Twin rocking chairs for gay Lutherans?

TwinRockingChairsIf you were looking for cutting-edge discussions of gay theology back in the 1980s, all you had to do was head on over to the Iliff School of Theology, the United Methodist campus attached to the University of Denver. As one former faculty member of the university once told me, Iliff in that era was “the most liberal institution in American that still called itself Christian.”

One of the strengths of an openly liberal institution is that it’s a great place to learn that not all liberals think alike. True, it was hard to find anyone at Iliff who believed that the Resurrection was a actual event in history, as opposed to a concept in the hearts and minds of early Christians, but it was easy to find people with different liberal views on other issues.

Take, for example, the meaning of the word “monogamy.” As in the Washington Post headline (note the quote marks) on the hot story of the day:

‘Monogamous’ Gays Can Serve in ELCA

Largest Lutheran Denomination in U.S. Split on Divisive Issue

More on Evangelical Lutheran Church in America later.

As a visiting gay theologian once told me during a conference at Iliff, very few gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians have what he called a “twin rocking chairs forever” definition of monogamy. That was just too restricting, he said. Most gays, he said, believe that it is possible to be “faithful” to one partner and, thus, “monogamous,” while continuing to have sexual experiences with others.

Let me stress that his was not the only viewpoint that I heard on this issue. More on that in a moment. The key is to grasp that debates are common among gay, lesbian and bisexual theologians on this issue. Here is how I expressed part of that equation in a Scripps Howard column about a decade ago:

“Monogamy” isn’t such a scary word, once people get the hang of redefining it to fit the realities of modern life, according to gay provocateur Dan Savage.

“The sexual model that straight people have created really doesn’t work,” said the nationally syndicated columnist, in a New York Times Magazine piece on post-modern sex. “All it does is force people to lie. … In this society, we view monogamy like we view virginity, one incident and it’s over, the relationship is over.”

Heterosexual couples, he said, should relax and learn from homosexuals. Relationships must grow and evolve. “I know gay couples who have been together for 35 years. They have separate bedrooms. Sometimes they sleep together and sometimes they sleep with other people, but they’re a great couple,” he said.

Once again, that is only one point of view. I would urge journalists who are truly interested in this topic to read a book entitled “What Christians Think About Homosexuality,” by Larry Holben, a gay, Episcopal evangelical who is meticulously fair to thinkers on both sides of these debates, from true fundamentalists to believers on the far Christian left. To see a summary of his work, click here for three conservative camps and then here for three liberal camps, based on answers to the same 12 theological questions.

Back in my Denver years I kept hearing — especially while covering Iliff and the early Episcopal sex wars — three basic approaches to the monogamy question. I cannot believe that the debates have grown simpler, rather than more complex.

Gay+wedding+cake+topper[1]_jpegFirst of all, there are gay theologians whose definition of this term is very traditional, arguing that gay unions are forever and that those taking vows must remain sexually faithful to one another. Twin rocking chairs forever.

Then, there are those who, in effect, say that “monogamy” essentially means serial monogamy (this, of course, is the definition used by most heterosexuals today in a culture rooted in easy divorce). In other words, things happen and relationships break up. However, partners are supposed to be sexually faithful to one another while the relationship lasts. Twin rocking chairs for right now.

Finally, some say that gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians can be “emotionally” faithful to a partner, while having sexual experiences with other people — secondary relationships that do not threaten the primary, “monogamous” relationship. The twin rocking chairs are symbolic.

There are, of course, lesbigay theologians who reject monogamy and almost all other traditional limits on sexual experience. Take, for example, the trailblazing Episcopal priest and seminary professor Carter Heyward, author of books such as “Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God.”

Now, what does this have to do with the ELCA decision? Here is the top of Jacqueline L. Salmon’s report in the Post:

Leaders of the nation’s biggest Lutheran denomination voted Friday to allow gays in committed relationships to serve as clergy in the church — making it one of the largest Christian denominations in the country to significantly open the pulpit to gays.

Previously, only celibate gays were permitted to serve as clergy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a denomination of 4.8 million members. But delegates to a church assembly voted 559-451 to allow gays in “life-long, monogamous” relationships to serve as clergy and professional lay leaders in the church.

Later in the story, there is this additional information:

In essence, the vote puts gays under the same set of rules that have govern heterosexual clergy. They are required to be monogamous if married and to abstain from sexual relations if they are single. Individual congregations would not be compelled to take on pastors who are in same-sex relationships.

Once again, this raises a key question: What is the definition of “monogamy” that is being used in this case?

Remember, please, that the Christian left contains many different points of view. My prediction is that the ELCA contains gays, lesbians and bisexuals — including in its clergy and in its seminary faculties — who use clashing definitions of this pivotal term.

Was this question even raised by Lutheran conservatives on the convention floor? Did anyone define “monogamy” before the term was written into this new statement of doctrine or social conduct? Did everyone simply agree to disagree — quietly — for the sake of unity on the left? This is an issue that would be worth a follow-up report.

Words matter, especially in debates about doctrine.

Editor’s note: Once again, please stick to the journalism issues in this post.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • dalea

    I have seen only scattered comments on the change in the Gay press. Most approve of it, or have no opinion:

    Reuters shows that the Lutherans are committed to:

    The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also encouraged its congregations to find ways to support or recognize members in ‘accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.

    Which seems to recognize that gay people have problems with relationships and need support. Lesbians tend to be better at monogamy than Gay men. The three definitions of monogamy you present have undergone some change since the early 90′s due to conditions in the Gay community.

    This debate has been extensively covered in Gay media but I have never seen any MSM coverage. is generally no longer considered an option for Gay men. This comes from the professional AIDS educators who have found that blows up in people’s faces all the time. Having seen enough people get infected while in ‘monogamous’ relationships I agree with them. The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, the largest gay organization in the world with a budget over $70 million, forbids any presentation of the concept in any activity it promotes. Monogamy.two and monogamy.three are both more workable for Gay men. The Gay press has been covering this debate for at least 35 years that I am aware of. The ball passed from the theologians’ team to the AIDS activists in the mid 90′s.

  • tmatt


    By monogamy ONE, you mean:

    First of all, there are gay theologians whose definition of this term is very traditional, arguing that gay unions are forever and that those taking vows must remain sexually faithful to one another. Twin rocking chairs forever.

    The irony is that I would assume this is the definition that the Lutherans would assume, this or No. 2 (since that is the modernized heterosexual norm).

    What do you think THE PRESS assumes? Does anyone know that this issue exists?

  • tmatt

    Father Kendall Harmon, an Anglican traditionalist, has posted on this — with amazingly candid quotes from Andrew Sullivan:

  • dalea

    Tmatt asks:

    What do you think THE PRESS assumes? Does anyone know that this issue exists?

    I know about this debate because it has been in the Gay Press for as long as I can remember. The Gay Press assumes that monogamy.three is the standard for Gay men while is the standard for Lesbians. This goes back to John Preston’s essay Goodby Sally Gearheart decades ago.

    As for THE PRESS, I suspect they will continue on ignoring actual Gay people, as we so frequently see in stories here. Andrew Sullivan is the most frequently quoted Gay person on marriage issues, and on Gay issues in general. Yet he has virtually no influence among actual Gay people. Indeed, frequently the Gay press uses widely loathed to describe him. THE PRESS is very selective in dealing with Gay issues. Over 75% of Gay votes go to Democrats, yet THE PRESS keeps going to politically and religiously conservative AS when it wants a Gay slant on some issue. Truly derilect reporting. Dan Savage is a mainstream Gay guy, yet the media ignores him pretty much.

    I suspect that THE PRESS knows nothing about the debates on monogamy in the Gay press. Nor do they know much about other trends in the Gay press. They appear here to be simply covering what is said without going into much detail. What I notice is they have interviewed zero Gay or Lesbian people. One Gay man speaks but is only allowed talking points. The Gay clergy are also missing. I count one proponent and three opponents quoted. The story really slants conservatively.

  • Davis

    I imagine the press assumes what most people assume: that lesbian and gay ministers have an understanding of monogamy–for themselves–that mirrors the understanding of monogamy for heterosexual clergy.

    While we can theorize for years about the role of monogamy in relationships–same-sex and opposite-sex–I don’t think that decades old gay theology and Andrew Sullivan’s theorizing on gay monogamy have a whole of of relevance to how clergy define monogamy for themselves. Which is probably why the press doesn’t think this is nearly as fascinating as Kendall Harmon does.

  • Perpetua

    In his most recent syndicated advice column, Dan Savage deals with inviting a third man to join a married male same-sex couple in their marital bed. He seems to be treating this as the new normal.

  • Magister Christianus

    Silly me. I made the mistake of understanding the word “monogamous” based on its Greek roots. It was my faulty understanding from my background as a Classicist who understands etymology that I made the comments I did in this post:

  • Peter

    The way your article is written doesn’t state, but seems to imply that the ECLA might use a different definition of monogamy for gay couples than it does for straight ones.
    Why would you even single out gay couples and gay theologians for your three definitions? They all apply equally and in all ways to straight people. You can find people who would espouse each definition for straight folks as well as gay ones.

    Even asking the question assumes that the ECLA would (or should) define faithfulness and monogamy differently for gay clergy than they do for straight ones, and I find that hard to believe.

    Whether those clergy follow those rules is a different matter. On the other hand, while throwing stones, let’s not overlook the differences that might apply between being raised while being taught that your sexuality fits into a model of fidelity and stability and being taught that it does not.

    People quick to condemn gay people for having their views of relationship not conform to their church teachings might take a moment to examine what their church actually taught gay people about their relationships.

  • Dave

    The press is not only asleep at the switch but, if I may mix some metaphors, is going to miss the boat.

    BGLT efforts to frame a parallel to monogamy have evolved in an environment in which BGLT monogamy (.one, .two or .three) is not offered the same institutional support that hetero monogamy gets from marriage. Now that is changing, and we can expect BGLT attitudes to evolve in response. And the press will catch up to it only after the fact.

  • Julia

    As a Christian in my 60s I have witnessed the following changing assumptions about monogamy even in church people:

    1) Living together is OK once you are engaged

    2) After marriage, dating other people is OK once you are no longer living together and are probably going to get divorced. This even includes a so-called trial separation to try to work things out. It isn’t necessary to wait for the divorce to even be filed.

    3) No approbrium is attached to adultery because if it was a really loving relationship neither party would be attracted to other people. The party being cheated on must have deserved it and the party cheating probably no longer loves the other party – for good reason.

    4) Marriage is seen as more like “going steady” of the ancient days. If it’s not working, forget it, get out and get on with your life. The kids will be better off with a happy mother and/or father.

    There are others, but these are the ones accepted by many church-going Christians (in spite of official teaching) that shock this old lady.

    Why should we be surprised if BGLTs are evolving, too?

  • Richard Hooker

    The words “God,” “sin,” “salvation,” and “resurrection” already mean most anything one wants them to mean in many mainline churches, so why not “monogamy” too? After all, the only thing that isn’t negotiable in most mainline churches today is the right of everyone to make every word mean most anything he or she wants it to mean.

  • Richard Hooker

    Oh yes, also — among words that mean most anything one wants them to mean in most mainline churches, let’s not, of course, forget “incarnation.”

  • Darel

    The full phrase issued by the ELCA is “life-long, monogamous, same gender relationships”. Yet we know that “life-long” is already used symbolically by ELCA Lutherans, akin to the definition of monogamy THREE above. There are no restrictions of any kind on remarriage within the ELCA, whether for laypersons or clergy. Why should the word “monogamy” be treated any differently?

    It would be very nice, in fact, for members of the press to actually press ELCA (or TEC for that matter) bishops as to their use of the term “life-long” in this situation when they clearly do not enforce but merely encourage it, and why we should not expect the same approach to the term “monogamous”.

  • tmatt

    deleting away, folks….

    Try to stay on journalism issues, not your feelings about sexuality and theology.

  • John E – Agn Stoic

    In the interest of journalistic research, I’ve sent the following to the ELCA contact e-mail link:

    Dear ELCA,

    First, let me congratulate you on your historic decision to endorse gay clergy in committed relationships. I fully support all efforts that support equality for GLTB persons.

    I am writing you in hopes of getting an official ELCA definition of monogamy.

    A couple of bloggers, Terry Mattingly at and Rod Dreher at have, for reasons of their own, raised the possibility that monogamy, in the context of GLTB ELCA clergy, does not mean that a couple has exclusive sexual relationships with each other, but that they are ‘emotionally monogamous’ but have sexual relations with other people.

    Other commenters to these blogs have pointed out that this idea seems to be refuted by such postings on your website such as that found at, but these gentlemen have not responded to this argument.

    I was hoping that someone at ELCA would provide a definitive statement along the lines of, “Yes, as a matter of fact, we believe that our monogamous clergy should not be having sex outside of their partnership,” because it seems that nothing less would satisfy Mr. Mattingly or Mr. Dreher.

    Thank you for your time and I look forward to your response.


    If I get a response, I’ll post it…

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  • tmatt

    John E-Agn Stoic:

    Do not forget to send copies to the Rev. Carter Heyward, Andrew Sullivan, the Iliff School of Theology, Dan Savage, The New York Times Magazine and the dozens of gay newspapers who have covered and debated this issue through the years, each, I am sure, “for reasons of their own.”

    I am sincerely interested in this theological debate on the left and think it is newsworthy.

  • tmatt

    Over at the conservative interfaith magazine First Things, they have, responding to this post, put up large excerpts from relevant article in The Advocate.

    The opening:

    Monogamy: Is it for us?

    The Advocate examines the controversial subject of monogamy from many angles

    One of the hottest debates in today’s gay world involves the m word. Is it for us, we wonder, or is it just aping straight society? Is it a basic human drive or a dumb social construct? And, of course, each of us wonders, Is it for me?

    But this m word is not marriage. It’s monogamy. …

    Unfortunately the link to the Advocate article is broken.

    Either that, or it’s a pay-to-use-it situation.

  • John E – Agn Stoic

    Do not forget to send copies to the Rev. Carter Heyward, Andrew Sullivan, the Iliff School of Theology, Dan Savage, The New York Times Magazine and the dozens of gay newspapers who have covered and debated this issue through the years, each, I am sure, “for reasons of their own.”

    That sounds like a whole lot of work that I’m not getting paid to do or page counts for.

    The simple question at hand is about the ECLA’s policies regarding gay ministers, not the opinion of every gay in Christendom.

  • tmatt

    john E:

    Actually, you are ignoring the content and subject of my post, which is about an issue in gay theology that might APPLY to the ELCA argument. So the ELCA is a subset of the journalistic topic/news story that I wrote about, not the other way around.

    You are arguing that my topic is not real, because it may (I disagree, obviously) not apply to the ELCA.

  • John E – Agn Stoic

    tmatt, the story – an issue in gay theology – boils down to some people think this, some people think that, and some people think something else. Which is interesting, and a real topic, but not particularly surprising.

    The real question is how is this playing out within institutions that recognize homosexual marriages.

    As for how you approached the subset of the topic wrt to the ELCA, you raise the question of just what sort of monogamy are we talking about here.

    Which is fair enough, except that there is a very simple way to find out the answer – get in touch with the ELCA and ask them – I’m a bit surprised that you didn’t send an e-mail and inquire.

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  • Kevin

    I’m sorry … but why is Dan Savage being elevated as the paragon of gay opinion? Dan Savage (while occasionally wickedly entertaining and purposefully offensive) is to gays what Pat Robertson is to evangelicals. Both say provocative and outlandish things because it’s what they do. It’s what puts bread on the table.

    Holding Dan Savage up as the author of The Gospel According to Gay seems pointless and more than a little irresponsible. GetReligion would castigate any journalist for holding up any given theologian/religious leader/cleric as God’s given authority on anything if the journalist didn’t also first put him or her in perspective for the audience’s benefit. Seems to me the good readers of GetReligion deserve no less.

  • tmatt


    Please read the actual post.

    Savage is only one point of view. The main point of the post is that there are many on the left — a spectrum. Who held him up as a theologian?

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  • Susan Russell

    I wrote about this issue nearly two years ago in a blog entitled “Speaking of Monogamy” …

    … which said, in part:

    Here is as non-ambiguous a definition of monogamy as I could find:

    Monogamy is the custom or condition of having only one mate in a relationship, thus forming a couple. The word monogamy comes from the Greek word monos, which means one or alone, and the Greek word gamos, which means marriage or union.

    One mate. A couple. Two people. Clear? Non-ambiguous? Sounds that way to me. But then so did C051 — the resolution passed in 2003 at the Episcopal Church General Convention outlining the standards for holiness in relationships that rose to the level of being blessed by the church:

    That we reaffirm Resolution D039 of the 73rd General Convention (2000), that “We expect such relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God,” and that such relationships exist throughout the church … [and] we recognize that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions.

    Hardly the “anything goes” we keep hearing about, is it? Actually, the ONLY thing that “goes” is heterosexist privilege — and it’s about time!

    Now, are there those in the LGBT community who are not attracted to these standards: to monogamy, fidelity and all the rest? Of course there are. And here’s a news flash: there are straight people who aren’t either! And those aren’t the relationships we’re talking about blessing! How’s that for clarity?

    The Reverend Susan Russell
    President, Integrity USA