For some people, the idea that anyone any time, any where should have to keep their pants zipped is anathema. Writing in the Huffington Post, The Rev. Debra Haffner, director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, shows us the next–but no doubt not final–frontier in the battle to sexually liberate America’s clergy:
On Friday, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted by a substantial margin to affirm the ministries of gay and lesbian clergy in “committed, lifelong, same-gender relationships.” In the words of my colleagues at the ELCA, the vote means “ending the discriminatory two‐tier system of the past and holding all ministers to the same high standard in their relationships.”
All of this is excellent news for same-sex couples, of course, but the emphasis on “committed, lifelong relationships” leaves out the single minister, the divorced minister, the widowed minister — whether gay, straight, or bisexual — who must still adhere to a standard of celibacy unless their partner status changes.
I’ve long believed that the major sexuality problem denominations face is that they are unable to acknowledge that celibacy until marriage doesn’t apply to most single adults. There are more than 75 million American adults who are single — more than at any time in history. We are marrying later, divorcing at high levels, and living longer, so more of us will be widowed. And as a whole, we’re having sexual relationships when we aren’t in marriages.
The ELCA has joined other denominations in confirming that it wants its clergy coupled for life — or sexless. But just as the prohibition on gay and lesbian clergy in relationships didn’t work (but merely drove people in relationships underground), I’m guessing that a lot of single clergy aren’t giving up sex, either. Further, an inability for clergy to live authentically open sexual lives may actually fuel misconduct and inappropriate behavior. It makes sense to require that clergy not engage in sexual relationships with congregants; it does not make sense to ask them to give up adult sexual lives outside of the congregation.
The Religious Institute has long called for a new sexual ethic to replace the traditional “celibacy until marriage, chastity after.” This new ethic is free of double standards based on sexual orientation, sex, gender or marital status. It calls for sexual relationships to be consensual, non-exploitative, honest, pleasurable and protected, whether inside or outside of a covenanted relationship. It insists that intimate relationships be grounded in communication and shared values.
Please allow me to translate: sex by any adult, loosely defined, that is agreeable to all parties is hunky-dory. Despite the title, there really are no discernible limits here–not just fornication, but adultery, polyamory, polygamy, and pretty much anything else you can think of is perfectly OK by Haffner’s Hefnerist approach. This is what the Unitarian Haffner is advocating, not just for swingin’ UUs, but for all religious leaders. The ELCA, in insisting on fidelity and commitment in relationships and celibacy for the uncommitted, is just not with it. For what it’s worth, Haffner has at least one fan among the repressed Lutheran clergy. “Dougk56” writes in the comments:
As an ELCA pastor, I think this is right on target. Nearly 20 years ago the ELCA attempted to adopt a sexuality statement that honestly addressed the changing nature of sexual relations. It went down in flames. Now we have adopted a much more conservative and hesitant document that is way behind the cultural curve and provides little in the way of genuine insight or guidance on these questions. Rather than frankly acknowledging people’s real sexual lives we are trying to prop up outdated standards which even conservative Christians are ignoring. Thanks for calling us out on this and highlighting the unresolved question of rewarding and responsible sex for singles.
By the way, in case anyone thinks this is just one nutball and her “institute” that think it’s time for clergy to drop their linen and start their grinnin’, check out the list of endorsers of the statement to which Haffner makes reference in her column. It’s not all Unitarians, not by any stretch of the imagination. There are over 3500 names on that list, over 75 of which are associated with the mainline’s many seminaries, and some of which are pretty well known: Walter Wink, James Cone, Douglas Ottati, Marvin Ellison, Paul Capetz, Barbara Lundblad, and Jack Rogers, along with a grab-bag of Episcopal and United Methodist bishops, lots of PCUSA, UCC, Baptist, Lutheran, and Disciples pastors, etc.
UODATE: I don’t normally point this sort of thing out, but Rev. Haffner came by to respond to my post, which she characterizes as “derisive and inaccurate.” Take a look at the rest of her comment and see what you think.