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Friday, February 12, 2010

Sex in the pulpit?

It seems an interesting if not serendipitous event that this Sunday, Valentine's Day falls on the last Sunday of the Season of The Epiphany - the Sunday before the Season of Lent.

It's interesting that our thoughts would be about romance and intimacy, chocolates and roses, and lavish dinners and sexy lingerie before entering into the most austere and self-sacrificial season of the Church's calendar.

I've been reading the newly-released report from the progressive Religious Institute on Sexual Justice, Morality and Healing which raises the alarm about this “disconnect between sexuality and religion in America.”

Citing the largest ever survey of mainline Protestant clergy, “Sexuality and Religion 2020” reveals that 70 percent have seldom or never discussed sexuality with their congregants.

Seventy percent? Mainline Protestant clergy? Talking about human sexuality? Seldom or never?


I'm shocked! Shocked, I tell you!

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church and Evangelical / Fundamentalists on the Right talk endlessly about 'family values' and the 'evils' of abortion and the 'intrinsic disorder' of homosexuality.

Meanwhile the sexual proclivities and escapades of Tiger Woods, John Edwards and Mark Sanford fill the news.

Meanwhile, we allow the Religious Right to frame and lead the discussions and debates about human sexuality and then decline to talk about it with our congregations, either privately or publicly from the pulpit.

Do you think that maybe, just maybe, this might be a 'causative factor" to the reason we are hopelessly mired in disagreement about homosexuality, reproductive rights and what defines "the sanctity of marriage"?

Do you suppose that our disinclination to discuss teen pregnancy, 'date rape' or rape, premarital sex, marital infidelity or sexual orientation and gender identity - in not being part of the solution - might actually be part of the problem?

According to the Rev. Debra Haffner, the Institute’s president and a sexologist and Unitarian Universalist minister, the fact that clergy “are choosing silence over action where sexual justice and health is concerned” has contributed to a growing crisis.

“An untold number of congregants are suffering in abusive or dysfunctional relationships, struggling with questions of sexual identity or orientation or harboring histories of rape, abuse, or marital infidelity,” Haffner said at a Tuesday press conference when the new report was released. “The fact is that all clergy, whether they’re Baptist or Roman Catholic, Jewish or Protestant, have people in their congregations who need help.”

Rev'd Haffner will get a loud "Amen" from me on that. And yet, as committed as I am to discussing human sexuality with individual members of my congregation, and as forcefully as I have insisted that Human Sexuality and Ethics remain a part of the Confirmation Curriculum, and as often as I have led Adult Forums on issues of human sexuality, I must confess that I don't preach on the topic very often.

I've always taken the lead from one of my seminary professors who cautioned that preachers often don't understand the power of their presence in the pulpit as a vehicle of communication. "Some people," she said, "won't hear much of what you have to say, or will hear what they want or need to hear, because it is coming from a woman and not a man."

I've discovered, over the years, that she's right. I don't have to "make an issue" about the ordination of women from my pulpit because I am "the issue". Same with issues of human sexuality. It's not that I don't ever mention "the issues". It's just that I don't "make an issue" of the issue.

I think that's called using a "bully pulpit" (a term coined by President Teddy Roosevelt by which he meant "bully" as in "excellent" or "brilliant". He did not mean "bully" as it has come to be known - i.e. a harasser or someone who intimidates - but the term has come to be known in that pejorative sense).

That does not - has not - prevented me from discussing issues of sexuality privately or to hold educational events and Adult Forms on issues of human sexuality.

Still, I often feel caught between the tension of being one of the few clergy who do - "the voice of one, crying in the wilderness" - and battling indifference - having what I say being easily dismissed as "Oh, there she goes again." Or, "What do you expect from someone like her?" Or: "Why is she talking about that HERE? NOW? That's so yesterday's issue. We're soOOoo over that."

I would beg to differ from that indifference. And, I would love to have some other voices joining me in the vast, uncharted wilderness of a progressive position about human sexuality - except the one that everyone THINKS we hold which is noting short of "anything goes".

You know, I'll bet, if we actually started talking about "the progressive position" on human sexuality, we'd be amazed by the diversity of opinion AND how fairly traditional, if not flat-out conservative, many of us actually are.

Why is this issue such an "issue" with me? Well, I thought you'd never ask.

From where I sit, this is not just about winning awards in the Great American Religious Debate Club. Besides, at this point in time - in the history of the Anglican and Episcopal Church, at any rate - I fear it may well be a waste of time for "the orthodox" and "the progressives" to seek common ground.

I see something far more dangerous and nefarious at work.

Indeed, I don't see this as a theological debate. Not right now, anyway.

Rather, I think the current dissatisfaction of "orthodox" Episcopalians and Anglicans stems less from widespread resistance to the church's stance on hot-button issues like sexuality and more from outside groups eager to keep The Episcopal Church - and other mainline Protestant denominations - from successfully attending to issues we see as central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If you look around at the grinding poverty that still exists, the delays on Health Care Reform, and the erosion of Reproductive Rights, they've been pretty successful.

The strategy of these outside groups - like, but not limited to the IRD (Institute on Religion and Democracy) - is to keep churches so busy fighting among themselves or within themselves that they can't do the work of the gospel.

The IRD, for example, recently submitted a grant proposal in which the IRD speaks of "redirecting Protestant churches away from their reflexive alliance with the political left."

What these outside forces wish to accomplish is not the agenda of Jesus (AKA our "reflexive alliance with the political left") - indeed, they abhor and reject it - but their own agenda of what it means to "return to our roots" (read: "orthodoxy") and become, once again, "a Christian nation."

The church is no stranger to being complicit with a political agenda of oppression and violence. Indeed, history teaches that she has benefited from it. The allure of cultural acceptance and governmental favor has often proven more seductive than the cost of taking stands against slavery or the Holocaust.

I know, I know. "Vast right wing political conspiracy". "Images of brown shirts". Even so, the old saying may be trite but it is still true: just because you're paranoid doesn't mean someone isn't out to get you.

And you thought it was all about sex. It's not. But, it is about intimacy. And, relationships. And, community. And families and their value. And how we understand intimacy and relationships, community and family within the context of our relationships with each other and God.

So, on this Valentine's Day weekend, the weekend of romantic dinners and get-aways, and before we talk about self-sacrifice, I'd like to invite your thoughts about sexuality and intimacy into the church this weekend.

I'd like you to consider, if you already haven't, reading and signing onto the
Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing.

It says, among other important things:
Sexuality is God's life-giving and life-fulfilling gift.

Our faith traditions celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality. We sin when this sacred gift is abused or exploited. However, the great promise of our traditions is love, healing, and restored relationships.

Our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts. All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure.

Grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings, this ethic fosters physical, emotional, and spiritual health. It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status, or sexual orientation.

Faith communities must therefore be truth seeking, courageous, and just.

Faith communities must also advocate for sexual and spiritual wholeness in society.

God rejoices when we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity
While you're there, read their report Sexuality and Religion 2010: Goals For the Next Decade.

I encourage you to consider being part of the solution. Speak out. Preach out. Teach out. If you are clergy and haven't already written your sermon for Sunday, consider how God's love transforms us and prepares us for the sacrifice of Love.

We need to re-enter the conversation and re-frame the debate, one pulpit at a time. One person at a time. One pew at a time. One church at a time. And, most importantly, bring that conversation from the church back out into the world.

That may well be the beginning of bringing the world back into the church.

Author and religious historian Martin E. Marty said at a press conference releasing the report, “it usually takes the Christian Church about 200 years to settle things.”

Because of the urgency of these issues for people’s lives, they are ill-served by protracted theological debates. “We don’t have the luxury of 200 years of fighting on this one,” Marty argued, “because the stakes are so high.”


it's margaret said...

ohhhh thank you. I needed this more than you know.

blessings dear sister.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You bet, Margaret. I'm eager to hear a sermon from you on this one. I'm betting you'll knock it right out of the park.

Risk Rapper said...

hallelujah amen Sister Kaeton. Now that's what I call fire and brimstone. I must say that more often then not I come away a bit disappointed in some of the homilies offered by Episcopal priests. Too much white bread not enough gruel. Yes its a big tent religion but that doesn't mean we have to avoid the elephants roaming some of the rings all of the time.

Blessings Rev.

peace and prayers riskrapper

susankay said...

Elizabeth -- thanks on this. Our church is oddly going through
1. Miraculous growth in young couples with kids.
2. Tragic growth in divorce in those same couples.

Dealing with sex as it encompasses the REAL stuff -- fidelity, commitment, trust, intimacy, vulnerability, (and really good sex) and dealing with economic crap is something we are failing on. Miraculously most of the shattered families still meet with their kids at church.

One problem is the first time that we know that there is a problem is when they have already decided to split. How can we make help available in a way that people would actually avail themselves of it?

Any thoughts?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You know, susankay, I think the answer is in the research from the Institute: if preachers preach on it and teach it, and offer classes in confirmation and new member groups, then you create an environment where trust is built to the extent that early intervention is possible.

That's my first, off the cuff response.

Any others?

IT said...

I write for other blogs including Daily Kos and Street Prophets. When I posted on DK about reaching the middle on equality, I was scolded for presuming that marriage means fidelity.

Now, I don't want to dictate to other people what their relationshps should be, but I"m actually very conservative about sex. Yes, marriage means fidelity. Peole may have different kinds of relationships and their rights to do so should be unbounded, but if marriage isn't faithful, what is it?

Do people fall off that ideal? of course they do. But we all fall off ideals. Let's get back on board.

You know the funny thing is that I'm not even a Christian, and I ahve this incredibly conservative view about sex.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks,IT. I think many people who are not Christian are conservative and liberal about sex.

People are people.

MarkBrunson said...

Sex in the pulpit?!

Never! You'd fall off!