Community of Christ Drafts Statement on Sexual Ethics

May 12, 2012

At the end of April, Community of Christ released to the church at large a “Draft Statement on Sexual Ethics” for public review and invited comments to be made by e-mail to the First Presidency. This Statement will be considered by the International Leaders Council (which has no strict equivalent in the LDS) in May and September. It will then be finalized as a basic reference in National Conferences scheduled in several developed countries for 2012 and 2013 to address issues related to the LGBT community in those nations.

The statement is presented neither as revelation, nor as inspired counsel, nor even as administrative church policy. It is a view of sexual ethics from a lofty philosophical perch — before we reengage, as we’ve recognized we must, in the scrimmaging in the Western nations about whether same sex marriage shall be permitted as a sacrament of Community of Christ, and/or whether the authority to hold the priesthood shall be unaffected by engaging in a committed, recognized non-heterosexual sexual relationship in those nations. Think of it as the referee determining how the kick off will be carried out before the teams take their positions, and hoping for divine guidance to be expressed in the coin toss.

If that seems overly cautious for a religious body, keep in mind what just happened at the United Methodist General Conference during the first week in May while the national gay rights movement was instead focused on the losing political contest in North Carolina:

“By a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent, the quadrennial legislative body of the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination rejected a proposal to change its position on homosexuality. The measure would have deleted the Book of Discipline’s contention that homosexual practice is ‘incompatible with Christian teaching’, replacing it with a call to ‘refrain from judgment regarding homosexual persons and practices until the Spirit leads us to new insight’.

“The motion to change United Methodist teachings on homosexual behavior was defeated by a bigger margin than a similar proposal at the 2008 General Conference. This year 54 percent of delegates also rejected a compromise that would have expressed Methodist disagreement on issues pertaining to homosexuality.

“…Gay rights activists then took to the convention floor singing ‘What Does the Lord Require of You?’ When the chairman of the morning session warned them they were hurting their cause by disrupting the General Conference, the gay rights demonstrators kept singing. An early lunch was called and there were threats to bar protestors from the proceedings.

“…What happened next was remarkable: proposals to ordain gay clergy and bless same-sex unions were effectively tabled. They were first pushed to the back of the agenda and then not voted on at all”

“… Avoiding further hurt feelings and unnecessary conflict was likely part of the equation. But the proposals weren’t voted on for another reason: they had no chance of passing. It now remains United Methodist policy that marriage is the union of one man and one woman; clergy cannot solemnize same-sex unions; and ordained ministers must be celibate outside of a marriage between a man and a woman or monogamous within marriage. Avowed, practicing gay clergy is prohibited.”

Even more illuminating for Community of Christ considerations is why the Methodists did what they did. As the report further notes:

“United Methodists have charted a different course than other mainline Protestants for a reason: while their church is losing members in the United States like the others, it is growing in Africa. Overwhelmingly orthodox Africans and American evangelicals are increasingly making up a working majority at General Conference. On many issues, the overseas delegates — now approaching 40 percent of the total — are more outspoken than their U.S. evangelical counterparts.”

This trend also places an important check on what CofChrist progressives, particularly in the United States, can hope to achieve in the National Conferences. Indeed, as I’ve written about previously, minimizing schismatic potential from the disagreement between American progressives and American and African conservatives on sexual cultural issues is one of the key motivations for addressing the discussion within National, rather than World Conferences (See also Stephen Marsh here).

And, for progressives within the LDS, where, unlike in the CofChrist, even the American leadership is still very conservative, the lesson is even more sobering. Expansion of LGBT rights may be on the trending side of Western history, but people are less prepared to say than they were even a few months ago (remember all the hopeful democracies peacefully arising from the Arab Spring?) that other nations are moving toward First World views on social issues.

So, what does the Statement actually say? Well, here, for American social progressives, there is actually a lot to like about the tone:

“We need to talk about sexual ethics.

“Human sexuality is a strong force experienced throughout one’s life. Depending on how we manage it, sexuality can bring blessing and wholeness or devastation and ruin. We need guidance for sexual ethics because our understandings and assumptions often are incomplete…

“The need for sexual ethics also come from the confusion, dysfunction, and suffering people experience in matters related to sexuality. Statistics related to sexual promiscuity, marital infidelity, unwanted pregnancies, sexual violence, child molestation, human sex trafficking, and the proliferation of sexually transmitted disease are sobering…

“We also must seriously consider the suffering of people who are sexually dominated, marginalized, and bullied. These often include children, women, and those whose sexuality does not include a heterosexual orientation. Therefore, in addition to individual guidance, a sexual-ethics statement should contribute to the strengthening of community that embodies God’s love and asserts the worth of all persons.

“Creating a statement about sexual ethics for a world-wide church is challenging. …Additionally, people from one culture typically have little understanding of sexual ethics in other cultures.

“…Another challenge is that the Bible offers no single ethic of sexuality, binding across time and cultures. It presents various sexual moralities in their historical contexts.”

“…However, scripture is essential to our consideration of sexual ethics. There are principles — such as love, justice, the worth of persons, covenant, and fidelity — that can be discovered through scripture and responsibly applied to sexual relationships through the Spirit’s guidance.”

Also notable is the adoption of a thoroughly modern “best understanding” of sexuality as a multi-dimensional topic. The Statement identifies seven separate aspects of sexuality:

1) Sex (chromosomal patterns, including arrangements other than female xx and male xy);

2) Gender identity (inner consciousness of sex as male or female, even if the consciousness does not match external form);

3) Gender expression (behavior, clothing);

4) Sexual orientation (primary sensual and emotional attraction);

5) Cultural expectations (how culture molds understanding and expression of sexuality);

6) Sexual behavior; and,

7) Sexual development (stages through which people pass as they sexually mature).

There is no statement affirming anything like the eternal nature of “male and female” in CofChrist theology, as there is in the LDS.  So principles of sexual ethics that are to govern church policies and practices — as well as individual behavior — can draw on insights from any of the seven aspects. Sexuality is “more complicated than many assume”, as one could already infer from Mormon Heretic’s post earlier this week.

And so the Statement’s principles become: 1) the worth and giftedness of all people; 2) protect the most vulnerable; 3) Christ-like love; 4) mutual respect; 5) responsibility; 6) justice; 7) covenant; and, 8 ) faithfulness.

The Statement then concludes with 15 paragraphs of affirmations and additions that elaborate on the principles, and partially bridge the gap between principles and the specific issues that individual cultures will have to address. I do not find any of the statements controversial, although they may strike hard at people who view sexual desire as inherently sinful. (That really is not a logical position for a Mormon theology that regards eternal replication of the heavenly family as a part of its cosmology anyway, so I don’t focus on that in this report as much as the Statement itself does.)

What do you think? The request by the First Presidency for comment is on a public official web site that does not restrict access in any way to CofChrist membership. So, after you comment in this thread, you can also review the full statement and email your own comments on the ethics statement to [email protected]. I can’t promise that you will influence the leadership, but they are a lot more accessible (because of the relative size of the church) than are the top leadership in the LDS.

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16 Responses to Community of Christ Drafts Statement on Sexual Ethics

  1. charity on May 12, 2012 at 4:24 PM

    What a timely voice in American life.
    We are all aware of the poles of thought on this subject.

    Thank you for bringing this information from the CofChrist and the Methodists. Having American-funded and American-based churches become subject to African and evangelical mores will bring a shift whose effects only time will reveal.
    Thank you for your writings.

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  2. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 12, 2012 at 5:38 PM

    I was amazed at the response some had to the concept of faithfulness.

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  3. Bonnie on May 12, 2012 at 6:01 PM

    Absolutely fascinating. I was not familiar with the CoC process of seeking comment and I really enjoyed the analysis of the statement.

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  5. FireTag on May 13, 2012 at 3:09 PM

    Bonnie: So, what exactly will you be telling the CofChrist First Presidency. :D

    Ethesis: I didn’t quite understand WHICH response to faithfulness you meant.

    Charity: Thank you.

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  6. Bonnie on May 13, 2012 at 8:47 PM

    Fire – I make a habit, as much as possible, of “hiding and watching” as my dad used to say, when I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m truly unfamiliar with the authority culture of the CoC, though I’m sure I will grow more so as we blog together! I’m really curious what the history is of public comment for doctrinal/policy issues in the CoC. I’m sure everyone else is much more familiar with that here, so I’ll have to go through your past posts and get up to speed. Waffle much, what do you think? ;)

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  7. prometheus on May 13, 2012 at 9:03 PM

    I really like this statement. Haven’t the time today to really give it a close read, but what I have read lays out the essential matters pretty clearly.

    At the end of the day, however one believes, the discussion is so important. Neither side can stick its head in the sand and refuse to think about the ethics of sexuality, and neither side can shout out how wrong the other side is.

    It is, as has been said, a complex part of ourselves that we are only now coming to grips with. I think that as our society becomes more self-aware and self-conscious, with access to more and more of the brain and our social impulses, we are finally in a position to begin learning about ourselves in ways that could never have happened before.

    The worst thing we can do is to shut down the discussion.

    Great post – I will read and send some feedback, FireTag.

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  8. FireTag on May 13, 2012 at 9:29 PM

    Bonnie:

    The church is very much making this process up as we go along. It perhaps started a few years ago with a prospective D&C section given at one conference without any motion by the Presidency to treat it as revelation at the time. (Normally all business stops until such a document is voted up — almost always — or down by the various quorums and the conference delegates, even if no one has seen it but the prophet and his secretary until they rush it to the printer for copying literally hours before.) After it was given time to “simmer” over the period between conferences, the document was followed by a second document saying the first was to now be considered revelation and basically “incorporated by reference” through normal approval of the second document.

    The process has also at times involved church-wide discussion of issues using guided materials (which will also be done for the gay rights issues) before the prophet gives a prospective D&C section on the topic.

    More recently, with the time between conferences going to 3 years, prospective revelations have been published several months in advance so that the quorums and delegations have had time for advance prayer and study before conference action.

    Section 164, which set up the national conferences, reverted to the earliest “stop the presses” form — because subordinate jurisdictions with rights to force conference resolutions onto the conference agenda had done so against the not-too-subtle advice of world church leadership. (Think of a state referendum putting something on the ballot that the state legislature had wanted to table.) The consideration and adoption of 164 made all further discussion of those resolutions out-of-order. (If only the Methodists had had that option available to them last week. :D )

    I believe, however, that this is the first time the church membership has had the opportunity to comment on an issue statement even before it’s been finalized by the leadership. Normally these things are done by committees appointed by the Presidency. Delegates see reports from the committees after the leadership gets them, but does not have time or opportunity to influence the formal policy or legislative recommendations that will flow from them. So this is the next step in consultation process evolution.

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  9. Bonnie on May 13, 2012 at 9:34 PM

    Fascinating. I’m really curious why comments from outside the faith would be considered (or is this just a function of opening the comments as widely as possible and the practical difficulty of determining membership of commenters?) I would think it would be counterproductive to invite comment from people like me who are clueless about the culture and heritage of the faith?

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  10. FireTag on May 13, 2012 at 10:07 PM

    Bonnie:

    The CofChrist has the dilemma you suspect in your comment; we can not both achieve feedback from church members and screen commenters against membership lists. We don’t even know who 1/4th of our members are anymore — we quite literally have an “unknown” membership category — because we no longer have enough members to keep track of our members. We are also trying to get opinions from people whose decisions about membership may be influenced, positively or negatively, by whatever policy decisions the conferences do or do not make.

    I know you aren’t in any of those categories, but don’t worry that your comments would contaminate any data. As you’ll note in my earlier posts, the whole national conference strategy can work only if it maintains a doctrinal firewall between our first world churches and our churches in fundamentalist countries, so that any change in ethical stands in the former are not attributed to apply to the latter by their enemies. (I’ve already seen one headline today about Kenyan evangelical bishops lashing out against Obama’s statement in support of gay marriage)
    So the extent, and not just the content, of non-member comments, is ITSELF a concrete data point the Presidency needs to have.

    In fact, comment 4, a track back from EthicsFind, is itself interesting. We don’t often get such attention from outside the Mormon community. I can imagine the headlines after any national conference already — regardless of what gets decided.

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  11. Bonnie on May 13, 2012 at 10:56 PM

    So this search for outside comment is a means of gauging public opinion, depth and breadth? How does that balance against a church claiming leadership through divine revelation? Is this part of the “study it out” process, institutionalized? Does it invite a lot of agitation among the membership after a formalized acceptance of a new revelation? How would you characterize unity of devotion within the faith? Are people, with this apparent movement toward more democratic views of church-government revelation, led to question founding revelations? And, as with the Methodists, do you expect a bit of a conservative backlash or is this an attempt to preempt a backlash?

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  12. hawkgrrrl on May 14, 2012 at 12:26 AM

    I think it’s a fascinating process in the CoC. I’m not sure I’m ready to tell the CoC leadership what to do either – I don’t feel like I have a dog in this fight.

    Before living in Asia I had a very West-centric perspective and would have thought most countries were less conservative and more progressive than the US (mostly considering “foreigners” to be Europeans who are very progressive). But Europeans are also much more secular. Asian and Arab countries are socially much more conservative than the US. Where is church growth likely? Well, it ain’t Scandinavia!

    If churches try to be progressive at the pace of secular communities, I’m convinced they will dissolve. We will throw out the baby with the bathwater.

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  13. Bonnie on May 14, 2012 at 8:18 AM

    I have to agree completely with Hawk. Secularizing a church with such a conservative religious tradition (and I mean conservative in terms of centric authority structures and divine fiat) seems like a non sequitur. Not that I think that seeking public comment is a bad thing. Secular organizations simply have a harder time maintaining continuity and passion, eg David Brooks’ observation (in his review of BoM musical) that “(v)ague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.” I hesitate to make any observations of the CofChrist because I’m ignorant of the traditions, but I would be a bit concerned as a member of the whole tradition shifted too much in the direction of the secular.

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  14. FireTag on May 14, 2012 at 3:14 PM

    Prometheus, Hawk, and Bonnie:

    If you are uncomfortable telling them what you think they should DO about the sexuality issues facing the CofChrist, don’t be uncomfortable about saying which principles in the Statement are or are not being framed according to your understanding of the gospel. It is, after all, supposed to be our best statement of GLOBAL ethical principles that are independent of culture. As we discuss on Mormon blogs all of the time, Mormonism certainly has distinctive cultural aspects apart from the institution.

    Bonnie:

    Let me deal specifically with the questions you raised in #11 about the process.

    The “by common consent” meme from the 1830’s exists in both the CofChrist and LDS traditions. I’ve heard it said by some that in the LDS tradition, “when the Prophet speaks, discussion stops”. I don’t know if that’s true, but in the CofChrist, the corresponding statement would be more like, “when the Prophet speaks, discussion stops about anything else”. In fact, in his speech to the church on April 15, President Veazey made a point of reminding us NOT to be so distracted by the conferences that we lost focus on the five mission initiatives the church had been emphasizing.

    What the CofChrist has been trying to do is “frontload” the common consent process so that it is really INFORMED consent, so we can speak as a prophetic people instead of merely a people who have a prophet. Doesn’t avoid the separate question of whether the people in question are true prophets or false prophets, which is why the discussion has to continue according to how people come out on their “personal revelations”.

    The agitation comes, I think, because there are significant blocs WITHIN the church that are still hearing different things from each other, just as different blocs outside the church do. Men and women don’t hear things the same. Liberals and conservatives don’t hear things the same. First worlders and third worlders don’t hear things the same. And church leaders and church members don’t hear things the same.

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  15. FireTag on May 15, 2012 at 4:10 PM

    The following link appeared today on the United Methodist Conference referenced in the OP. Because it contains some clear clues that this was “the last chance” to see policy on LGBT issues change in Methodism, I thought it was worth adding here.

    http://spectator.org/archives/2012/05/14/united-methodists-transition-f

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  16. Harvey Farrand on May 30, 2012 at 5:21 AM

    Nowhere do I see the statement that marriage is exclusively between one man and one woman.
    The statements are a coverall for any activity between humans. Forget all cultures and focus on the culture that is important to the normal Christian. The alticle does not offer a clear guidance concerning sexuality or behavior contrary to what iis stated.

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