When it comes to sex, can the church say more than no? Should the church say more than no?
As the nation's largest Presbyterian group begins its annual General Assembly here Tuesday, it will choose a new leader and confront questions about national health care and human rights. But the overriding issue this year is human sexuality -- specifically a comprehensive report on the subject commissioned by the denomination four years ago.
As a mainline Protestant group that prides itself on a thoughtful and informed approach to its faith, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) frequently produces detailed papers on issues of the day. According to Marj Carpenter, the church's public information officer, the church usually sells 50 to 100 copies of such reports.
"Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Justice" has shattered the records -- selling more than 30,000 copies at $5 each since it was completed earlier this year. Whatever else the church hoped to accomplish, clearly this issue has riveted the attention of the people in the pews.
In addressing human sexuality, the report confronts two explosive issues -- the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the church's traditional stance of affirming sexual relations only within the context of marriage. Either of those questions would be enough to guarantee a heated controversy.
But the report suggests that the church study each of these questions with a degree of open-mindedness that, on sexual matters at least, seems to be foreign to much of the Christian tradition, and that recommendation has created another issue altogether: Having commissioned a special study, will the General Assembly even discuss it? Or, as many opponents of the report fervently hope, will it be squelched in committee before ever reaching the floor?
Regardless of their views on sexuality, many Presbyterians see the effort to stifle the discussion as an affront to the church's governance procedure. Eleven former church leaders have signed a letter urging the General Assembly at least to discuss the report, if only as an expression of support for the system of government by which the study was commissioned.
Governance is an important issue to Presbyterians who, unlike hierarchical churches, have evolved a representative democracy with power diffused among local churches, area presbyteries, regional synods and the national General Assembly. But for most Presbyterians, the issue that looms even larger over the debate is the interpretation of scripture.
xTC Officially, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not cling to an absolutely literal, fundamentalist reading of the Bible, but instead affirms that the study of scripture can be illumined by historical and literary insights as well as theological reflection. But as this controversy shows, striking that balance is easier said than done.
Put simply, the issue as many Presbyterians see it is this: By reinterpreting its approach to sexuality in a way that eases prohibitions against homosexuality or sex outside of marriage, is the church using the Bible to shape its view of culture? Or, as critics contend, is it simply allowing the contemporary culture to shape its interpretation of scripture?
Opponents of the report -- including six of the 17 members of the committee who filed a separate dissent -- maintain that the Bible condemns homosexual practices as well as sexual relations outside of marriage and that there is no compelling evidence, scientific or otherwise, to depart from traditional interpretations of those injunctions.
Others point out the inherent problems in applying scriptural passages about sex to every contemporary situation. What, they ask, are we to make of the sexual practices of the patriarch Jacob, who not only had two wives, but also fathered children by his wives' servants? Or the story in Genesis about Lot, who offered his virginal daughters as a distraction to a band of Sodomites who were clamoring for him to hand over his male house guests?
For their part, the authors of the report cite "the scope of sexual pain in our society" they encountered in fulfilling their assignment and say their hope is to "offer bread, not stone -- and to share a word [about sexuality] that is faithful, sparked with hope and full of grace."
What they offer is an approach to sexuality that attempts to rise above the rightness or wrongness of specific sexual acts by drawing together biblical themes of justice and love into an ethic that can apply consistently to everyone, single or married, heterosexual or homosexual.
The result is a sweeping document that addresses the thorny questions that face Americans today, from sexual activity among adolescents to the sexual needs and longings of people with physical handicaps, the elderly, people suffering from chronic or terminal illnesses. It also discusses sexual abuse and exploitation, within families and within marriage, as well as the issue of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. This is not a timid report.
Predictably, neither is the response; 89 of the church's 171 presbyteries, or regional associations, are bringing overtures to General Assembly that in some way oppose the report.
Is sex simply too hot for the church to handle? Or, could it be that the report tells Presbyterians more than they really wanted to know?
Clearly, in a society in which sexual allure is used to sell everything from cigarettes to cars to denture cream, sexuality is a major issue in people's lives -- an issue that can't be fully addressed by just saying no.
Yet churches are most effective when they have a clear and simple message. And the General Assembly convenes this week in a city struggling to cope with the nation's highest rates of babies born to unmarried adolescents who are, by almost every yardstick, unprepared for parenthood.
Even for some Presbyterians who adamantly oppose a blanket prohibition on the ordination of any category of people -- whether women or homosexuals -- the notion of sending a less-than-clear message about the risks of adolescent sex is a mistake that could be fatal for society.
William McKinney, dean of Hartford Seminary and a respected sociologist of religion, understands that objection. A bumper sticker that says "Just say no," is readily grasped, he notes. But what about one that says, "Just as long as it conforms to an ethic of justice-love"?
"It preaches the wrong way," Dr. McKinney says, "even if yohave to recognize that the church is in a mess with regard to sexuality."
And there's the dilemma. For middle-class parents trying to guide children through a sex-obsessed society, to young people struggling with sexual identity, to single people of all ages, to inner-city adolescents and even to couples trying to make a marriage work -- there is clearly a need for a word of joy and hope.
The report may well contain a message the church and the world need to hear. But a sophisticated, highly nuanced document that would surely get high marks as a scholarly exercise may well be more than people struggling to make it through each day are able to digest.
In the end, the outcome at the General Assembly may not be the best way to judge this controversy. After all, 30,000 copies (plus uncounted photocopies) of the 196-page majority report and the 63-page minority dissent are in circulation. That fact alone suggests that the committee's work was not in vain.