The United Methodist Church is increasingly embroiled in an ever more polarized debate over human sexuality. As the debate rages, many have called for and attempted to articulate a via media, that is, a middle way between the two divergent sides. In recent weeks and months especially, though, I’ve found the call for a middle way to be curious at least and baffling at worst. The reason? Given the diversity of those associated with the middle, it seems difficult to actually define the middle. And terms that cannot be defined are by necessity meaningless. Allow me to illustrate the difficulty.
Earlier this year, Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter outlined a proposal that articulated what they see as “A Way Forward” for the UMC in light of the sexuality debate. Hamilton has done a good job of associating himself with the idea of a “middle way,” and his plan for the Church reflects that attitude. It outlines the progressive and conservative sides and then presents a local option that the authors take to be a compromise or third way. You can see how Hamilton applies his approach to a variety of issues in his book Seeing Gray in a Black and White World.
Bill Arnold has shown (quite conclusively, in my view) that Hamilton misconstrues many of these polarizing debates by not taking account of the many and varied views on each issue in question and by assuming that a middle way is always available and preferable. Arnold levels a heavy critique of Hamilton’s way of reasoning and argues that the position of the UMC is already a middle way on a number of issues. See Arnold’s book Seeing Black and White in a Gray World. On the issue of human sexuality, Hamilton proposes as a third way that local churches and Annual Conferences make their own decisions about LGBTQ unions and ordination. In contrast, Arnold argues that the current UMC position that all persons are of “sacred worth” even though same sex practices are “incompatible with Christian teaching” is the true middle way. Hamilton affirms same sex practices; Arnold does not. Both believe they are the via media. How do we make sense of this?
Another example comes with regard to the same issue. Steve Harper’s new book For the Sake of the Bride has been touted as a “third way” through the current division. Harper’s book has quickly become well-known because, though he has been aligned with conservatives in the past, he now takes the progressive view on sexuality. In contrast, just last week Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy was said to have “joined the middle” after offering a conservative case against UMC schism. Again, Harper and Tooley come down on opposite sides of the sexuality issue, yet in the last week or so both have been described as part of via media. How do we make sense of this?
One forum that is gaining prominence in the UMC is the Via Media Methodist blog. If you haven’t seen this one, be sure to stop by. The contributors always have thoughtful insights on UMC issues, and their tone is commendable. The blog aims “to offer an alternative beyond the current polarization” in the UMC, and “raise the level of discourse within” our denomination. I’ve found this site very helpful in modeling Christian charity and respect while engaging in difficult conversations. However, for reasons outlined above, I’m still unclear on what it means to be in “the middle.” I did find an interview with Allan Bevere on the most recent edition of the Wesley Cast to be helpful. Bevere described the middle way as involving more a way of reasoning rather than a set of specific positions. Okay, so maybe the middle is a method, not a position.
But this still leaves me with questions. If two people with irreconcilable views can both be said to occupy the middle, it’s not clear to me that language of “a middle way” really gets us very far. It may help us have a conversation without it devolving into fisticuffs, and for that it is commendable, but it’s not clear to me that this is sufficient to bring about a unified United Methodist Church, which seems to be a goal of those who see themselves in the middle. If the via media is a way of thinking about an issue and not an actual position on a particular issue, how does it actually move us forward? Who can help me? What is the via media? How do I know it when I see it? What am I missing?