Why Are Churches Talking So Much About New Views on Sexual Morality?

June 16, 1991|By DIANE WINSTON

For many American mainline Protestants, 1991 will be a long hot summer.

For some, it's already sizzling.

Last week, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) debated -- and defeated -- a controversial report that proposed a new sexual ethic sympathetic to non-marital and homosexual relationships. In July, the Episcopal Church will decide whether local governing bodies can ordain whom they choose, including gays and lesbians, to the priesthood. And in August, the United Methodist Church will receive a long-anticipated draft study on homosexuality.

How did the church come to wade hip-deep in the muddy waters of human sexuality? And why, if the Presbyterian debate sets the trend, the mad rush back to shore? These seemingly contradictory circumstances speak directly to the problems facing mainline Protestants today.

Since the 1970s, liberal Protestantism has wrestled with the implications of cultural change around issues of gender and sexuality -- specifically, what to do about gay liberation, feminism and the sexual revolution. The tenets of these movements -- human rights, equality, mutuality -- seemed to mesh with the liberal interpretation of the Scriptural message. But putting the tenets into practice -- whether ordaining women, blessing gay unions or accepting situations where sexuality can be expressed outside traditional marriage -- has been problematic.

Most denominations took a first step when they permitted women to be ordained into the clergy. But moving further with a new understanding of human sexuality seems stalled, despite a significant clamor for change.

Two reasons may explain why the church is waffling. The first is easy to understand: Numbers. Most denominations have been in a steady decline for more than a decade. Losses may have been staunched in recent years, but hundreds of thousands of people have already disappeared from membership rolls.

Denominational leaders don't want to encourage the exodus. If a church were to posit a new morality -- accepting gays and lesbians as equals and establishing a framework for "extra-marital" relationships (for the elderly, the disabled, adolescents) -- some people might return.

But many more would go.

A test case for the new morality occurred at the Presbyterian Convention (U.S.A.) meeting in Baltimore last week. When members of the General Assembly were asked whether they could be open to the possibility of ordaining gays and lesbians, the measure was voted down by a 2-to-1 majority.

Is it any wonder that church leaders think sex is bad for business?

Because it is business. Many churches have come to equate success with numbers -- the same way corporate bean counters do. And that reflects the second problem facing mainline Protestants: Uncertainty over how to interpret Scripture has undercut the church's sense of mission.

Until the 19th century, most people believed what was written in Scripture was true. But the advent of modern science and Biblical scholarship ended that wholesale acceptance.

Religious conservatives still maintain the authority of Scripture. They believe the Bible can be trusted. But moderates and liberals can't speak unequivocally of Scriptural authority because they already decided not everything in the Bible is true.

This poses many quandaries.

The Bible says homosexuality is wrong, but owning slaves is okay. The Bible says women should not speak up in church, but it also says disobedient children can be stoned.

Even the most fundamentalist churches manage to finesse the authority issue in matters which strain the modern sensibility; no one tolerates slavery or capital punishment for unruly children. But in matters pertaining to sexual morality, conservative churches do cite Scriptural authority as the basis of an ethical code which says sexual expression must be limited to heterosexual marriage.

Presbyterians who opposed the report recommending a sexual ethic based on "mutuality" and "individual consent" also cited Scriptural authority, but the phrase sounded hollow. Moderate denominations have stressed the Scriptural message -- justice, love and liberation -- more than Scriptural authority. That's why supporters of the new ethic could argue they were living out the gospel commandment -- bringing justice to the outcast and freedom to the oppressed.

At the root of the debate about sexuality is the issue of Scripture. How should it be read: as a blueprint for daily life or as a guidebook for decision-making? Is Scripture a one-time-only revelation with timeless rules and regulations or is it an on-going source for living out God's message throughout history?

Presbyterian officials may have understood the need to resolve these questions before tackling the issue of human sexuality. In the substitute report, an affirmation of traditional morality that was overwhelmingly accepted, church members were advised to examine "the significant biblical, theological and ethical issues raised in the church around human sexuality."

But can the churches be convinced to do that? Many churches have abdicated their role as moral authority and allowed the culture to do their job. Images of relationships on television and -- in the movies dominate they way most Americans think about sexuality. Few of these models promote mutuality and consent -- much less traditional heterosexual marriages. Rather, the bombardment of such grisly entanglements leaves some people nostalgic for an old-time religion which promises a better way.

It's difficult to say whether that ever really was the way or if, indeed, it could be the way now. But whatever should be the way will never be found until mainline churches start responding to the need to make Scripture speak authentically to modern culture.

Diane Winston is a reporter for The Sun.

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