Thursday, May 26, 2011

New birds and the bees for straight people in the church?

I filled out a survey this week for someone who's doing graduate school research on women clergy and what we wear...  the questions embraced not just what we wear, but how our choices of dress impacts our ideas of beauty and sexuality and gender.  Lots of questions about how people perceive you, and if you can feel sexy while wearing an Almy "Clericool" collar. 
Add that to some recent appointments for couples (gay and straight) for premarital counseling, requests to be  more active in the political quest for marriage equality and it has reminded me that the church is avoiding having "the birds and the bees" conversation about heterosexuality by focusing so much on homosexuality in our conventions and elections. 

What is our theology of heterosexuality?  Officially in the Episcopal Church, it's wait until you get married... but in nine years of ordained ministry, I have done the premarital counseling for only one couple who was not already living together. Couples are often shy about admitting they're living together, and then surprised that I don't find it shocking or a bad thing.   Sexuality is such an important part of a marriage, how could you not try that out and find out if you were compatible before you made a final commitment? 

Some might say that's just the church accomodating a cultural shift--but I don't think it's that simple.  There have been real--and good!--changes in our understanding of sexuality in the last 75 years, and if the church can change to accomodate new understandings of other topics (race, homosexuality, creation, etc.) why haven't we developed our theology of heterosexuality? 

We're willing to say that we've moved on from believing that sex is just for procreation... but if so, then what is it for?  Mutual love? Pleasure? Joy?  Is it a sacramental act, or a biological need?  Can mutual love, pleasure, and joy only be found in marriage?  Or might loving sexual relationships before marriage be part of the goodness of creation?  I certainly wouldn't say that sex anytime anyplace with anyone is a good thing--but I think there's a lot more sex in the world that is a sign of God's love for us than officially sanctioned and blessed post-marital sex! 

Thomas Keating, the great Roman Catholic contemplative, said something like this at a retreat I attended a few years ago, "Today, the first marriage is like the novitiate.  It is the time when you figure out what kind of life you are called to, and with what community you are called to live.  The second marriage is like your final vows--the second marriage brings people together who know who they are and to what they are called."  Shocking from an RC monk...  but how liberating! 

All in all, it's probably a lot more comfortable for a group of mostly straight people in our parishes to talk about those nice gay people and how their sexual relationships should be worthy of blessing than to open the can of worms of our own issues.  I guess this is the "slippery slope" that those who are against same-sex marriage are worried about.  But there's a part of me that feels like heterosexual folks need to slip down that slope and confront our own realities. 

What do you think? If clergy are supposed to be an example of the Christian life, would a clergyperson who was having sex outside of marriage be an example of a healthy Christian life?  Personally, I certainly hope so!


  1. I think you mean an unmarried priest having sex outside of marriage, a really important distinction!