First step in addressing sexuality issues: talk about them

By Brin Bon ’13 M.Div.

Human sexuality presents myriad issues for the religious community, and one of the most important things to recognize is that those issues will never be dealt with adequately unless the faith community can get comfortable talking openly about sexuality.

That was one of the threads that coursed through a conversation held Nov. 16 at Yale Divinity School, convened by the Sex and Seminary Pilot Project of the Westport, CT-based Religious Institute.  The Project, aimed at encouraging seminaries to be “sexually healthy and responsible,” features ongoing participation by several seminaries, including YDS, Union Theological Seminary in New York, Brite Divinity School, and the Jewish theological Seminary.

The presentation at YDS, entitled “Ministries of Hope and Healing,” underscored how issues of sexuality touch so many areas in society.  Panelists represented issues that spanned the gamut from awareness of fistula—a disease that can affect the vaginal tract and carry with it a social stigma—to discussion of black masculinity.  Though the focus varied among panelists, they all agreed that the religious community has every reason to be concerned with issues surrounding sexuality. 

Many churches and their denominations have in recent year grappled with questions of sexual orientation and the place in their communities of lesbians, gays and others. However, the panel presentation highlighted some of the other important areas of consideration as well.

Ann Tiemeyer ’88 M.Div., program director for women's ministries at the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, spoke of the need to expand religious language to become more inclusive of the varieties of experiences and backgrounds individuals bring with them to worship God.  She described her office’s Words Matter Project, which seeks to inform about the subtleties of language and how it has the potential to convey welcoming or excluding signals.

The Rev. John Gage, senior pastor of the United Church on the Green in New Haven and national moderator of the United Church of Christ Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concern, picked up on the idea that words matter and described how words from the pulpit are important in making churches comfortable places for addressing issues of sexuality.  To engage his congregation, he noted, he once preached a sermon on the topic “Fornication: When Good Christian Sexuality Goes Wrong.”

The Rev. Jason Turner ’06 M.Div., senior minister at the Community Baptist Church in New Haven, and Rob Morris, co-founder and president of Love146, have both faced the sometimes-grim reality of what happens when sexuality remains a hidden element in society.

Turner began a discussion series in his predominantly African-American congregation for men to talk openly about masculinity and, specifically, the kind of unhealthy “hypermasculinity” that survives on dominance and weakens relationships. The issue is more than a social one for Turner, who asserted, “It is unethical to preach liberation without providing a way to practice it.”

Morris’s organization, Love146, was established in 2004 to prevent sex trafficking and provide restorative aftercare for children who are rescued from brothels and other dangerous situations.  The name of the organization was adopted after a child was encountered in a brothel who was identified with the number 146. 

Morris lamented the fact that people often ignore issues that don’t affect them personally, but he hopes religious communities will choose to see the brokenness that allows children to be sold into sexual slavery.  “I believe in a God who brings beauty from ashes,” Morris said.  “The crazy thing is, it happens through us.”

Several years ago the Sex and the Seminary Project surveyed 36 leading seminaries and rabbinical schools of diverse size and geographic location, representing a range of Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist traditions.

The survey and final report, Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice. authored by Kate Ott ’00 M.A.R , associate director of the Religious Institute, revealed that:

  • More than 90% of the seminaries surveyed did not require full‐semester, sexuality‐based courses for graduation.
  • Two‐thirds of the seminaries did not offer a course in sexuality issues for religious professionals. Three‐quarters did not offer a course in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) studies.
  • Seminaries offer three times as many courses in women’s and feminist studies as they do in LGBT studies or other sexuality‐related issues.
  • The next generation of scholars is not addressing sexuality issues. Sexuality‐based courses are taught by senior professors or adjunct faculty, not by upcoming faculty seeking tenured positions.

The report called on seminaries to strengthen curricular offerings and inclusion policies, invest in faculty development and continuing education, and pursue collaboration with other institutions and advocacy groups to expand educational opportunities for seminarians regarding sexuality issues.

In May 2010, the YDS faculty adopted an inclusivity statement that, among other things, expressed celebration of “the range of expressions of sexual and gender identity.”