There was no way for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to affirm the ministries of clergy living in “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships” without attracting attention.
After all, debates about the Bible and sexuality had rocked America’s largest Lutheran flock since it was born in 1988 through the merger of three older Lutheran denominations. Similar fights have caused bitter divisions among Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Methodists and other oldline Protestants.
While the decision in the recent ELCA national assembly was a triumph for proponents of same-sex marriage, this media storm also focused attention on a question that often causes debates among liberal theologians and ethicists: What does the word “monogamous” mean?
The detailed social statement approved by the denomination does not specifically define the term, but states that clergy in same-sex unions should be held to the same standards as those in heterosexual marriages.
“This church teaches that degrees of physical intimacy should be carefully matched to degrees of growing affection and commitment. This also suggests a way to understand why this church teaches that the greatest sexual intimacies, such as coitus, should be matched with and sheltered both by the highest level of binding commitment and by social and legal protection, such as found in marriage,” argues the document, which is entitled “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.”
Thus, the Evangelical Lutheran Church continues to oppose “non-monogamous, promiscuous, or casual sexual relationships of any kind. … Such transient encounters do not allow for trust in the relationship to create the context for trust in sexual intimacy.”
It’s hard to define “monogamy” without discussing what it means for one person in a relationship to be sexually “faithful” to another, said the Rev. Kaari Reierson of the national ELCA staff. She was part of the task force that produced the “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” document.
“When we talk about a ‘monogamous’ relationship,” she explained, “we mean that someone is supposed to be having physical, sexual contact with only one person.”
For some activists, however, “monogamy” is a fighting word.
As the national debates about same-sex marriage began to gain momentum a decade ago, the influential gay newspaper The Advocate stated this issue in a blunt headline: “Monogamy: Is it for us?”
This is not a new issue. As a gay United Methodist pastor explained to me in the early years of the AIDS crisis, few gay Christians embrace a “twin rocking chairs forever” definition of monogamy. Instead, they believe that it’s possible to be “faithful” to one’s life partner, while having sexual experiences with others.
The Episcopal Church’s first openly gay male priest went much further, questioning the relevancy of monogamy altogether during an address about what he called “sex-positive” theology soon after his ordination in 1989.
“My position on sexual exclusivity … is that it is NOT in fact a requirement for a valid Christian marriage,” stated Father Robert Williams, whose controversial views led to his departure from the Episcopal Church. He died of complications of AIDS in 1992.
A strict form of monogamous sexual fidelity, he noted, is “an option some couples choose. Others do not, and yet have lifelong, grace-filled, covenant relationships.”
The gay journalist Andrew Sullivan — a liberal Catholic — was equally blunt in his 1995 book “Virtually Normal,” arguing that, “There is more likely to be greater understanding of the need for extramarital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman. …. The truth is, homosexuals are not entirely normal; and to flatten their varied and complicated lives into a single, moralistic model is to miss what is essential and exhilarating about their otherness.”
And in the ELCA? Several church representatives stressed that their leaders are still preparing the revised guidelines for clergy conduct, which may not be made public until the end of the year. However, Reierson said she believes they will strive to apply terms such as “monogamous” and “faithful” to the covenant relationships of both gays and straights.
Meanwhile, the current policy that “single ordained ministers are expected to live a chaste life” will remain in the guidelines, she said. This means no sex before marriage for all single clergy.
“I think what we have said is pretty clear,” she said. “I don’t see room in there for physical, sexual relations with another person outside of the covenant of a lifelong, committed relationship.”