QUESTION: What do resolutions, sexuality, mystery and “the real business of the Church” have in common?
ANSWER: The General Convention of the Episcopal Church
Numerous critiques, commentaries, reflections and editorials have been written about the 70th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. They have all dealt exclusively or inclusively with Resolution A-104/s/a on the Episcopal Church’s teaching regarding human sexuality.
The third paragraph of Resolution A-104/s/a states.”. . . that this General Convention confesses our failure to lead and to resolve this discontinuity [between the stated teaching of the Church and the experience and many members of the body] through legislative efforts based on resolutions directed at singular and various aspects of these issues…”
Parenthetically, a cartoon in the August edition of Episcopal Life showed the 9-step process of Resolution A-104/s/a before it was adopted as a substitute amended resolution. The confessed failure of the General Convention with regard to this particular resolution points to a deeper failure, the present process of attempting to do theology by legislation through resolutions.
Said differently, theological anthropology cannot be done by amending and voting resolutions. The “resolutions” lack resolve.
Debate, or more accurately the lack of debate regarding human sexuality through the resolution process clearly points to the need for a different process and theological methods for discussing and resolving doctrinal issues. The present system of resolution by legislation, plus the enormous number of resolutions coming to General Convention, insures the failure of any significant and sustained theological treatment of important issues. Nor will thoughtful consensus be reached through or by such a process. At present, the process (resolution by legislation) takes precedence over any serious consideration of content or substance (sexuality as an important aspect of our doctrine of humanity). The sheer number of resolutions only exacerbates the problem, heightens the frustration and leads to a dynamic where Convention members feel bound to complete the work by attending in some way to each and every resolution.
The foregoing observations on resolutions and legislation as an inadequate theological method leads to the second element in the above equation, sexuality. Although presented as “the issue” of General Convention, human sexuality as an issue was not addressed at General Convention.
Despite prepared reports and open hearings, no serious debate ensued. What tended to characterize the Convention was anxiety and reticence in approaching the questions of human sexuality. There was a captivity to felt meaning rather than ability to move beyond feelings to serious and sustained dialogue and debate. Two aspects of sexuality, removed from any theological understanding of sexuality as a part of the Church’s doctrine of humanity. became emotionally volatile issues that were politicized by various groups within the Church. The very reporting and publicity surrounding these issues is indicative of this fact. “Liberal” and “conservative” reactions were sought by the press and reported as a ‘compromise” between these varied groups. Very little of this so-called “compromise” had to do with sexuality.
The sexuality “issue” or “debate” was a misnomer. Sexuality was not debated or given serious theological consideration. The result of a recent survey of the Church concluded that members of the Church are reticent to discuss human sexuality. General Convention reflected this reticence despite the many references to sexuality. Why is this the case? This leads to the third element, mystery.
Much is known about human sexuality, much is unknown. While a good bit can be articulated in anatomical physiological, psychological, sociological and anthropological terms, the essence of human sexuality defies definition. In some ways it is like trying to define love. The mysterious quality of human sexuality refers to the fact that human sexuality is a part of our givenness as human beings. Our sexuality is not an attribute or a part of who we are as human beings, it is essential aspect of our being human. We are sexual beings by creation, birth and nurture and our sexuality is definitive of who we are as individuals and communal beings.
In this sense all relationships are sexual, which is not to say that all relationships are genital. All relationships are sexual in that there are elements of attraction and repulsion in any and all human encounters. The mystery of sexual union to include ecstasy reminds us of the sacredness of sexuality. Sexuality cannot be reduced to a biological function, psychological process or cultural expression. The sacred dimension of sexuality points to its sacramental character as an outward and visible sign of the deep union that we long for within ourselves, with others and with God.
‘Casual sex” by its very definition is a contradiction. Sex is not casual. It is a powerful and deep form of relating to another and the Other. Perhaps it is for this reason that we cannot resolve issues relating to human sexuality through a legislative process. Perhaps it is for this reason that we am hesitant and fearful in approaching the mystery of human sexuality. Perhaps this sacramental quality of human sexuality and experience of liminality evoke anxiety and fear. One way of trying to continue to escape our responsibility for this depth dimension of human sexuality is to say, “it is not the real business of the Church,” which brings us to the final item in the foregoing title.
What is “the real business of the Church” if it is not human sexuality? What is the real business of the Church if it is not trying to help us understand our shared humanity? What is the real business of the Church if it is not to help us explore those aspects of our being created in the likeness and image of God and called to be co-creators, to include sexual co-creation? What is the real business of the Church if it does not deal with values, attitudes and morality concerning human sexuality?
The fact that human sexuality is a mystery does not excuse us, as members of the Church, in reflecting on this aspect of our shared experience in trying to provide guidance for members of the Church and larger culture. It is time to move beyond comments such as “Let’s get human sexuality behind us so we can attend to the real business of the Church.” Human sexuality is the real business of the Church. Any adequate doctrine of humanity. doctrine of God or doctrine of ministry must address human sexuality explicitly, to include offering an ethic that can be discussed, taught and used in guiding members of the Church.
It is unfortunate that the Church has deferred to other institutions, or allowed other institutions to assume this responsibility. While aspects of human sexuality are informed by the insights of various disciplines, the Church has a unique role in teaching the sacramental and moral character of human sexuality. We cannot do this by denying that human sexuality is the Church’s real business. It strikes me that much of the current disease within the Church is the result of our not making human sexuality the real business of the Church. If we had been attending to this vital dimension of the Church’s teaching, perhaps this year’s Convention would have allowed us to move beyond knee-jerk reactions, name calling and emotional outbursts.
While Resolution A-104/s/a is not perfect, it does have the marks of a good beginning. What Resolution A-l04/s/a does accomplish is stating that human sexuality is the business of the Church and that we need to be about this important business.
Second, the resolution notes that there is much to be done in continuing to explore human sexuality in the broader context of theological anthropology.
Third, the resolution notes that our present theological method (resolution by legislation) is inadequate.
Finally, and perhaps the most important, the resolution calls for the Church, locally and at large, to look at these complex issues during the next triennium.
The most important response that we can make is at the diocesan and local level, as communities of theological and moral discourse, in taking up the mandate of General Convention to teach human sexuality as a part of a larger doctrine of humanity. Dialogue within the larger Church will only be enhanced by dialogue within local congregations. It is in this spirit that I invite you to begin or continue discussions as to the experience, meaningfulness and practice of human sexuality as taught and understood by the Church. It is my hope and prayer that if we can begin to examine these issues employing theological discourse, a pastoral teaching from the House of Bishops will be welcomed and discussed in ways that will not only provide guidance for members of the Church. but may lead to the Church providing guidance to the larger society.
QUESTION: How do we then deal with Resolution A-104/s/a, sexuality, mystery and “the real business of the Church?”
ANSWER: Prayerfully, with courage, charity, resolve and an open mind.