No Celibacy in Singleness? Taking Responsibility in the #UMC
The United Methodist corner of the social media world is in a kerfuffle. “Why?” you ask. Good question. It’s because of a blog post published last week by the Methodist Federation for Social Action in which the author, an anonymous clergy woman, announced that she had chosen not to remain celibate even though she is single. Not only does she think this is okay, she also thinks it is “ridiculous in 2016 that this [anonymity] is necessary, but being a person who is sexually active while single is against the rules.” I have resisted till now the the temptation to jump headlong into the fray, even though I find it to be the height of duplicity to publicly affirm “the rules” in one’s ordination vows while anonymously ridiculing them on the internet. But none of us should be surprised. After all, the General Board of Church and Society published an essay suggesting we do away with the celibacy-in-singleness-requirement nearly six years ago. So, I’m not so much interested to talk about what our nameless author has written. We are where we are, and we’ve been coming here for quite some time. And no abundance of tweets will change that. Instead, I’d like to consider how we got here, and take some responsibility.
The path to the place where celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage is not only questioned but ridiculed has been complex. The sexual free-for-all that has become acceptable in some corners of the UMC and other denominations is the result of many factors that cannot be dealt with in a single blog post. I can, however, point to one of those factors, which is the reality that those of us who hold to the traditional Christian ethic of celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage have been largely silent when it comes to articulating a robust theology of human sexuality. With a few exceptions, our theologians have not written on it, and our preachers have not preached on it. We tend to skip over those chapters of scripture when they come along. After all, we wouldn’t want to offend anyone. And there’s always the danger that a prudish church member will make life difficult for us if we preach on one of “those passages.” The result is that we have multiple generations of Christians with very little grounding in historic Christian sexual ethics and no ability to articulate and defend those ethics from scripture.
At the risk of being anecdotal, I had the chance to sit down with some college students last summer and ask their perspective on the issue: what’s it like for you being a Christian on a college campus characterized by a variety of attitudes toward sex? They responded by saying that they generally held traditional Christian views. The problem was that the topic didn’t come up very often in church as they were coming along. So, there wasn’t much to draw on when it came time to explain their conviction. As I listened it became increasingly clear to me that we conservative types bear some fault here. We have not given our children – or their parents, for that matter – any sort of Christian sexual ethic. The result is that they are easily swayed by the spirit of the age. Thankfully, there are some exceptions to the rule. There are some pastors who have the courage to preach and teach on holy sexuality. But they are exceptions indeed, and that’s part of the problem.
Another facet of the problem is that when we do deal with the topic of human sexuality, we often only say what we are against, and we sometimes come across like angry children writing letters to the editor with crayons in our fists. We sound like we don’t know what we’re talking about, and it isn’t pretty. To be sure, we need people to deconstruct damaging and aberrant attitudes toward sex. But we also need to do the constructive task of setting forth a theologically and aesthetically robust account of Christian sexual ethics, which is essential for giving our people a solid foundation on which to stand. Our people need to know what we are for and why it matters. Unfortunately, those accounts are few and far between, and they are seldom accessible on a popular level. We can point fingers at the other side all we want, but to some degree we are complicit. It’s time to take responsibility.
I’ll conclude by recommending two resources. The first is a very helpful book published last year by Beth Felker Jones, a United Methodist theologian at Wheaton College. It’s called Faithful: A Theology of Sex, and it’s the sort of book you could give to a layperson or use at a college Bible study. Second, some readers will know that I am part of the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT) and will be interested to know that the upcoming CPT Conference is on “Beauty, Order, And Mystery: The Christian Vision Of Sexuality.” Beth is one of the plenary speakers, and I’ll be speaking at one of the breakout sessions. It is my hope that this conference will contribute to a recovery of a holy and positive theology of sexuality in the North American Church. Perhaps you’ll want to join us.