Wednesday, January 1, 1997

Chastity Impossible and Undesirable

Chastity Impossible and Undesirable

A Review of Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies: Sexuality and the Household of God, edited by Charles Hefling (Cowley Publications, 1996).

By Stephen F. Noll

THE COMMITTEE for Dialogue on Human Sexuality recently admitted that the sexuality "dialogue" in the Episcopal Church is no longer continuing. In fact, it never began, because proponents of revision of the Church’s classical teaching on sex and marriage begin with the assumption that this teaching is impossible to maintain in the present permissive society, indeed not only impossible but undesirable.

This "revisionist" assumption informed the so-called sexuality dialogues of 1993 and it is the starting point for all the authors in this collection. While the essays range from tentative to outrageous, even the most "culturally conservative" essayist, Bonnie Shullenberger, sighs and says that the traditional standard "will not fly [b]ecause most of us in the West . . . have become inured to the fluidity of sexual desire and practice that is a hallmark of our culture. . ." (page 23).

Ms. Shullenberger decries promiscuity and calls for "faithful and permanent" relationships, but does she not see that outside the transcendent norm of lifelong marital fidelity, every relationship will be defined by whether or not individuals find it "life-enhancing"? We might note in passing that not one of the authors in this collection advocates a lifelong standard of sexual fidelity for either homosexuals or heterosexuals.

The scarier essays

Moving on to the scarier essays, I note one by Martin Smith, the Superior of the Cowley Fathers, who wants to revise spiritual direction as a kind of consciousness-raising exercise. "Spiritual direction," he says, "is by nature subversive" and by affirming the experience of gays and lesbians, spiritual directors will begin "healing the chasm between sexuality and spirituality that is one of the tragic flaws in the Christianity we have inherited" (pages 69,75).

Let me agree with Fr. Smith at one point. Biblical religion, both Jewish and Christian, has purposely placed a chasm between God and sexuality: that is what differentiated the Holy One of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ from the Baals and Zeuses of ancient paganism. What we are seeing among today’s liberationists is not really new at all, but a lightly baptized rehabilitation of an old spirituality.

In an essay entitled "How Might We Reach Our Children?", Sheryl Kujawa, the National Church youth ministries coordinator, articulates the Core Doctrine for instructing youths in governing their desires: "You are holy. Sexuality is good. Sexuality is powerful. You are not alone. You must take responsibility" (page 123). She calls for "continuing the dialogue" between those young people who adopt abstinence as an option and those for whom abstinence is a "discontinuity." Thanks very much, but my kids are grounded!

Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies is no fringe collection: its authors include ten professors (five from Episcopal seminaries), two bishops, and two national Church officials. Some of these are recognized gay rights advocates, while others seem more "centrist." The problem today in the Episcopal Church is that the center is a moving target.

Prof. Timothy Sedgwick of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary is typical of this movement in his contribution, "The Transformation of Sexuality and the Challenge of Conscience." Prof. Sedgwick offers a revised "reading" of the biblical texts (e.g., Genesis 2) so that the procreative and social purposes of marriage become detached. Leaving behind the ancient concerns for offspring, marriage now may become what sociologist Anthony Giddens calls "pure relationship." Once one effects this divorce in the purposes of marriage, homosexual unions are not only permissible but actually a purer form of "marriage."

We should also note closely the second part of Prof. Sedgwick’s essay: "the challenge of conscience." He proposes a kind of moral equivalence between traditionalist bishops who have refused to ordain women (following historic precedent and authorization of fellow bishops) and bishops like Bishop Orris Walker who permit same-sex marriage "ceremonies" to occur without any official sanction or ecumenical approval.

Prof. Sedgwick concludes, however, that such conscientious conflicts can only be temporary. Conservatives will be allowed to hold their prejudices only so long as they cease to claim normative and permanent status for them. The Church must "resolve" the conflicts, he suggests, in order to get on with its mission.

"Resolving" the conflict, in the words of David Norgard, is like the drive to Appomattox: "I am convinced that the time has come when the church will have to cease its self defeating practice of consoling those who hate, and to start embracing those whose only conspiracy has been to love" (page 200).

Let the reader beware! Some casual perusers may think this book is a peace proposal in the sex wars of the Episcopal Church. In fact, the velvet glove of "dialogue" barely conceals the authoritarian thrust of the revisionist movement. Does anyone really believe that if same-sex marriage and ordination of practicing homosexuals is officially sanctioned as an "option" in 1997, that it will not be a law before too long? Give these proponents the credit of logical consistency.

The observation that "there are two religions in the Episcopal Church" is trite but true. These essays bear it out. The real question is whether we will find some modus vivendi that allows these two religions to co-exist under one roof until the Lord threshes the harvest of his Gospel.

Copyright 1997 Stephen F. Noll..

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