For the second time in less than a year, the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), an official agency of the denomination, has published an article arguing that sexual relationships outside the covenant of marriage are not necessarily improper.
“An Ordained Single Woman and the Discipline,” published June 7 as part of the “Sex and the Church” series in GBCS’ weekly Faith in Action online newsletter, contends that sexual relationships should not be off-limits for unmarried UM clergy.
Last August, the controversial series featured an article by Unitarian “sexologist” Debra Haffner who wrote that one can have “a moral, ethical sexual relationship” regardless of “whether one is married or single, 16 or 35 or 80, gay, bisexual or straight.”
The current article, written by a divorced, female United Methodist elder, takes issue with language in the United Methodist Book of Discipline that states that a failure to remain “celibate in singleness” is a “chargeable offense” for UM clergy (¶2702.1). The writer, who is not identified by GBCS, asserts that the exchanging of covenant wedding vows is not necessarily “a dividing line between moral and immoral” sexual relations.
[The] demand for celibacy [on the part of] an unmarried clergyperson leaves little room for the heart’s search to find a home in our human world.
We are extraordinarily confused by years of theological tradition and imaginative biblical reflections on: the “perpetual” virginity of Mary; a supposedly celibate Jesus; …and effusively generous women errantly assumed to be asking for forgiveness from some sexual sin….
Yet, I can’t look at this great creation of such deep, creative erotica as found in an orchid, the mossy green of the deep forest…a passion of a thunderstorm, a hill of daffodils…the rich textures of rock and sand or the…sun setting across the city in the evening announcing a coming nighttime of dreams without wondering what if… [final ellipsis in original]
I cannot look at this great creation without wondering where we might find ourselves if we insisted that rather than “just say no,” we explored what expressions of rich, loving, abundant, heart-filled, kind, honest, truly mutual, vulnerable human sexuality might look like.
Though our delusions are rich, I think we all know that a wedding and its exchanged promises are not the dividing line between moral and immoral sex…. To label true expressions of intimate, sexual love of our unmarried ethical leaders as innately “immoral” seems a bit off….
What if within this context of the 21st century, we focused on the way that good sex, within a trusted relationship, is mutually healing, mutually humbling, touching, mutually vulnerable, connected to God’s deep and powerful mysterious grace?…
What if we determined that our sexual expressions of this love is [sic] part of God’s creative, wild, abundant abandon, and part of a “for God so loved this fecund, creative, wildly [sic], passionate, colorful, diverse, energy-filled world.”
Imagine a Church that talked like this…. Imagine a Church without the attitude that a wedding or a hymen is the dividing line between moral and immoral….
Imagine how many of those things that everyone is afraid of — embodied in a fearsome rule such as that in Discipline ¶2702.1 — would dissolve as we began to truly govern ourselves knowing when “moral sex” is ready to be manifested with a partner and when it is not.
In an “editor’s note” preceding the article, Faith in Action editor Wayne Rhodes noted that the author of the column requested “that it be printed anonymously due to the strong opinions expressed and the nature of the Disciplinary strictures on her role as an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church.”
Responding to the article via a letter to the editor, North Georgia Conference layman Mark Smith criticized the General Board of Church and Society for acting as “a willing conduit for unbiblical, nontraditional and unwise views on sexuality.” By publishing such a piece, “GBCS continues to be a lightning rod for denominational division,” he wrote.
Mr. Smith also characterized the writer of the column as demonstrating “narcissistic myopia in supposing that she’s presenting a new, more positive perspective on sexuality.”
What her article [advocates] — libertine sexual practices, and among unwed Methodist clergy, no less — is exactly what Jesus warned against and is exactly what the ancient Israelites were told by God to resist…. And it is precisely what has wreaked untold havoc on our own society — the major victims being women and children — since the sexual revolution of the 1960s….
We don’t lessen sin by supposing it to be something else or by using creative language to explain it away. That’s what children do. We are supposed to aspire to spiritual maturity.
Another letter to the editor, from the Rev. Jim McConnell, a retired clergy member of the Texas Annual Conference, argued that the Book of Discipline’s moral guidelines for UM clergy, including those governing appropriate sexual behavior, are “important and necessary standards for clergy and models and guides for lay persons.”
He said such standards reinforce key “biblical and traditional values of restraint, boundaries and covenant.”
[Restraint] is at least in part an expression of love because it denies self for the sake of another….
Boundaries protect the vulnerable. They also help keep those of us in positions of power or authority from inappropriate behavior that would injure others or ourselves….
Covenant expresses caring, dependability, and faithfulness…. God has repeatedly covenanted with God’s people and said something like: “You can count on me and I am counting on you!” The marriage relationship is described as a covenant and I believe expresses the same kind of thing. A husband or wife says, “You can count on me and I am counting on you!”
In launching the “Sex and the Church” series last year, Bishop Deborah Kiesey (Dakotas Conference), president of the General Board of Church and Society, and Jim Winkler, the board’s chief executive, issued a joint statement saying the series would “help provide needed education to our children and ourselves.”
The “Sex and the Church” series is overseen by Linda Bales Todd, director of the Louise and Hugh Moore Population Project at the General Board of Church and Society.
Paragraph 2702.1 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline reads as follows:
A bishop, clergy member of an annual conference, local pastor, clergy on honorable or administrative location, or diaconal minister may be tried when charged (subject to the statute of limitations in ¶2702.4) with one or more of the following offenses: (a) immorality including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage; (b) practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings, including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies; (c) crime; (d) failure to perform the work of the ministry; (e) disobedience to the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church; (f) dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church; (g) relationships and/or behavior that undermine[s] the ministry of another pastor; (h) child abuse; (i) sexual abuse; (j) sexual misconduct or (k) harassment, including, but not limited to racial and/or sexual harassment; or (l) racial or gender discrimination.