Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Sexuality, Celibacy and Ordination

Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. 

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
I Corinthians 7:5-9

The Apostle Paul has a dim view of marriage. “It is better to marry,” he writes, “than to be aflame with passion.”

Even better, I would say, would be “to marry” and “be aflame with passion.”

Paul holds out celibacy as a higher status than marriage, but he concedes that “each has a particular gift from God.” Citing that passage, a clergy friend in another denomination once confided that she had told her bishop that “celibacy was not a gift that I had been given.”

She laughed as she told the story. It was typical of her joyful boldness in affirming the good gifts that God has given us in this life. And that joyful boldness is part of what makes her a wonderful pastor.

That scene came back to me as I read a blog post by Talbot Davis, an elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Davis takes issue with an anonymous blog post by a United Methodist clergywoman on the Methodist Federation for Social Action website on the issue of universal access to birth control.

“I chose to go on birth control, she writes, “because I didn't want to get pregnant and I wanted to have sex. Because I am a clergy woman in The United Methodist Church, and I'm single, that information could get me brought up on charges, and I could lose my ordination. . . . It strikes me as ridiculous in 2016 that this is necessary, but being a person who is sexually active while single is against the rules.” 

Davis argues that the writer is endorsing an ecclesiology of “me” and “now,” and intentionally confusing the commandments of God with petty “rules” and regulations. And he worries about “a future for the United Methodist Church in which sacrifice-making, cross-taking, self-denying holiness has gone the way of garters and petticoats.”

“Garters and petticoats”? In this context, I find that reference wonderfully amusing.

But seriously, have we really come to a place where our witness of “sacrifice-making, cross-taking, self-denying holiness” is expressed in a sexual ethic of celibacy? No wonder secular people think the church is irrelevant.

Davis fears that if the prohibitive language around homosexuality is changed then we will be dismantling our whole understanding of sexual ethics.

We won’t be. The issues are fundamentally different. The “homosexual issue” is about civil rights and inclusion. It is not really about sexuality (in the narrow sense) at all.

The only change to our sexual ethics would be to apply those ethics equally to everyone. We could still maintain the ordination expectation of “celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage,” but apply it to gay and straight persons equally. Nothing else would need to change.

But let’s get back to the issue of sexual ethics.

The anonymous clergywoman says that she didn’t want to get pregnant, but “I wanted to have sex.” 

I think some of her critics have assumed she meant that she wanted to have casual sex whenever it suited her desires. And she could have meant that. But my guess is that she phrased it that way to make a bold statement and get our attention. She was more likely talking about wanting to have sex with someone whom she loves and to whom she is deeply committed.

Since my ordination in 1973, when everyone gave a wink and a nod to the notion that we would not smoke or drink, I have married hundreds of couples. It is possible that one or two of those couples waited until they were married before having sex. But I don’t think it’s possible that there were more than two. And I don’t believe that my clergy colleagues are any different.


When we fuss about sex before marriage, what are we talking about? Do we mean intercourse, or are we including oral sex? And do we really want to go there?

Sexuality is a good gift from God. It is meant to be enjoyed. We receive that gift best when we exercise it in the context of a mature, loving and committed relationship. 

It's not that complicated.

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