Friday, December 12, 2014

Sex and the Seminarian

Let's talk about sex.  Or more appropriately, sexuality.  But "Sex and the Seminarian" was a catchier title for this blog post.  Yeah, it's uncomfortable.  I am hoping it doesn't get me called before my bishop, but I sort of feel compelled to reflect upon this important issue.

I read a post this morning from the Fidelia's Sisters blog called "Holy Sexuality", which was written anonymously, which says something about this whole issue, reflecting on sexuality, shame, and leaders of the church.  So I am not writing mine anonymously.

The author reflects on how entering seminary and the ordination process felt like "going back in time" with regards to standards of morality.  The author does not specify her denomination, but I will compare it with my tradition, the ELCA.

At the beginning of candidacy, candidates are asked to read and sign the document "Visions and Expectations" which outlines standards of conduct for rostered leaders.

With regards to sex, the document says the following (From the ELCA social statement on human sexuality): "It is in marriage that the highest degrees of physical intimacy are matched with and protected by the highest levels of binding commitment, including legal protection. It is in marriage that public promises of lifetime commitment can create the foundation for trust, intimacy, and safety."  

And pertaining to single people, "Single ordained ministers are expected to live a chaste life, holy in body and spirit, honoring the single life, and working for the good of all."


And for places that do not provide for same gender marriage, the ELCA says this: "An ordained minister who is in a publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationship is expected to live in fidelity to his or her partner, giving expression to sexual intimacy within a publicly accountable relationship that is mutual, chaste, and faithful." 


To summarize this document, sexual intimacy belongs within the bounds of marriage or a committed legal relationship.  When I started seminary, a friend told me  (who shall remain nameless for their own protection) that "You can be celibate or you can be smart."  Meaning, don't get caught.


I guess I would like to boldly ask for choices beyond celibacy or secrecy for seminarians and clergy people.  How about we invite a conversation about healthy sexuality? The Christian Church has shamed sexuality (particularly that of women) for far too long.  Sex was seen as merely procreative and otherwise, just plain icky. By cloaking sexuality within a cloud of secrecy, we open ourselves up to all sorts of unhealthy attitudes.

Sexuality was created by God for the mutual intimacy and consolation of both partners, so let's start there as a place of conversation.  It can be a healthy (and holy) expression of what it means to be created beings. By moving sexuality out of the shroud of secrecy, we also can be important participants in the societal conversation regarding sexual consent.  The Church can be an important voice in helping to uphold the dignity and worth of all people by encouraging open and honest communication about sex.  By making sex shameful in the eyes of the church, we further victimize those who have been hurt.

Seminarians have sex.  Clergy people have sex.  Some of them are married.  Some of them are not. We need to acknowledge that sexual intimacy is a healthy expression of what it is to be human and that our desire for closeness with another is a good gift from God.  I do think it is possible to have a healthy, faithful expression of sexuality within a relationship that does not have the bounds of marriage. 


By holding clergypeople to these standards (which I have described as "Puritanical" on some days), we set up a boundary between ourselves and the rest of the world.  Our people, our parishioners, do not wait for marriage to have sex or to live together. I think that it is possible for clergy to take the lead in modeling healthy, mature, faithful, respectful relationships just like we model sabbath and discipleship and being in community with one another. 


And to my detractors who feel like this is just me wanting to do whatever I want, I concede there might be some measure of truth to that argument, but mostly I just want the sexual shaming in our world to stop. Stop the shaming.  Open doors for communication and consent and faithful expressions of desire.  


Stop using the argument of "Biblical Marriage" because that does not mean just one thing in the Bible (One man and his entire harem?  One man, one wife, and the wife's servant?), and it certainly does not mean what we think it means for us now. 


Let's boldly, prophetically, and faithfully create a new narrative around sex.  Not just for clergy and seminarians, but for all people. Let's make it one of respect and openness, not secrecy and sneaking around.  Let's make it one of faithfulness to God and one another, not one of dishonesty. Let's contribute positively to the discussion around consent for sexual intimacy.  Let's contribute positively to the discussion around dismantling heterosexual privilege. 


I was accused of being too optimistic in discussing this on social media this morning. Maybe I am.  But I also know that nothing will change if someone doesn't hold hope for it to be different.
 

6 comments:

mnfauth said...

My CYF Thesis paper was titled "Sex & Church", asking for essentially this. I had no suggestions, merely plead for discussion knowing there was hurt we couldn't help because people (and we) were too ashamed to bring it up. Thanks for your courage, I'm all about the conversation!!

Morgan Bach said...

Really refreshing to read. Thanks Amy!

Josh Stromberg said...

Amy, I am also a current ELCA seminarian, and at the risk of trouble with my candidacy committee, I fully support your opinion. Here's a paper I just wrote this fall discussing how Augustine's Neoplatonist and Stoic negative views of sexuality as tied to original sin and his positive view of celibacy has hugely influenced the church today:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/9u55h1mengr664a/Augustine%20Paper.docx?dl=0

I think there is also some intriguing material about this from Luther's commentary on the 6th commandment (adultery) in the large catechism, as he denounces the Catholic Church practice of celibacy vows: "for flesh and blood remain flesh and blood, and the natural inclination and excitement have their course without let or hindrance, as everybody sees and feels."

Let's get this conversation started.

Josh Stromberg said...

Amy, I am also a current ELCA seminarian, and at the risk of trouble with my candidacy committee, I fully support your opinion. Here's a paper I just wrote this fall discussing how Augustine's Neoplatonist and Stoic negative views of sexuality as tied to original sin and his positive view of celibacy has hugely influenced the church today:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/9u55h1mengr664a/Augustine%20Paper.docx?dl=0

I think there is also some intriguing material about this from Luther's commentary on the 6th commandment (adultery) in the large catechism, as he denounces the Catholic Church practice of celibacy vows: "for flesh and blood remain flesh and blood, and the natural inclination and excitement have their course without let or hindrance, as everybody sees and feels."

Let's get this conversation started.

Kaitlin Winter-Eulberg said...

Hey there Amy! I'm a third year at PLTS in Berkeley and really resonate with all that you shared about the ELCA's silence/judgment around sexuality. We are called as leaders to shift the way we see sexuality in the church and have honest conversations about sexuality and sex. I've been recently reading a lot of articles about God as transgender and experiencing the erotic God that urges us to be embodied, sexual beings in the world in beautiful, profound ways.

I believe I remember connecting with you at Sky Ranch when I worked there (2008 and 2010) and at Lutheran Campus Ministry where my mom Connie Winter-Eulberg was pastor! So good to see that you are a colleague in speaking out about how sexuality is integral to our being. Looking forward to connecting more with you!

I just did a research project specifically about Vision and Expectations in terms of sexuality and sex and did a survey with 130 participants from 5 Lutheran seminaries! It was enlightening and helpful to explore how we can transform the way we as ministry leaders can talk about sexuality.

Thanks for your wisdom, courage, passion, and vocational call in this world.

Alexandra Hjerpe said...

Thank you for this excellent writing piece. I'm a first year MDiv student at Wartburg Theological Seminary, and I am currently formulating a grad thesis on this exact topic! Specifically I am looking at the formation of norms in Christian sexual ethics, and examining the relationship between this historical identity with today. Thank you thank you. Let's keep in touch, yeah? We need to keep exploring this pertinent conversation!!! my email is ahjerpe@wartburgseminary.edu.