A middle way..?

The Anglican concept of Via Media is one I've long admired, even aspired to in my ministry.  Though initially used in different ways, Via Media eventually came to be almost universally understood to mean that Anglicanism sought to be a "Middle Way" between Roman Catholicism and the various forms of Protestantism - it was, in other words, a "Reformed Catholicism."  In our own accent, Methodists (having sprung up in the Anglican tradition) have tried to maintain that vision, so that today the 2012 Book of Discipline describes the Wesleyan heritage of The United Methodist Church as at once "catholic, evangelical, and reformed" (para. 103; pg. 63).

The idea of a 'middle way' has been picked up and much used (like the idea of "moderation") as a kind of rallying cry by many in The United Methodist Church in our conversations about sexual morality and church unity.  "Surely," it is said, "we can find or embody some kind of middle way to go forward between the extremes on the liberal left and the conservative right."  This is an admirable attempt, I believe, to "stay above the fray" and seek to remain friends of all and enemies of none.

The problem is that defining such a middle way is as impossible as defining the words "liberal" and "conservative" - they do not actually refer to any single definable reality, but are at best useful for making comparisons.  While "Protestantism and Roman Catholicism" are relatively definable things, so that a Via Media that runs between them (presumably sharing some qualities of each) can also be more or less definable and identified (though there are many possible configurations or forms it might take).  On the contrary, cultural attitudes towards moral questions are constantly in flux...indeed they even vary from one region to another, so that what it means to hold a "via media" position will mean quite different things depending on who is talking and with whom they speak (and therefore mean nothing at all that is recognizable to everyone).

For example, I currently accept Biblical arguments in support of women preachers.  According to some of my Southern Baptist brethren, this makes me a theological Liberal.  On the other hand I also currently accept that the Bible clearly states that same-sex intercourse is sinful, and that all Christians are called to submit to the Bible's teachings on sexual morality.  According to some of my Mainline Protestant brethren that makes me a theological Conservative.  So which am I?  The answer is..."Yes"...or "both"...or "neither."

Here is the problem with speaking of a "Via Media" as the way forward for the United Methodist Church.  Between what and what exactly is it a Middle Way?  The official position of our church on sexuality is already "a middle way" between, say Fundamentalists and liberals...  On the other hand it can look rather "un Via Media" if one's vision is restricted to looking for a middle way between, say, a center-left and far left religious group on the one side, or looking for a middle way between a center-right and far right group on the other.  There simply is no such thing as "the Left" view and "the Right" view on sexuality, and consequently there is no single Via Media running between them.

I propose that it  would be more helpful if we speak of seeking not a 'Via Media' on sexuality  but rather of a "Gracious Orthodoxy."  It is Orthodoxy in that it submits to the plain words of Scripture as they have been understood by the universal/catholic tradition of the whole  church across the Ages; orthodoxy in that it affirms that sexual activity must by God's design be kept within the bounds of a monogamous, life-long, natural marriage covenant between a man and a woman as God created in the beginning.  It is Orthodoxy in warning of the dangers of sin in this (or any) area of our lives.
It is Gracious because it seeks to reach out to all people - including especially those who identify as homosexual or their loved ones - with the love and grace of Jesus Christ; Gracious in that it refuses to use "orthodoxy" as a club with which to beat upon wounded souls with no real attempt to help them; Gracious because it affirms the great principle of Sola Gratia - only God's Grace is the source of salvation, and we are all fallen, all sinners, all "in the same boat," all dependent upon the same grace, the same cross.  It is gracious in that it sees the debate through the lens not simply of "being right" or "winning the argument" but in terms of what ultimately tends toward the healing and salvation of souls, whatever their sexual desires and temptations may or may not be.

So what is the future for the United Methodist Church?  I don't know.  I'm praying for, preaching for, and working for a Gracious Orthodoxy.  In fact I believe that is precisely what is already embodied in our official teachings...if only we will now live it out.

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