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U.S. Religions Quietly Launch a Sexual Revolution

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A religious think tank has issued a manifesto about breaking the silence in religious communities about a host of sexuality issues. It hasn't stirred much media attention, but Frederick Clarkson thinks it could be revolutionary.

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

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A religious think tank has issued a manifesto about breaking the silence in religious communities about a host of sexuality issues. It hasn't stirred much media attention, but Frederick Clarkson thinks it could be revolutionary.
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Frederick Clarkson (WOMENSENEWS)--The Religious Institute has just issued a 46-page report on the state of sexuality in religious communities and a manifesto that seeks to transform the status quo.

Goals include improved pastoral care of marital relationships, domestic abuse and infertility, and training for prospective clergy in sexuality-related matters.

The institute calls for religious leaders to provide lifelong age-appropriate education for youth and adults and to become more effective advocates for comprehensive sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health in society.

Clergy are often first responders in matters of domestic violence and potential (and actual) suicides by young people struggling with sexual identity. The Religious Institute points out that these first responders have usually received little to no training for the job.

A singular strength of the document is that it offers an uncompromised progressive vision that does not conform to recent fashions in seeking "common ground" with conservative evangelicals and Catholics.

Particularly striking in this regard is its call for a society in which there is full access to reproductive health care, including abortion, marriage equality and full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the life of religious communities.

Since it was announced two weeks ago, the report, "Sexuality and Religion 2020: Goals for the Next Decade," has generated little media attention beyond a few regional newspapers and online news sites.

Sometimes, this is the quiet way revolutions begin.

Manifesto Seen as Subversive

Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., immediately responded to the manifesto on his blog. He saw it as "evidence of the continued subversion of biblical authority and confessional integrity that characterizes the revolt against orthodoxy in so many churches."

Nevertheless, he acknowledged: "Our pews are filled with people worried about their sexuality, wondering how to understand these things, struggling with same-sex attractions, tempted to stray from their marriages, enticed by Internet pornography and wondering how to bring their sexuality under submission to Christ."

And while he thinks evangelicals "will rightly reject just about everything" in the Religious Institute's report, he did conclude that "they should not avoid its urgency in calling pastors and Christian leaders to teach and preach about sex and sexuality."

Indeed, he seems to be worried about the competition. "The Religious Institute wants liberal preachers to talk more about sex. My guess is that they will. But what about evangelical pastors?"

Rare Experience Spawns Effort

The Religious Institute, based in Westport, Conn., has a national network of more than 5,000 clergy and religious leaders from 50 religious traditions, from which they seek to build an activist Faithful Voices Network to take their agenda forward.

Rev. Debra Haffner, founder of the Religious Institute, brings a unique background to the effort.

After several years as executive director of SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States), the nation's leading association of sex educators, she attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City, became a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Association, headquartered in Boston, and founded the Religious Institute. Her mission: to break the silences and transform the conversation about sexuality.

The report grew out of a consultation held by the Religious Institute last summer with two dozen theologians, activists, clergy and academics from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Unitarian Universalist traditions. They sought to envision how in 10 years "all faith communities will be sexually healthy, just and prophetic."

The report also summarizes dramatic progress in the past 10 years.

Now female clergy are taking leadership roles in major denominations. A woman is presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church. Lesbian, gay, transgendered and bisexual people are gaining acceptance. Marriage equality is recognized by the United Church of Christ, the Union for Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

The Unitarian Universalist Association also recently announced that clergy will now be required to be "competent" to address matters of sexuality in the lives of their parishioners. Haffner says that several other denominations are likely to do the same in the next few years.

But the manifesto also addresses the silence surrounding sexuality.

It cites survey data that show that 75 percent of even progressive clergy had not addressed sex education and 40 percent had not preached about sexual orientation over a two year period.

Seventy percent had never preached on reproductive justice.

Desire to Turn to Clergy

"People want to be able to turn to their clergy," Haffner said in a phone interview. "One in 4 has a history of sexual abuse. Half of marriages are going to break up. Infertility is an issue."

The list goes on, she said. "But people are looking for an ethic that does not currently exist."

The consequences of avoiding matters of sexuality, she said, show up in clergy sex-abuse scandals. "Countless millions of dollars are paid out playing clean up because of this lack of training and attention. And it's not just the Catholics," she said.

"If these are issues that cannot be spoken in your churches," she asks, "where can you bring them? Silence contributes to people's alienation and aloneness. People don't know what to say and how to say it."

Haffner says that mainstream religious institutions have a head start. She says she is working with five denominations on mandatory sexual competence for clergy and 15 denominations on matters that affect everyone "across the board."

Rev. Ann Tiemeyer, who heads the Women's Ministry at the National Council of Churches, said in a press teleconference call earlier this month that not all of the council's 36 member Protestant and Orthodox denominations, representing 45 million Christians in 100,000 congregations, would support everything in the document.

But she said that all would benefit from clergy training and open discussion of matters of sexuality, including the teaching of young people and strategies for keeping children safe from sexual predators.

She pointed to a number of efforts already underway that fit the Religious Institute's recommendations. For example, a number of denominations, as well as her office, have focused on issues of domestic violence. And the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association co-produced in 2000 a sexuality education program for children and young people, "Our Whole Lives." She called it "an incredibly great model. Indeed, a dozen denominations have since developed various programs of their own.

Dr. Martin Marty, the eminent historian of religion at the University of Chicago, joined the Religious Institute's press teleconference and compared sexuality to religion. "If you get it right, it's beautiful. But if you get it wrong, it really messes you up," he said.

The encouraging trend is that some of our major religious institutions, with the help of the Religious Institute, are working hard to get both sexuality and religion right.

Frederick Clarkson is the editor of the anthology, "Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America" (Ig Publishing, 2008).

For more information:

Religious Institute:
http://www.religiousinstitute.org/

Women's Ministry/Justice for Women Working Group:
http://www.ncccusa.org/womensministry/

Unitarian Universalist Association:
http://www.uua.org/