Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ELCA sexuality statement a task barely begun

Today the ELCA Churchwide Assembly tackles the proposed social statement on sexuality. Producing this document was the original and primary task of the sexuality task force. The statement has nearly been lost, however, in the dustup over the task force’s added project of making recommendations on gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex relationships.

This statement is a second attempt at a project that collapsed about fifteen years ago when a similar statement was developed and proposed. The uproar was so overwhelming that rather than try to amend or rework the document it was just dropped altogether. As one might fear would happen after the first fiasco, this statement seems to bend over backwards to offend no one. As a result, however, it says little that is new or remarkable. More importantly, it fails in its primary purpose of providing guidance on the specific issues of sexual behavior bedeviling society today.

The problem was not entirely with the task force. The job given to it by the ELCA was just too big. Books on the Christian theology and ethics of human sexuality can go on for hundreds of pages (and they are readily available). A statement on such a sweeping topic is not really necessary. In any case, sexuality is not a social issue—it’s a part of the human condition. The church would be much better served with individual statements on the various issues of sexuality that society is dealing with (as it did a few years ago in a statement on prostitution and global sex trafficking).

Instead a whole array of topics get brief and shallow treatment: marriage, homosexuality, teen sex, sexualization of children, sex in advertising, sex and the media, sex and the workplace, sexual harassment and abuse, singles and sex, seniors and sex, cohabitation, extra-marital sex, and more. An anonymous ELCA staff member wondered how the statement could talk about sex for so many pages and be so boring. It’s easy: by saying little or nothing of substance on so many topics.

It’s evident the task force wanted to say interesting things but was hamstrung by the past and the limits of time and paper. On almost every issue it begins by affirming very traditional teaching of the church’s past. Then it acknowledges in how many instances that tradition is being challenged or ignored for understandable reasons. So for instance, it affirms church tradition that sexual relations are only permitted between a husband and wife. But then it discusses multiple situations of people today commonly having sex outside of marriage, with some minimal suggestions for people in such situations. The result is a muddle of saying “No” on the one hand and “Well, maybe” on the other, which is of no practical help to anyone.

The section which got the most attention, of course, was the one on homosexuality. (Oddly, the statement never used that word in the first draft, referring instead to “same-gender persons”, a term the task force made up and is actually meaningless. The term is made clearer in the final draft, becoming “same-gender-oriented,” but still seems awkward). Inevitably it makes no definitive statements, but can only recognize that the church “does not have consensus” on the questions of same-sex relationships. In this non-answer, however, one can see where the problem lies.

In effect, human sexuality has run off the biblical map. Today we are confronted with countless issues which the Bible’s writers simply couldn’t imagine. Probably the single most important of these is easy and reliable birth control. People have sexual relations for pleasure far more often than they do for procreation—and sex isn’t even necessary for that now. Women have career options, people live far longer, and technology will continue to give new options and opportunities. What will we say, for example, about virtual sex when (not if) it arrives?

To retain the “sex only in marriage” mantra is understandable but completely inadequate, as the report itself implies. If the church wants to be taken seriously it needs to speak to people’s real lives. Today, most young people cohabitate for some length of time before marriage. Many seniors cohabitate in order to avoid the loss of Social Security and other benefits. Many middle aged and older singles (divorced, widowed, never married) simply do not want to get married for a variety of reasons. Is sex really off the table for them?

These and many more issues confront people of all ages every day. They are often difficult and complicated, but that is where well-reasoned guidelines are needed. In most cases, this document does little more than skim the surface of these questions and dilemmas. Whether this statement is adopted or not, the church still needs to roll up its sleeves and do the hard work of honestly and creatively untangling these issues one-by-one.

UPDATE: The statement was adopted this afternoon on a vote of 667-338. This is exactly the 2/3 majority required, without a vote to spare. Most of the proposed amendments were attempts to pull the statement back to more traditional church teaching and all were defeated.

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