Can we talk?

New report suggests congregations need to move forward on issues of sexuality

A new report from the Religious Institute suggests what the church needs today is more sex.

Specifically, Sexuality & Religion 2020: Goals for the Next Decade says America's religious leaders must do a better job of promoting sexual health, education and justice in congregations and communities.

"Achieving this vision is the work of clergy and congregations, of denominations and seminaries, and of advocates and activists of all faiths who believe we must change the conversation around sexuality and religion," the Rev. Debra W. Haffner, executive director of the Religious Institute, said in a news release about the report.

The report is based on findings such as a 2008 survey of mainline Protestant clergy that revealed more than 70 percent seldom or never discuss sexuality issues and a Religious Institute study that said seminaries and denominations do not require competencies in sexuality issues for future clergy.

Dr. Ellen Armour, director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender and Sexuality at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, said most Christian churches are leery of talking about sexual issues.

Further, she said, seminaries are afraid of stirring up controversy, so they don't discuss sexual matters because the churches who hire seminary trained students would be nervous about their new hires.

"It goes back to a theological anxiety about it," Dr. Armour said.

The Rev. Jeff Briere, minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga, said every congregation has people who would prefer a minister talk about some topics more and some topics less.

"(Sexuality issues) are not something I avoid," he said. "They're not a taboo subject. I have spoken from the pulpit about sexuality and sexual justice."

The Rev. Pauline Pezzino, pastor of Resurrection Lutheran Church, said she has not spoken directly about sexuality in the pulpit.

"The pulpit is for the proclamation of the gospel, which is Christ crucified, buried, and raised," she said in an e-mail. "Everything else, including human sexuality, is secondary and can only be viewed through the gospel lens of love and justice, which would require long conversations not possible in a sermon."

In a statement coinciding with the release of the report, the Unitarian Universalist Association announced it would require all ministerial candidates to demonstrate competency in sexuality issues before ordination. The requirement is the first major denomination in the country to do so, according to a news release.

Mr. Briere said his theological education included training on sexuality morality, how to be alert for sexual predators and other topics.

"It opened my eyes to some of the issues surrounding sex and gender," he said. "I could have used more, to tell you the truth."

Resources at the time, both in people and books, were few, Mr. Briere said.

"It was a topic people had just been alerted to," he said.

Mrs. Pezzino said she was comfortable with her recent seminar training.

"I was adequately trained by the faculty and formed by the Holy Spirit in my understanding of human sexuality," she said.

One of the report's 10 goals for clergy, denominations and seminaries is to become more effective advocates of comprehensive sexuality education, sexual and reproductive health, and the full inclusion of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.

The general issue of sexual justice, according to Dr. Armour, is to ensure people in churches and seminaries aren't discriminated against based on sexual orientation or gender expression. That would include no restriction on ordination, the ability to marry the person of one's own choosing and the ability to be a full member with all the rights and responsibilities of the congregation of one's choosing, she said.

"It's a sexual ethic based on justice and love and good treatment," she said.

Mr. Briere said he thought sexual justice is the most pressing sexuality issue congregations will have to deal with in the near future.

"I suspect the biggest thing is whether congregations will be open and welcoming to people who are different than you," he said.

Mrs. Pezzino said there are still a variety of opinions on such issues.

"I see attitudes in the church changing toward the embrace of gays and lesbians," she said. "However, in a church that is not in consensus on the issue, I also see the opposite."

Whatever the feelings of individual congregation members, officials said, discussion on sexuality issues is worth having.

"The best place for churches to start is with a conversation," said Dr. Armour. "Set a context where questions about sexuality can be raised in a form that isn't punitive, so the first move isn't judgment.

It should start, she said, where the members are and on what issues are relevant.

"We should talk more in small groups, where there is safe space for healthy, respectful dialogue," said Mrs. Pezzino.

"The worst thing is keep (your) concerns bottled up," said Mr. Briere. "They'll squirt out in the most unlikely places. It can't hurt to talk to one another, but you don't start out by demanding change, by pounding your fist on the table."


* A 2008 survey of mainline Protestant clergy found solid majorities seldom or never speak out on lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender issues (57 percent), abortion (74 percent) or sex education in public schools (87 percent).

* Among mainline Protestant congregations, only 31 percent offer marriage enrichment programs, 26 percent offer youth sexuality education, 15 percent offer pregnancy counseling and 14 percent have ministries serving lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender persons and families.

* A 2008 Religious Institute survey of progressive Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist clergy found nearly 40 percent had not preached on sexual orientation in at least two years, 70 percent had not preached on reproductive justice and 75 percent had not addressed sex education from the pulpit.