Did you know that there is a Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing? On Thursday, January 8, the Institute, together with Union Theological Seminary in New York, issued a fifty-two page report, which is a call for North American Theological Seminaries to offer more courses and programs to help prepare ministers, rabbis, priests, and other religious professionals to address issues of sexuality better than they now do.
Through the years I have met with leaders and constituents of the Association of Theological Schools; I have some awareness of how many pressures are on them to add teaching personnel, field-work opportunities, and courses to deal with every kind of ethical and cultural issue of the day: pop culture, science-and-theology, war and peace, dealing with technology, and many more. All this at a time when the schools are under serious budgetary constraints. Seasoned leaders are cautioned against curricular faddism and are conscientious about sustaining integrity in biblical, theological, historical, and practical basics. So they tend to wince or groan when asked to do more and offer more for and with future ministers.
But the Institute people do make a good case to be taken seriously in this report. Their two-year study finds that more than ninety percent of the thirty-six leading seminaries surveyed do not require full-semester, sexuality-based courses for graduation, and two-thirds do not offer a course in sexuality issues for religious professionals. A generational issue is involved. Mention, for example, the churches’ controversy over same-sex marriage, and in most denominations seniors will observe that it’s not much of an issue for the younger generations. They’ve generally approved it and want to move on to issues they consider more urgent. But for the next thirty years ministers will be dealing with church and synagogue issues where it is still the hottest-button kind of issue, and they need to understand the pros and cons.
As I picture it, the Institute’s concern that more seminaries deal with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies in a major way will not get a hearing in denominations where there are strictures against positive dealings with church and synagogue members in LGBT camps. Yet it is hard to get around the observation that, overall, sexual issues – be they biological, theological, or moral – are the most controversial subjects in religion today. For a discussion group on the Trinity or Pelagianism (if you could get one together), you would rent a classroom. For sex and gender debates, you would crowd the field house, because everyone knows that the subject will quicken passions, lead to walk-outs, and give the press much to disseminate.
In this half-century, like it or not, understandings of human sexuality combined with issues of authority – who decides about practices? – concern every body from Mennonites to Greek Orthodox. Clerical abuse scandals have undercut trust relations in parishes and denominations. The press, understandably, “eats this up,” knowing how little anyone knows about how to handle sexual themes and incidents and how hungry elements in the public are for stories about ethical lapses in matters sexual. The Institute’s report may not please everyone, but it is an important wake-up call.
For Further Information:
Visit the Institute’s website, and request a copy of the report, at www.religiousinstitute.org.
The Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, Dr. Martin E. Marty taught there for 35 years, chiefly in the Divinity School, where the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion was founded and to whose weekly column Sightings he contributed. Ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1952, he served from 1956-2013 as a columnist and senior editor at the Christian Century and authored more than 60 books including Righteous Empire, for which he won the National Book Award; the three-volume Modern American Religion; The One and the Many: America’s Search for the Common Good; The Mystery of the Child; Building Cultures of Trust; The Christian World: A Global History; Martin Luther (in the “Penguin Lives” series); and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography.