Let’s Talk About Sex, Says New Religious Institute Report

Wendy Norris

Encouraging spiritual leaders and congregations to promote open, factual discussions on sex, sexuality and social justice is the focus of a new report by the Religious Institute.

The intersection of spirituality and sexuality is often fraught with contradictions that bear little resemblance to the intimate lives of clergy or their flock.


Or as Martin Marty puts it, "Religion is just like sex. If you get it right, it’s beautiful. But if you get it wrong, it really messes you up."

The religious history scholar and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago was only half joking.

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From thunderous condemnations of sensuality outside of married procreative sex to embarrassed fidgeting in pastoral counseling sessions, theologians have struggled for eons to talk about personal intimacy and gender-based social justice.

Encouraging spiritual leaders and congregations to promote open, factual discussions on personal relationships and social justice within a faith-based context is the focus of a new report by the Religious Institute .

The newly revised declaration, Sexuality and Religion 2020: Goals for the Next Decade , builds on the initial confab of progressive faith leaders held at the millennium:

In 2000, the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing proposed a new sexual ethic – an ethic focused on personal relationships, integrity and justice, rather than on particular sexual acts. This ethic upholds the right and responsibility of all persons to lead sexual lives that express love, mutuality, commitment, consent and pleasure. Grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings, it 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.

The original declaration was endorsed by 3,300 religious leaders and 50 faith traditions, according to the Rev. Debra Haffner, executive director of the institute.

The updated ten-point plan outlines specific recommendations for modernizing seminary and pastoral continuing education on sexuality, demonstrating a commitment to healthy sexuality as a tenet of social justice, collaborating with multi-faith, health and GLBT advocacy organizations, and to stop ceding the national debate on relationship issues to conservative religious leaders.

While progress has been made on the ordination of women, gays and lesbians and same-sex marriage among other concerns, Haffner expressed a need to move their work from the pulpit to the pews.

"Religious leaders need to hear and respond to the needs of congregants," said Haffner. We need to break the silence around sexuality that persists in too many of our faith communities."

Haffner cited a 2008 institute study that found 70 percent of progressive Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist clergy did not preach about reproductive justice though they support the concept. That silence results in religious advisors struggling to provide pastoral care on the full flower of intimate relationships, sexual dysfunction, domestic violence and life span sexuality.

One of the key remedies outlined in the report is to include sexuality education as a part of religious training. The report notes that a survey of 36 mainline Protestant, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist seminaries, ministerial candidates could graduate without taking a single sexuality course in all but one program.

In response, the Unitarian Universalist Association released a statement coinciding with the Tuesday’s report that it will now require all ministerial candidates to "demonstrate competency" in sexuality issues before ordination. With more than 1,000 congregations nationwide, it is the first major denomination to integrate sexuality education into its seminary curriculum.

Tim Palmer, who co-authored the institute report with Haffner, raised recent news accounts as examples of the importance of progressive religious leaders also speaking out on sexual justice issues away from the pulpit and counseling office.

Palmer pointed to the debate to repeal the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell" ban on openly gay service members in the military, continued legal battles over California’s Prop 8 marriage amendment and renewed calls for federal funding of ineffective abstinence-until-marriage sex education as opportunities for clergy to provide moral guidance to the public at-large.

One aspect of that work is in empowering the religious community to become more vocal in political and policy debates where conservative views dominate. The Faithful Voices Network, a new initiative launched in conjunction with the report, is the first multi-faith grassroots network that will advocate for sexual, health, education and justice issues at the state and local level.

Nancy Ratzan, president of the National Council of Jewish Women , was careful to note that "We need to remain ever vigilant that the work for social justice policies isn’t intended to and doesn’t impose religious doctrine on others." 

"We often need to remember that were not seeking to enshrine in law our religious beliefs about these issues but rather to be inspired by our beliefs to seek public policy that reflects tolerance, equality and promotes religious freedom."

While secular community members may be relieved to know they won’t need to engage in policy battles from their left flank not all progressive-leaning organizations are completely on board with the reports’ goals.

Rev. Ann Tiemeyer hinted at objections to the more controversial aspects of marriage equality and issues regarding sexual orientation. Unlike their more uniformly homogeneous conservative brethren, the 45-million member strong National Council of Churches USA is the largest and most demographically diverse group of Christian churches in the country. Tiemeyer admitted but did not elaborate on disagreements within the council’s 100,000 congregations on some positions taken in the report.

"Every congregation whether liberal, conservative, evangelical, orthodox or progressive has a responsibility to address the sexual needs of its congregants in the context of its own beliefs and teachings," Tiemeyer demurred.

However, she did point out that the council would encourage its members to participate in the Faithful Voices Network to help move sexual health and ethics as a pastoral priority in its local churches.

For Haffner that’s half the battle.

“Sexuality is too central to our lives, too connected to our spirituality, and too potentially harmful for the silence in our faith communities to continue,” she said. 

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