Sex in Lake Wobegon

It’s inevitable, I guess, that a discussion of gay and lesbian people will turn into a discussion of sex, especially in the context of religion. So when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America approved gay and lesbian people who are in committed relationships to become ministers and “recognize, support and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same gender relationships”, sex—and not the relationships—would become the focus.

Kicking off the sex talk was the Associated Press, which provided a breaking story from Minneapolis with the unfortunate headline “Lutherans to allow sexually active gays as clergy” and then lead with this paragraph.

The nation’s largest Lutheran denomination took openly gay clergy more fully into its fold Friday, as leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to lift a ban that prohibited sexually active gays and lesbians from serving as ministers.

Under the new policy, individual ELCA congregations will be allowed to hire homosexuals as clergy as long as they are in a committed relationships. Until now, gays and lesbians had to remain celibate to serve as clergy.

First, there’s the headline. The church didn’t say that it was okay for gays to have all the sex they wanted. Instead, it said gays and lesbians who were in committed relationships could become clergy, and no longer had to remain celibate. No one dictated they be “sexually active,” only that they no longer had to be celibate inside a committed relationship. This puts them on par with non-gay and lesbian clergy who are expected to remain celibate until marriage. National Public Radio attempts to fix the AP’s problem, using this headline–Lutherans To Accept Non-Celibate Gay Clergy—but the headline still focuses disproportionately on the sex, instead of the relationships.

I’m also not sure why the story tosses in “homosexuals as clergy” amid the mentions of gays and lesbians. I understand repeating the phrase “gay and lesbian” over and over can be clunky, but tossing a “homosexual” into the mix of sex talk reinforces, well, the sex talk.

Another unfortunate headline, on an otherwise strong story, was in the Washington Post which offered the headline “‘Monagmous’ Gays can Serve in ELCA.” While not as genital as “sexually active,” the headline again focuses on the sex instead of the relationship. The story does a much better job of focusing on the relationships and the theology.

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.

One odd development stemming from the coverage has been an orgy of concern trolling launched at the religious conservative media criticism website GetReligion over how the ELCA defines “monogamy” and whether gay men—specifically—will try to change that definition for the church. Terry Mattingly, the blog’s founder, implores the LGBT media to report on how gays define “monogamy” and whether those wanting to be ELCA clergy will redefine Christianity’s view of the term.

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.

Predictably, this monogamy argument—which is linked directly to opposition to same-sex marriage—has been picked up by others in the religious conservative blogosphere, including Rod Dreher, First Things, and the Anglican warriors. The argument flows from Mattingly’s interpretation of some 1980s queer theology, quotes from non-Lutherans Andrew Sullivan and Dan Savage, and the usual discussion of gay male sexuality and relationships. It’s an agenda-driven mess to unravel, acting as though the ELCA’s almost 20-year discussion of human sexuality never considered the issue of monogamy.

But at least he isn’t picking the nit that journalists describing a church as “gay friendly” demonstrates bias towards churches that don’t mind gays, as long as you agree homosexuality is a sin, your relationships shouldn’t be recognized, you should be celibate for the rest of your life, and that your sexual orientation could probably be changed through prayer.

2 Responses

  1. Michael, I assume that you know that Mattingly in getreligion is simply repeating the talking points about monogamy that Maggie Gallagher et al. are disseminating. The argument seems to be that homosexuals are incapable of monogamy, so to allow marriage equality would be to destroy the institution of marriage, or at least change it beyond recognition. (As though heterosexuals are always monogamous.) I suspect, however, that since women seem to have less problems with monogamy than men (of whatever orientation), the likelihood is that committed lesbians are probably more monogamous than any other demographic. In any case, nothing on getreligion is really about journalism, as they pretend: it is all about ideology.

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