think the Methodist Middle has collapsed?”
His question was in reference to an article that I wrote in the 1990’s when I was serving as bishop in the Dakotas Area. Our UMC was in turmoil around the trial of Rev. Jimmy Creech over his officiating a ceremony to celebrate a same-gender union (same-gender weddings were not legal at that time). Here is an excerpt from that article:
“This message is an affirmation for the ‘Methodist Middle.’ Those in the Methodist Middle are not in the middle-of-the-road just to avoid issues. They try to center their life and faith in Jesus Christ, and they believe in the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit to guide and direct their lives and their church. Those in the Methodist Middle resent the attempts by the far-left and the far-right to damage our denomination. Perhaps it is time for the Methodist Middle to be heard.”
So my friend’s question has haunted me. Has our Methodist Middle collapsed into the kind of polarization that characterizes our political culture in the US? Have the “left” and the “right” succeeded in dividing our church to the extent that the Methodist Middle cannot hold us together?
Or — and this is an alternate perspective to explore — has the Methodist Middle become awakened by the embarrassing behavior and unconstitutional decisions of the 2019 General Conference? We are now seeing hundreds of clergy post newspaper articles to decry the actions of General Conference. We are hearing many of the Methodist Middle congregations considering withholding funds from the denomination (something which I find repulsive as one who has always supported our church even during disagreements). But I hear the concern as people are saying, “This current divisiveness is not who we are.”
Do these anecdotal experiences mean our Methodist Middle has collapsed, or do these mean that a large portion of our church is awakened and unhappy with the ways the “left” and the “right” seem hell-bent on destroying our church?
Indeed our very character as Methodists is at stake. We have always been the church (and the authentic Wesleyan movement) of the BOTH/AND:
- We are BOTH evangelical and social activists.
- We believe in personal holiness AND in social holiness.
- Our mission statement affirms BOTH making disciples and transforming the world.
- We are all about faith AND works.
- We affirm discipline AND grace.
- We are BOTH local and global in our organization.
The heart of our church — what I call the Methodist Middle — seems to be awakening and saying, “We can be better than this.”
If it is true that our Methodist Middle is awakening and ready to reform our denomination, here are the places to start:
- With the words of Jesus about the two great commandments (love of God and love of neighbor)
- With the words of John Wesley, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity”
- With the general rules of Methodists: do not harm, do good, stay in love with God
Once we master those items, then we are eligible to have Christian conversations about other issues.