All Grown Up? Part Two
Aiken UU Church
January 12 2012
Friday the 13th – 2 days ago – was not just another day known for bad luck. In the northern Texas town of Grapevine, there was a lot of excitement over what an evangelical pastor and his wife were doing on the roof of their mega-church. You may have seen the interviews done this week with Pastor Ed Young and his wife Lisa, co-founders of Fellowship Church and co-authors of a new book called: Sexperiment – 7 Days to Lasting Intimacy with Your Spouse.
They say they want to ‘bring God back into the bed’ and to tell married couples that a strong sex life should work to unite them outside the bedroom; they propose that couples have sex for 7 days straight to see the amazing results of such intimacy for their relationships. So to drive home the point on Friday they put a bed on the roof of Grapevine Fellowship Church and began a 24-hour bed-in. Those of us who are old enough to remember John Lennon and Yoko Ono doing the same thing in a hotel room in Canada to protest the Vietnam War remember how much fun was made of them.
Not all evangelicals are thrilled with Pastor Young’s rooftop bedroom stunt either: an article in Christianity Today suggests a profit-seeking motive - but not only does it ‘vault the book onto the bestseller list on Amazon for a day,’ the article declares it is lacking in modesty. And the message of Pastor Young makes the single life look somehow deficient instead of an equal but different lifestyle choice. (Matthew Lee Anderson, “The Trouble with Ed Young’s Rooftop Sexperiment,” 1/12/2012
So the pastor and his wife have come along just at the right time for my sermon today!
Why should the topic of sex and sexuality be brought up in a Sunday sermon? Because it’s a topic that has implications far beyond the bedroom. Our sexual ethic, according to the Religious Institute, should be “focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts” (Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, http://religiousinstitute.org/religious-declaration-on-sexual-morality-justice-and-healing).
The Religious Institute was founded in 2001 “to promote sexual health, education and justice in faith communities and society” (“About the Religious Institute,” www.religiousinstitute.org). Its mission is “to change the way America understands the relationship of sexuality and religion.” It operates in a multifaith context across the US, partnering with clergy and congregations as well as with advocacy organizations, seminaries, and sexual and reproductive health communities.
Specifically, it promotes:
o Sexually healthy faith communities
o Full equality of women and of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in congregations and communities
o Marriage equality for same-sex couples
o Comprehensive sexuality education
o Reproductive justice
o A responsible approach to adolescent sexuality
o Sexual abuse prevention
o HIV/AIDS education and prevention
(“About the Religious Institute,” www.religiousinstitute.org)
Now, I can’t possibly get around to talking about all of those points in one sermon! But I will begin with some information about the person who has driven this sexual justice agenda in American progressive religious circles for the past 10 years.
The Institute’s Executive Director and co-founder is the Rev Dr Debra Haffner, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and a sexologist. She has appeared on the Bill O’Reilly Show to debate the issue of sex education for elementary school children, and has written recently in the Huffington Post and The Washington Post on the Penn State scandal. Rev Dr Haffner was an adviser to the UUA on the development of the Our Whole Lives lifespan sexual education curricula, in which now over 7000 facilitators have been trained. Debra Haffner also co-authored an online UUA course called “Balancing Act: Keeping Children Safe in Congregations” (Michelle Bates Deakin, “UU Sexologist Debates Bill O’Reilly, UU World, Winter 2007, 49).
Recently the UUA added to the number of competencies – there are now 15 - in which a ministry candidate must show proficiency when going before the Ministerial Fellowship Committee; the addition was the competency ‘Sexual Health, Sexual Boundaries, Sexual Justice.’ One way that I could fulfill the requirement for this competency was for me to take an online course offered to ministry candidates by the Religious Institute, called “Sexuality Issues for Religious Professionals.” My enrollment in this course was then supplemented by going to the fall retreat of the Southeastern UU Ministers’ Association, where the Rev Dr Haffner was the program speaker. I had lunch one day with her, because she was kind enough to offer to sit with the interns attending the retreat, to talk about the Ministerial Fellowship Committee process, since she is on that committee. I completed the Religious Institute online course by the end of last month, and was just notified this past week that I have a certificate to prove it!
One thing that the Rev Dr Haffner says is that sexuality education is a religious issue, and that it is tied in with our religious commitment - as a people of faith - to truth telling: “people should have full and accurate information, not biased and censored” (UU World). In the UU World article about her debate with O’Reilly, one of her comments sounds very much in tune with the north Texas pastor who put his bed on the rooftop this week: she says that she hopes people will see that they can be “sexual people and religious people” (UU World). Religion is better known for its condemnation, constraint or exclusion of people who do not follow its teachings on sexuality. Many people have been hurt and damaged by the refusal of some faith traditions to address the sexual dysfunctions in their own communities and leadership. But when we look at the major faiths, we can see that there are many traditions that celebrate sexuality through their theology, practices and their holy texts.
Native American spirituality, for example, embraces ambiguity in the sexes with traditions that honor ‘two-spirit’ people, and the Hindu tradition recognizes three sexes and divine entities that transcend the categories of sex and gender. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Song of Songs is one well-known example of erotic poetry. In the Christian letter of Paul to the Galatians, the verse that gives hope for an inclusive community says that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). (D. Haffner and D. Palmer, Sexuality and Religion 2020, Religious Institute, 2010, 8).
Our religious faith should help us grow in maturity; it should help us grow in self-awareness and self-acceptance. Our UU principles can guide us in this: the first principle promotes respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. The second calls for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. And for us UUs, we should be accepting of the claim that sexual justice does not stand apart from other forms of social justice: Haffner writes, “Because all injustice is rooted in oppression, religious leaders have a special role to seek to eradicate not only sexism and homophobia, but all forms of oppression that undermine equality and right relationship…” (D. Haffner and D. Palmer, Sexuality and Religion 2020, Religious Institute, 2010, 10)
I would love for the Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church to be able to declare that it is a sexually healthy and responsible congregation. In order to make that a reality, we members and friends of the church should work on what it means to be a sexually healthy adult. That doesn’t mean we can claim to be perfect, but this is not as difficult as you may think. Just as, last week, we talked about being grown up in our approach to conflict, we are called on to accept what, for some, are weighty responsibilities. Some of us grew up and became sexually active in the 60s; it was a time of sexual liberation and experimentation. Some congregations were lax in their sexual mores, and some ministers engaged in inappropriate relationships with congregants.
At that time, issues, such as homosexuality, were thought of in much less accepting ways: in 1967, 88% of UUs thought that homosexuality should be discouraged by law or through education (“Sexuality and the UUA: Fifty Years of Sexual Justice and a Call to the Future,” GA presentation, June 2011). And in our society some behaviors, such as rape, were not considered to be such serious breaches as we know them to be today: you may know that, until 1993, North Carolina did not consider spousal rape to be a crime.
But today, there are two things I ask you to reflect on that can determine whether you are a sexually healthy adult:
First, do you understand that a person can have sexual feelings without acting on them?
Second, do you only engage in sexual behaviors and relationships that are life-enhancing and not potentially harmful to yourself or others?
The first question – do you understand that a person can have sexual feelings without acting on them? - is about self-knowledge and self-control; the second is about power. The first question asks us to practice restraint and honesty: we may indeed meet someone who is quite attractive, and we could even wonder about the potential for a sexual encounter. It takes a grown-up ability to perceive our feelings and it takes control not to act on them if it is not appropriate.
The second question - do you only engage in sexual behaviors and relationships that are life-enhancing and not potentially harmful to yourself or others? - is about consensual and unexploitative action. If two people share equal power in a relationship and find it mutually pleasurable then that is a win-win, life-enhancing situation. But we know that it is too easy to take advantage of people who are unequal to us in terms of power, who might not be protected, or might not have the level of maturity to engage in a sexual relationship. If your behavior is harmful to yourself or others, then may you find it within yourself to stop any offensive or coercive action.
The Progressive Religious Coalition interfaith celebration of the life of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. that was held in Augusta Thursday night included an offertory; the recipient of the offering was Child Enrichment Inc. I was honored to call for the offering, and while I was composing my remarks earlier in the week, I called and spoke with the executive director of Child Enrichment, Dan Hillman. Although I had already done my research to understand the mission of the organization, he gave me more of the context for why they need the support of the community. The mission of Child Enrichment Incorporated is to provide and coordinate comprehensive intervention, advocacy and prevention for abandoned, neglected, and sexually abused children (http://childenrichment.org/). It was established in 1977 by a group of physicians, nurses, and social workers. Child Enrichment helps abuse survivors, both children and adults, to overcome their experience and to rebuild their lives; some cases go to court and are exposed to media coverage, but most are anonymous and little-known. Dan Hillman said that if I wanted to, I could add something to my offertory remarks that he always adds when he is speaking to people about the importance of the work Child Enrichment does – and it fits right in with my appeal today for us to be ‘grown up’: he said that in today’s epidemic of child abuse and sexual abuse, every one of us needs to be a responsible adult to support the work that needs to be done in the years ahead to protect children and to help heal them.
So the Rev Dr Haffner stressed during the retreat in November that congregations need to be ready to support their children by having not only sexuality education like Our Whole Lives, but with policies against sexual exploitation or harassment of any kind within the faith community. When she asked for feedback at the end of the retreat, and asked us to tell her one important thing we heard her say, I replied with, “Written policy is your friend”…because she said it at a time when our congregation here in Aiken had just found that out, through the work that has been done on our recent safe congregation policy. Our Safety and Ethics Committee has done a wonderful job, taking its responsibility very seriously, to craft a policy that can help to protect our children and indeed protect all members of the congregation. But the Rev Dr Haffner did also say that there often is resistance from a congregation to the creation and enactment of policy guidelines – it could be the anti-authoritarian strain that lives on in fellowships, or it could be the individualistic streak of the UU culture. But any church that takes seriously its pastoral ministry to its children, members, and friends will want to pay attention to safety issues in terms of sexual health and responsibility.
And let me just mention a few of the issues that might come up in a congregation that might cause anxiety and then, if not addressed, cause conflict – remember that anxiety about sex is one of the most common triggers of conflict? There may be some past clerical sexual misconduct affecting a present-day congregation; there could be inconsistent or incomplete vetting of Children’s RE staff that results in sexual harassment; there could be a limited access agreement with a registered sex offender; there could be a female minister dealing with unwanted sexual comments in a group setting; one thing there could be definitely at the moment is sexual abuse survivors being retraumatized by the Penn State sexual abuse scandal in the news; and there could be congregations experiencing friction from divorced partners who have new partners... and the list could go on. So when we say that a faith community should be sexually healthy, that clearly is the expression of an ideal! We won’t be there yet, but it is worth working towards.
So what are the characteristics that define a sexually healthy faith community? According to the Religious Institute:
o It has religious leadership that has experience and training in worship and preaching as well as counseling about sexuality issues.
o It offers sexuality education for children and youth and a variety of services and programs to support the sexuality needs of the adults in the community.
o It welcomes all people and all types of families into the faith community as full participating members, and values diversity.
o It has explicit policies against sexual exploitation or harassment of any kind within the faith community.
o It works for sexual justice at the denomination level as well as in the society at large.
(A Time to Build, Religious Institute, 2002, http://religiousinstitute.org/study-guide/a-time-to-build-creating-sexually-healthy-faith-communities, 5)
This last characteristic is one that we will acquire next month, when our congregation undertakes the Welcoming Congregation Program, which educates us in how we can welcome diversity and work for sexual justice in our church, in our community, and in the wider world.
One of the assessments that I had to complete in my online course last month concerned this church being a public witness to sexual justice. I think we are making a start here - in addition to the upcoming Welcoming Congregation program, we already play host to the local chapter of PFLAG – family and friends of lesbians and gays. One of the questions in the assessment asked whether the minister – me - was an endorser of the “Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing.” I’d read it a while back, but hadn’t signed on to it since coming to Aiken. So yesterday I became a signatory to the “Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing,” and I’ve made a copy to put onto the board in the hall. So please do have a look at it and feel free to ask for your own personal copy or make it yourself on our copier.
It’s not a long document and I would like to read it to you – remember that many progressive religious communities find God-language powerful and evocative, not to say persuasive, in claiming the higher moral ground…and it’s okay if you want to substitute in your own mind the phrases you might use instead, such as ‘higher power’, ‘spirit of life’, or ‘the divine’:
Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing:
Sexuality is God's life-giving and life-fulfilling gift. We come from diverse religious communities to recognize sexuality as central to our humanity and as integral to our spirituality. We are speaking out against the pain, brokenness, oppression and loss of meaning that many experience about their sexuality.
Our faith traditions celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality. We sin when this sacred gift is abused or exploited. However, the great promise of our traditions is love, healing and restored relationships.
Our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts. All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent and pleasure. Grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings, this ethic fosters physical, emotional and spiritual health. It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status or sexual orientation.
God hears the cries of those who suffer from the failure of religious communities to address sexuality. We are called today to see, hear and respond to the suffering caused by sexual abuse and violence against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons, the HIV pandemic, unsustainable population growth and over-consumption, and the commercial exploitation of sexuality.
Faith communities must therefore be truth-seeking, courageous and just. We call for:
· Theological reflection that integrates the wisdom of excluded, often silenced peoples, and insights about sexuality from medicine, social science, the arts and humanities.
· Full inclusion of women and LGBT persons in congregational life, including their ordination and marriage equality.
· Sexuality counseling and education throughout the lifespan from trained religious leaders.
· Support for those who challenge sexual oppression and who work for justice within their congregations and denominations.
Faith communities must also advocate for sexual and spiritual wholeness in society. We call for:
· Lifelong, age-appropriate sexuality education in schools, seminaries and community settings.
· A faith-based commitment to sexual and reproductive rights, including access to voluntary contraception, abortion, and HIV/STI prevention and treatment.
· Religious leadership in movements to end sexual and social injustice.
God rejoices when we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity. We, the undersigned, invite our colleagues and faith communities to join us in promoting sexual morality, justice, and healing.
Why did I sign the declaration? I suppose it’s my ‘little light’ that I can let shine. That light is a metaphor for the truth-seeking that we are called to do; for me that includes the ordination of women and making heard the voices of women in faith communities. Some major faith traditions in the world – including the Roman Catholic faith that I left to become a Unitarian Universalist - still do not allow women to become ordained religious leaders. By my ministering witness as a woman, I can give support to the full inclusion of women in congregational life.
But equally important to me is the need to witness, as the declaration says, to our faith-based commitment to sexual and reproductive rights, including access to voluntary contraception, abortion, and HIV/STI prevention and treatment. Is anyone under the illusion that this is not going to be an election topic? It already is, and certain politicians running for the Republican nomination have already expressed their opposition, not only to abortion, but to birth control. The hard-won victories for women’s reproductive rights from decades ago are under threat in 2012. I want to shine my little light to overcome that darkness.
I sign on gladly to the call for a sexual ethic that promotes the dignity and worth of women, LGBT members of our community, and other people who experience oppression in the search for justice and equality. I believe that we are all called to respond in both a pastoral and a prophetic sense to the signs of the times. Not only should we offer support and counsel to those in our midst who suffer now, our visionary witness to justice should pave the way for our children and help change how this country understands sexuality and religion. We have as UUs led change on many issues in the past – including equal rights for women, the right to contraception and abortion, full inclusion of homosexual, bisexual, and transgender ministers; and marriage equality.
On this weekend of remembering Dr King, we also recall that UU ministers, such as the Rev James Reeb, laid their lives on the line for social justice. Remember singing about how we’ll let our little light shine everywhere we go?
You and I together can let our light shine when we stand on the side of love on the issue of sexual justice.
We can let our light shine when we model progressive religious engagement and commitment to the sexual health of our congregations and our society.
And we can let our light shine when we demonstrate a grown-up respect for body and soul that can help to create a world “of sexual health, sexual justice, and sexual wholeness” (Haffner and Palmer, 36).
We might each only have a little light, but together we will let it shine until we light up the whole world.