Whether one identifies as Republican or Democrat, it is difficult to speak of centrists with much influence. Likewise, in our American religious world.
For many years, Methodists were the centrists: mainliners who did much to set the religious culture of the country. Methodist churches were in almost every county, home to liberals and conservatives, wealthy and poor, educated and uneducated. Until Southern Baptists overtook us, we were the largest and most influential Protestant denomination.
It is no longer so. This article offers thoughts through personal testimony about centrists, diversity, compatibility, and unity—where it is failing and where it is not failing—and what might we do to pump new life into United Methodism.
I grew up Methodist. Not just Methodist but institutional Methodist. My church in LaGrange, Indiana (a town averaging a population of about 2,000) was (and is) a county-seat, influential, church. We were denominationally loyal in every way, from hymnals to Sunday school material to missionary outreach to our Methodist-trained pastors. We helped our district and conference accomplish great things. Our district-based senior high institute, one of six districts in the conference, enrolled about 500 senior high youth each summer. Our conference at one time averaged 3,000 senior high campers and almost 2,000 junior high campers per season. Our district and conference youth programs had institutes and rallies that would draw in the hundreds.
At the same time, I had other influences in my life. My mother by upbringing was a Mennonite fundamentalist dispensationalist. So, in addition to our Methodist influence, we listened to Moody radio, attended the Winona Lake Bible Conferences, and visited a lot of other, mostly very conservative, churches. My mother would have preferred that our family was Baptist, but that was not an option, so we lived in several different religious worlds. When I attended Taylor University (named after Methodist Bishop William Taylor) I also gained an appreciation for Methodism’s holiness tradition.
I entered Garrett Seminary about the same time I took my first student appointment, a three-point circuit in Adams County, Indiana. My circuit churches were so conservative they sang out of the Nazarene hymnal and believed you were not Christian if you smoked or used alcohol or danced.
My seminary world was a different universe. It claimed to be “broadminded” (we would use the word “diverse” today). It was, of course, not really broadminded. The theology and practices ranged from ultra-liberal to very liberal to liberal to neo-orthodox. In a denomination that today uses the terms “compatibilist” and “non-compatibilist,” my seminary was non-compatibilist. That is to say, it did not easily tolerate views associated with evangelicals (as I understood the term) fundamentalists, or Pentecostals.
In the classroom, there were continual references to fundamentalism being a thing of the past. When Billy Graham came to Chicago and some of us asked if we might invite him to campus, the president (later a bishop—naturally) said no, because we did not wish to be associated with that kind of Christianity. When I asked the person who arranged chapel speakers if we might invite some evangelicals to speak, he asked who I had in mind since he considered all of the faculty “evangelical.” When I gave him some names he said, “No. I think you are talking about fundamentalists and they have hurt us deeply in the past.” One of the professors a few years later wrote me a personal letter and spoke with some sadness about being a “closet evangelical.” The implication was that it would not work for him to be too honest about what he really believed.
Despite all of this, I appreciated my professors and my seminary experience. I spoke of the evangelical perspective enough that I was encouraged to write a book or submit some articles on the issues (which I later did). But in today’s terms, the seminary was an “exclusivist” institution. While it claimed to be tolerant it did not at all tolerate many points of view. Conservative points of view, whether political or religious, were deemed unacceptable. When a stack of Vol. I No, I of Christianity Today, a new journal backed by such well-known figures as Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry was placed on a table for free distribution as a way of introducing this new journal, I recall comments about how far-right money interests seeking to undermine the mainline churches were behind the effort and the school should not have allowed them to place free copies on the tables.
I thought of this with some irony when a few years later I took a church in Elkhart, Indiana, and was told by a fellow pastor that the town was divided into the far left, the far right, and the center. The far left were the Mennonites; the far right were the Baptists; the centrists were the black churches, the Methodists, and the Missionary Churches. The city had two ministerial associations, the regular association and the evangelical association, which, it turned out, gathered the fundamentalists, of which there were many. Considering myself a centrist I joined both groups (with suspicion on the part of the Baptists since Methodists were considered the far left). A few months later when some of us invited Leighton Ford of the Billy Graham Association for a city crusade, 17 Baptist and conservative churches did not cooperate. They today would be considered non-compatibilists. They were second-degree separatists. They not only separated themselves from liberals but also from any other group that cooperated with liberals, and thus from anything associated with Billy Graham.
Graham was unacceptable to the theological far left and to the theological far right. Evidently, those who supported the Billy Graham Association must be the centrists. From time to time, I claim the centrist position for myself. I am at home in the evangelical and fundamentalist world and in the liberal and progressive world. Would that we today had more such “centrists.”
What I remember in those years was that, despite our differences, I sensed support both from my seminary and from my annual conference. Methodism at that time was truly a big tent denomination with a tremendous amount of diversity within the ranks. But within the diversity, there was still a sense of unity.
I vividly remember when this began to change. In 1967 I spent a month in a continuing education program at one of our Methodist seminaries. The nation was in the turmoil of the 1960s. For the first time during that month I experienced anger on the part of the students (and some faculty), not just against evangelicals but also against establishment liberals. I found myself defending liberals. At colleges and other seminaries, there were angry demonstrations. Within a few months, at the 1968 General Conference we not only merged Methodists and Evangelical United Brethren (EUBs), but we radically restructured the whole denomination, passed a new doctrinal statement, instituted quota systems, and effectively demolished youth ministry (I have written about this extensively elsewhere—I was serving as conference coordinator of youth ministry at the time).
There were ugly demonstrations at the 1968 and then at the 1970 General Conference and at every General Conference since then. These demonstrations were directed by Christian brothers and sisters against other Christian brothers and sisters. I likened them to a son or daughter carrying placards objecting to mother and father at the family Thanksgiving dinner.
More on these matters in later articles. But let it be said now that demonstrations, disruptions, ugly language, and tirades about racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, hatred, and rigidity hardly create an environment for unity in the body. I remember one General Conference where I believe almost every sermon by a bishop emphasized the importance of unity. These sermons were followed by disruptive demonstrations and hostility directed toward fellow Christians who did not agree with the demonstrators’ views on such matters as marriage, celibacy in singleness, and faithfulness in marriage. These have been so heated through the years that I for one was advocating even back in the 1990s that Christian unity was better advanced by amicable separation rather than win-lose wars.
Separation has come, but not amicably. I strongly support the opportunities for disaffiliation but I more strongly support ideas that we must still be working and witnessing together. Our conference Historical Society, for one, has changed its name from United Methodist Historical Society to “Indiana Methodist Historical Society.” We wish to service all churches with a Methodist background. None are to be rejected. The same is true with missionary support. Another group I am involved with is the Kafakumba Training School in Zambia with its myriad of ministries in Zambia and Congo. We are realizing that the work in Africa must continue whether the support comes from the United Methodist Church, the Global Methodist Church, or from independent churches. I am pleased that another group I have been associated with for nearly 30 years, the Kokomo Rescue Mission, has unified support from more than 250 churches in a six-county area.
The compatibility-incompatibility talk is not helpful. If we have standards we are in some sense incompatibilists. Unfortunately, the UM slogan “Open Hearts, Open Arms, Open Minds” suggests we have no standards. Perhaps our discussions need to be directed toward what are the essentials of Wesleyanism. We have General Rules; we have doctrinal standards; we have other standards. Wesley spoke of essential distinctions and opinions. We need to have discussions sorting these out.
Time for some true centrists. Time for leaders who can work with different groups of people.
Riley B. Case is a retired United Methodist clergy member of the Indiana Conference who has for many years authored articles for the Confessing Movement. His articles are published in the Methodist Voices series appearing on Juicy Ecumenism, the blog of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.