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.