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Do No Harm: UMs tackle sexual ethics questions Mary Jacobs, Feb 4, 2011
UMR PHOTO BY MARY JACOBS
United Methodist clergy and laypeople gather for opening worship in the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in Houston, as part of Do No Harm 2011, the denomination’s sexual ethics summit.
By Mary Jacobs Staff Writer
HOUSTON—“Sex is great!” proclaimed Miguel De La Torre. Raising his arms like a conductor, he led the people in the pews as they enthusiastically repeated, in unison: “Sex is great!”
The gathering was Do No Harm 2011, the United Methodist church’s sexual ethics summit, which drew 320 United Methodist clergy and lay leaders to First United Methodist Church in Houston, Jan. 27-29.
Dr. De La Torre, an associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology, wanted to remind participants that positive, healthy sexuality reflects the goodness of God’s creation.
“It’s important to begin at this place,” he said, as attendees grappled with the reality of sexual misconduct within the church and tackled topics typically shrouded in shame and silence: porn addiction, sex addiction, sexual harassment and sexual abuse.
Repairing the breach
Participants came from 58 annual conferences, including representatives from as far as Germany and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and ecumenical partners from the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the World Council of Churches. The event was sponsored by the United Methodist Interagency Sexual Ethics Task Force, which was convened by the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW).
Attendees were there “to be repairers of the breach, particularly when the church is the place where the ‘breach’ happens,” said M. Garlinda Burton, COSROW’s top executive, in her opening address.
“The good news is that a steadily increasing number of United Methodists in leadership have awoken from the sleep of denial and apathy,” she told the gathering in her opening address. “But we would not be here this week if our work was completed.”
On the plus side, Ms. Burton reported that most United Methodist judicatories in the U.S. now require some kind of ethics training for clergy, and that “Safe Sanctuary” policies have been adopted by many conferences and congregations.
But, she noted, COSROW has been called upon in the past six months to address 20 complaints of sexual misconduct. Those numbers only reflect cases involving COSROW; no central repository for reporting complaints across the denomination exists.
Ms. Burton also cited troubling figures from a survey of 6,000 United Methodists. Half of all laywomen and one-third of laymen witness or are victims of some degree of sexual harassment or misconduct in their congregations, ranging from inappropriate comments to physical assault or stalking. Some 77 percent of United Methodist clergywomen and 50 percent of clergymen say they have experienced unwanted sexual behavior or comments. Half of all persons who have made sexual misconduct complaints at the local church level say the pastor or lay leadership “trivialize” their concerns.
With impassioned words that drew “amens” from the audience, Ms. Burton said: “If the United Methodist Church is to be a reliable and credible witness to the Gospel, then we must agree that standing with, preaching and doing justice on behalf of, and binding up the broken—especially those who we, the church, have helped to break—should be the number one reason we seek to embody God’s beloved community.”
Do No Harm 2011 was the second denomination-wide sexual ethics summit since 2006. Participants were urged to network and to share expertise and “best demonstrated practices” with colleagues from other churches and annual conferences.
Two speakers described the comprehensive abuse prevention policy of the Kansas East Annual Conference. Considered a model within the denomination, Kansas East’s “Safe and Sacred Space” program was borne of two devastating revelations about 20 years ago: a United Methodist pastor convicted of molesting children, and a district superintendent who left the ministry due to sexual misconduct.
“Crisis is a great motivator,” said the Rev. Gary Beach, director of connectional ministries for Kansas East. “A conscious decision was made to learn from this.”
In the mid-1990s, the annual conference created the policy, and in 2001, mandated that all local churches comply. Anyone wishing to work with children or developmentally disabled adults within a church-sponsored setting must obtain certification, which involves a training session, background checks and references from a clergy and layperson.
Sometimes church leaders must turn away volunteers, and that creates hard feelings and even legal issues, said Mr. Beach. “Yes, there are risks if we do this, but there are also risks if we don’t,” he said.
While there was initially some pushback for the certification process, “it’s now part of our DNA,” said Nancy Brown, a member of Church of the Resurrection and a former Kansas legislator. “It’s no longer an issue of ‘We don’t have time for this.’”
Four bishops shared their experiences in responding to complaints in a panel discussion.
When sexual misconduct occurs, according to Bishop Max Whitfield, “there has been significant harm. Trust has been broken, relationships have been broken.” He urged church leaders to provide good interim pastoral care when a pastor is removed after accusations of sexual misconduct.
Bishop Sally Dyck compared the revelation of sexual misconduct to an “explosion,” and the church’s initial response to an “ambulance call.”
“It’s an emotional time, and you can’t answer long-term questions, because at that stage you’re just trying to figure out what’s going on,” she said. Once the facts are sorted out, church leaders may begin to develop a plan to inform and care for the congregation. Healing is usually a long-term process. “It’s just not over for a very long time,” she said.
In the course of the three-day conference, participants also chose from a series of workshops on topics ranging from background checks and legal issues to cybersafety, youth-to-youth abuse, helping congregations heal from misconduct and helping persons heal from sexual addiction or sexual trauma.
Because so many people are affected by sexual abuse at one time or another, conference organizers were prepared should the proceedings trigger traumatic memories for any participant. “Compassionate listeners,” identified by the bright orange ribbons they wore, were designated for each session for anyone who wished to speak with them.
An ongoing discussion within the conference centered on how the Christian faith might better lead the cultural conversation about sexuality.
Reading a particularly steamy passage from the Song of Songs, Dr. De La Torre pretended to fan himself in response and joked, “Is it getting warm in here? Try preaching that on Sunday.”
The clear eroticism of the biblical passages serve as a reminder, he said, that God ordains sexuality as holy and good.
“And yet somehow Christianity made a wrong turn,” he said. “We created this false dichotomy, between the sacred and spiritual, and the profane and the bodily.” He believes sexual abuse is fostered, in part, by the lingering effects of early Christian teachings, which posited that sex existed purely for procreation and which viewed women as less than equal.
Instead, he said, sexual ethics should consider the oppressed and the voiceless, and should be rooted in the Trinity, where no hierarchy exists between God, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
“It’s important that we get sexual ethics right,” he said.
Darryl Stephens, assistant general secretary for advocacy and sexual ethics for COSROW and the coordinator of Do No Harm, said the event aimed to take advantage of the United Methodist connectional system. Sessions were scheduled for participants to meet colleagues within their jurisdictions and to begin to plan and network.
In the closing session of the conference, participants were asked to describe what help they needed “to take the next step” within their conferences, as a panel of representatives from eight denominational agencies listened.
“This is connectedness at its best,” said Mr. Stephens.
And putting that connection to work, said Ms. Burton, to address sexual misconduct, is a must if the church is to minister to the world at large.
“If we can’t do right by the folks whom the church betrays, if we can’t even transform our own cabinets and clergy communities and staff-parish relations committees and congregations,” she said, “then we have no hope of transforming the world.”