A Cautionary Tale
By Jeff Greenway
May 21, 2019
A lot can happen in five years. In 2014, the call for unity was strong within The United Methodist Church and persons who spoke about the growing division because of our deeply held differences were called schismatic. In 2019, growing numbers of leaders from across the UM Church are calling for some form of separation. The Council of Bishops recent statement called our present situation untenable. It remains to be seen if our denomination will either right itself and restore good order to the church – or give birth to two or three separate forms of Methodism.
One indicator of what the future holds will be seen in who is elected to represent the annual and central conferences of our global church to the 2020 General, jurisdictional, and central conferences. In some regions of the US there is a concerted effort to shift the theological and ideological “center” of the church through these elections. I have seen it happen firsthand.
During my life as an elder in the UM Church, I have been a delegate to five General Conferences, chaired legislative committees, served as a member of denominational boards and agencies, been a local church pastor and district superintendent, and served a short time as a seminary president. Through those experiences, I developed a reputation for being a reasonable, irenic, and conciliatory moderate evangelical. I have always had circles of influence broader than my commitments, and have been known as a bridge-builder who has the capacity to develop consensus.
Because of that reputation, in the summer of 2014, I was invited to the formational meeting of a new group in the West Ohio Conference describing itself as “centrist” to see if there was a way we could dial back the rhetoric and center our efforts and energies on the mission of the church. I have always seen myself in the “center” of the best of our Wesleyan tradition – trying to balance a passion for souls with compassion for people. The call for “unity” was the siren call of the church at that time. I attended. After all, who would not want to help keep the church together? I have always focused on the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
However, I realized the intent of the new and ostensibly centrist organization was to shift the theological balance of the church from its actual center to the left. The stated intention of the “centrist” agenda was described in a white paper shared at the meeting: “to marginalize the influence of the ‘radical right’ and ‘radical left’ – because these voices do not represent the perspectives of the center majority of United Methodist clergy and laity in North America.”
As those who convened the meeting spoke and defined “radical right,” I realized I – a bridge-building, conciliatory evangelical moderate who has always kept the covenants of our polity – was “radical right” in their eyes because I stood firmly on a traditional view of the authority of scripture regarding our sexual ethics and orthodox doctrine. I did not fit their new definition of “centrist,” and therefore was representative of those they wanted to move aside. I refused to join, as did almost every other evangelical and some moderates in the conversation. I knew they were not true “centrists’ in our tradition because one cannot be “centrist” and only look to the left. The few evangelicals who remained eventually embraced a progressive evangelicalism. I predicted at that time that this move would fragment and further divide the church in our conference by weakening the voice of reasonable evangelicals and moderates.
The most telling step in this rise of “centrism” in my conference took place a year later – four years ago this month – when “centrists” and “progressives” announced they had joined forces and developed a “Centrist Progressive” slate of nominees in preparation for General Conference elections. The slate was devoid of orthodox evangelicals. This new political alliance had a 55 percent plurality of votes among the clergy, and consequently no orthodox evangelical clergy were elected to General Conference from West Ohio. They had not only determined who the “radical right” was and cut it off as schismatic, but had now also embraced and partnered with the “radical left.” In my conference, many folks who thought they were voting for the “unity” of the church by voting “centrist/progressive” in the elections of 2015 have found the subsequent shift in power and focus has left them out. In the meantime, those who have preached and called for “tolerance” now seem to have little tolerance for those who do not share their views.
Across the church, there have been all kinds of groups trying to tell us we can all get along, and that a shift to the One Church Plan is inevitable. In the run up to the special General Conference earlier this year, One Church Plan advocates made promises to those who hold traditional views regarding our sexual ethics and foundational doctrines of Scripture, Sin, Salvation and Sanctification. We were promised we would not have to compromise our principles, cave on our convictions, or change our deeply held beliefs if the plan was adopted. However, in every place this new “centrism” is embraced, those who hold a traditional view are eventually marginalized or excluded altogether.
I believe one of the many reasons the rancor resulting from our most recent General Conference is so acerbic is it does not fit the “center majority” of the “new centrists.” If you do not believe me take a look at the emails and social media posts coming from the “new centrists.” They have far more in common with radical progressives than they do with reasonable, irenic, moderate evangelicals. The new centrists have called for protests and boycotts of meetings being held in churches being led by traditionalist clergy. The new centrists have celebrated acts of ecclesial disobedience, protest, and disruption, while attacking the perspectives that were once guaranteed protection. In my conference, our “centrist” group recently posted and celebrated on Facebook an event sponsored by one of our United Methodist seminaries that celebrated drag queens and alternative lifestyles, yet every recent article coming from the Wesleyan Covenant Association is re-posted with the header “The latest from the Death Star….” Again, those who have taught “tolerance” have become some of the most intolerant people I know, and those who have held and been faithful to our denominational covenant are seen as the problem.
This may not apply in your context, but let me share it as a cautionary tale. As you prepare to vote for delegates to General Conference, you may want to remember that you cannot be in the “center” if you only look to the left. This movement is called many things in many places – Uniting Methodists, Mainstream UMC, United Methodist Centrist Movement, the Broader Table Coalition, compatibilist, and the One Church Plan. Not all of these groups use the same rhetoric, but they do have the same goal: a desire to change our denomination’s definition of marriage and drive decisions regarding our sexual ethics to the annual conference and local church levels. It is a Trojan Horse. In every other denomination that has adopted this new “center,” persons who hold a historic, orthodox view on these matters are not welcome for long.
As you approach annual conference elections, choose wisely.
The Rev. Dr. Jeff Greenway is the senior pastor at Reynoldsburg United Methodist Church in Reynoldsburg, Ohio and the chairman of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council.