• Matt O'Reilly

On Priorities, Positions, and the #UMC Via Media (@eJoelWatts)


I raised a few questions last week about the current call among United Methodists for a via media (or a middle way) that might preserve our unity through our current and very deep division. My questions were focused around this central point: 

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.

The post provoked a variety of responses. Some agreed with the call for a middle way; others were suspicious of it. One post that aimed to answer some of my questions came from Joel Watts. He suggests that the via media is more about priorities than it is a position on any particular issue. Joel puts it this way:

I would say it is not a way of thinking about an issue but about priorities. I have argued consistently for a return to a theological grounding. I believe if we focus on affirming the proper role of Scripture, on what it means to be human, and how to stand as a Protestant in the Great Tradition, we can slowly began to answer the questions posed by all of the fields related to the issue of inclusion.
For me, via media is not the middle between left/progressive and right/conservative — because those two sides are usually defined, or start with, the issue of LGBT. Rather, the via media is about placing orthodoxy before other issues. Thus, we argue for orthodoxy and attempt to build up from there.

I’m grateful to Joel for taking my questions seriously. I’ve been tossing his response around for the last few days and now want to offer a couple of thoughts in reply. First, it seems to me a false step to set our theological priorities against the positions we hold. Is it not the case that our priorities influence, perhaps even determine, the positions we hold? For example, Joel prioritizes order and episcopal oversight. This leads him to take a position that opposes the various current acts of ecclesial disobedience happening in the UMC. He argues for LGBTQ inclusion, but not at the expense of order and discipline. This ranking of priorities results in particular positions on specific issues. Sometimes priorities are positions.

Second, Joel suggests that human sexuality is not a doctrinal matter on the level of the Trinity, Christology, or baptism, to mention a few. But this claim raises at least one question. How does the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity relate to marriage and sexual ethics? In Genesis 1, the relationship of heterosexual covenant monogamy is intimately interwoven with the bestowal of the image of God on the man and the woman. At the very least, this raises the possibility that our doctrine of God and our sexual ethics have much to do with one another and cannot be so easily separated into distinct levels of priority. This may give us some insight as to why matters of sexuality are such lightning rod issues. Perhaps different attitudes towards human sexuality emerge from fundamentally different visions of God and what it means to bear the image of God. So, I’m not quite satisfied with the claim that we can find a way forward by prioritizing orthodoxy over sexual ethics. 

Again, I’m grateful to Joel for the seriousness with which he took my questions, and I’m grateful to him for taking the time to offer some thoughts in reply. Likewise, I’ve aimed to take his suggestions seriously (even if I’m not finally satisfied by them) by reflecting carefully on them before posting my reservations. As many of us have said before, we need respectful dialogue on matters over which we disagree, and I’m always grateful for the opportunity to be involved in that sort of conversation. In the end, though, I find unhelpful the suggestion that the middle way is about priorities and not positions. Our priorities and our positions are bound tightly together and likely determine one another. It is essential that we recognize this if we are to understand ourselves and each other. 

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