Sexuality and the United Reformed Church

Roberta Rominger

With many others, I believe that Christianity requires a revolution in regards to sexuality. We must finally make peace with the fact of our physical existence and our physical relatedness to each other. It is not acceptable for us to face the world as people who are afraid and ignorant and condemning of what they do not understand.

The revolution I am talking about would have implications much wider than the issues we usually discuss under the heading of “sexuality”. With Rosemary Ruether, I believe that the way we regard our bodies has everything to do with the way we treat the planet and our fellow creatures. It has implications for racism and the relationship between the rich and the poor. It would even touch us in the United Reformed Church as we contemplate new structures, because much of the debate is focussed on how intimate we wish to be with fellow congregations and whom we will or won’t accept as bedfellows. We are seriously considering a new form of consensus decision making – again, an issue of relatedness. So it is an enormous project.

James B. Nelson puts it best for me:

Far more than genitality, our sexuality is our embodied ways of being in the world as female and male persons. With our varied gender understandings, our varied sexual orientations, our desires for deep sensuous touch with the world, our hungers for physical and emotional intimacy, we are all sexual beings from birth to death: celibate or genitally active, paired or single, living with disability or temporarily able-bodied, we are all sexual beings. And seen with the eyes of faith, human sexuality, I believe, is God’s way of calling us out of separation and loneliness into communication and communion. The bodily energy for all of our loves, the grounding of our passion for life, our possibility of mutuality and pleasure. Indeed, the sexuality of which we are speaking has such power in our lives, it is the source of such anxiety and fear, such joy, such shame, such yearning, such curiosity, it must be very close to the centre of things.

James B. Nelson,
Earl Lectures, Pacific School of Religion (Berkeley, California)
25 Jan 1994

Such a revolution cannot be legislated into existence. It cannot be imposed from outside. It comes from showing people a better way, which is where the work of CSCS has been so valuable.

In the United Reformed Church, mention of “human sexuality” immediately evokes the work we did on homosexuality in the 1990s. This began with a task group report urging the churches to take an open view of homosexuality as possibly within God’s plan for creation. The report was largely ignored. The issue came to the fore with two gay men who candidated for ministry. Both were approved for training, and one went off to college and completed his course. The other was barred from training by a college that said that they could not receive him in the absence of a URC policy about the ordination of gay and lesbian people.

Another task group was established, and we led a consultation process throughout the church, ultimately recommending various areas for further work and successfully arguing that, in the absence of a policy, the URC position should be to consider each candidate on his/her merits according to the usual discernment processes. The further work was done and General Assembly received a proposal for a policy statement which said that the URC welcomed and affirmed homosexual people within the life of church and society but could not affirm the acceptability of homosexual practice. This statement did not satisfy anybody and thus was rejected.

The position now is that the URC has no policy and has agreed to defer further consideration of the matter until 2007, a seven year moratorium. During this time discussion is meant to continue but no decision that would establish policy is to be taken. The moratorium has enabled the church to heal after the very divisive debates of the 1990s, but many people are conscious that 2007 is now just around the corner. This is one of the reasons the “consensus style” of decision making is being explored, to enable us to engage with each other more creatively in our councils when we find controversial matters on the agenda again.

In the meantime, we have been much involved in discussions about sexual abuse in the church, following the publication of CTBI’s Time for Action. The 2005 General Assembly adopted a “Charter for a Safe Church”, and work has begun in all the synods to raise awareness of issues around power, boundaries and appropriate behaviour. The United Church of Christ U.S.A. has an interesting story to tell at the moment. They hired a new communications director, and in December 2004 he launched a television advertising campaign that has transformed the church’s image for thousands of people.  You can see the advert on www.stillspeaking.org. There was an initial boost of publicity from an unexpected source, as two of the three major TV networks refused to broadcast the commercial, rejecting its message of radical inclusiveness as too controversial in George Bush’s America. Thus local ministers found themselves on the radio all across the country, boldly proclaiming a gospel of acceptance and healing. To date over seven million people have visited the website, and of these, 661,000 have entered their postcode into the box that says, “Where is my nearest UCC?”

Last summer’s General Synod passed a marriage equality declaration, proclaiming that everyone should have the right to marry. Forty-nine churches (less than 1%) left the denomination in protest, but 25 new ones have joined, with another 40 enquiries underway and new enthusiasm for church planting. See www.ucc.org.

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