A pastor friend recently used the term “The Radical Center” to describe himself. He meant that he was not extremely liberal or extremely conservative, and he was saying that he thought most Methodists (and most people, for that matter) are somewhere in the center. The solution to all of the divisiveness in the church, according to him, is to reclaim this center ground, and minimize the extremes of both ends.
Sounds neat, but it doesn’t work for me; I am not in the center, I am liberal. I am an honest-to-God “progressive.” If you are going to label me, label me left wing. Likewise my friends, like Shawn, Jeremy, and Mitch (whom I know personally) and John the Methodist, Joseph, and Larry B. (whom I know virtually) are not in the center, they are conservative. They may not be right wing extremists, but they are definitely "across the aisle" from me. (Before you react: Labels work for descriptive purposes, and yes, I appreciate their inadequacies, but nonetheless I’m using them here to make my point.)
And so, for me, the solution to the divisiveness in the church is not to artificially move to the center purely in order to find common ground. That would not be authentic to who I am, nor to whom any of us are. The solution is to learn how to have conversations with people from all points on the spectrum without needing to pretend like we agree on stuff, when we really don’t. The solution is to learn how to speak openly and honestly with one another, grounded in the love of God, seeking to build one another up in love, and disagreeing about our ideas and beliefs with vigor and integrity, but without beating each other up.
I would like to elevate this idea to the level of denominational doctrine. I would like a General Conference resolution to say that United Methodists do not agree on some things, but we love each other anyway. And further, that we can be United Methodists together without needing to agree about everything. I think I read somewhere that “love does not insist on its own way.” (It may be in the Bible, but since I am a liberal, my Biblical literacy is obviously suspect ;) ) Now, my liberal ideas and beliefs are mine, and I’ll go to bat for them any day, with scripture, tradition, reason, and experience undergirding everything. And I know that Shawn, Jeremy, Mitch, and everyone else will do the same with their ideas and beliefs. And yet somehow we might just manage to love one another in the midst of it all. Imagine that!
Here’s how bad things are: United Methodists even divide ourselves up when we share meals together. The next time you go to a connectional event, pay attention to who goes to lunch with whom. 95% of the time, people with shared theological/political/social perspectives eat together. I know I have been guilty of it in the past. No more! In fact, all of us ought to be able to name at least a handful of friends with whom you disagree and with whom you’ve eaten a meal in the last year. And not for the purpose of hashing out your differences, either – just to share a meal, pure and simple. (Or maybe a cup of coffee. Or, since it’s summer, maybe an ice cream cone or a Grant’s Grasshopper Concrete from Sheridan’s Frozen Custard. Mmmm, minty.) Sorry, where was I?
I think this is partly a generational issue. I really think that younger people have an easier time getting along with each other than our elders do. And so I have hope that in the future, young Methodist clergy will not fall into the “us versus them” pattern our elders set for us. (I was stunned when a liberal clergy member approached me at Annual Conference the morning after my ordination with a list of names and informed me for whom “we” would be voting in the next rounds of General Conference elections.) It is starting NOW with twenty- and thirty-year-old clergy who will intentionally nurture relationships that will, a couple of quadrennia from now, make for a much healthier United Methodist connection than the fractured one we see today.
So I’m not going to claim the radical center, whatever that is, as common ground and pretend to be something I’m not. I’m going to be who I am, strive to become who God wants me to become, and in the meantime somehow manage to love people “in truth and action,” even as we may disagree about any number of things. I believe that we are better when we hang out with more than just like-minded people – better Christians, better Methodists, and just better people.
Who’s with me? (And of course, feel free to disagree!)