If 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.
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.
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.