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Archive for Saturday, July 22, 2000

Churches move toward change at glacial speed

July 22, 2000

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— For the purposes of this column, take any religious organization, and add any topic involving sex. The combination will likely produce a great deal more heat than light. Which is a shame, because we could surely use more moral leadership on sexuality.

Consider premarital sex, extramarital sex, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and the ordination of women as clergy. Various of these will cause the leaders of most any church to make pronouncements appropriate for another century, perhaps for another country, but bearing no relationship to America today.

The positions held by religious organizations in America today dont constitute a thoughtful antidote to our thoughtless sexuality. They constitute denial.

The Roman Catholic Church, at least, doesn't embarrass itself with deliberation: It pretty much just stands against everything no matter how far the actual conduct of its followers may be from the doctrine (as in, say, the use of contraceptives).

Other churches, however, debate and declare a painful thing to see. The largest American Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists, voted just last month to ban female pastors. This was not simply an absence of forward movement the expected course when church leaders tackle sex-related controversies. Here, instead, was a step backward, taken proudly.

The main sex-related subject making religious news lately, of course, has been deliberations about homosexuality. The Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, the reform rabbis, have all stewed recently and at length about whether to bless same-sex unions.

I happen to believe that the decisions against these unions along with decisions against ordaining gay and lesbian clergy will eventually be reversed. I don't mean at all to ignore the distress this subject brings to so many. But I think that, in due time, this thinking will change, just as most churches' opposition to divorce, for example, has changed. (Even large corporations those most-American of institutions are beginning to pay benefits to same-sex partners. And that costs money.)

The thing is that "due time" when it comes to change among religious organizations seems to mean about the same thing as "due time" when it comes to glacial movement. Consider the lead in a New York Times report on the July 13 discussion among Episcopal bishops. "Leaders of the Episcopal Church reached agreement today on an unusual resolution about human sexuality, in which the church officially acknowledged that its parishioners include unmarried couples living in long-term relationships and that those relationships are worthy of pastoral care."

We live in a country in which some 800,000 teen-agers get pregnant every year (the figure has dropped, thank goodness, but we're still the titleholder among developed countries). Images of sex jump out at us from every angle. Yet a church can make news by acknowledging that it has unmarried couples in long-term relationships in its congregations.

Perhaps you're thinking that this is what churches are supposed to do: When a country is so perilously hell-bent on jettisoning its awareness and appreciation of the sacredness and gravity of sexuality even of the joy of it it is up to the church to apply the brakes. Far from getting on board, the church must remain behind, standing squarely and firmly with what is right.

But things aren't working that way. The positions held by religious organizations in America today don't constitute a thoughtful antidote to our thoughtless sexuality. They constitute denial. Policies and attitudes so far from reality marginalize the churches. Voices that aren't even in the same room can't be heard.

We are a nation clearly at sea on a number of ethical challenges, and crying out for moral leadership. We're rightly cynical about the ethical authority of our leading political figures. Yet our religious leaders can't even get themselves to the place where the arguments begin.

I remember, back in 1991, when the Presbyterian Church was struggling with a document on human sexuality. I lived in Iowa then, and a fellow Iowan, Sylvia Thorson-Smith of Grinnell, was a primary writer of the church study, "Keeping Body and Soul Together," that dealt head-on with sexual ethics. It was an excellent paper. Reading it, I exulted that we might actually be seeing a case where a religious organization was going to provide meaningful help to people of faith struggling with these difficult issues.

Then the church's General Assembly rejected the document. One of the study group's leaders said gamely that the report was simply 10 years ahead of its time.

But that was church time. Glacial time. Almost a decade later, we're still groping, pretty much in the dark.

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