Saturday, January 31, 2009

Marriages for Gays in the Lutheran Church? Maybe in Sweden

The Jewish Mosaic ( of January 30, 2009 reports a Swedish proposal on gay marriage presented to parliament on Jan 21, 2009.

STOCKHOLM (AFP) — Sweden may allow homosexuals to wed in the Lutheran Church or civil ceremonies as of May if parliament adopts legislation presented to parliament Wednesday, the prime minister's party said.
"The main proposal in the motion is that ... a person's gender will no longer have any bearing on whether they can marry. The marriage law and other laws concerning spouses will be rendered gender neutral according to the proposal," a statement from Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's conservative Moderates said.
The proposal has wide backing in parliament and is expected to be adopted, though a date has yet to be set for a vote.
While heterosexuals in Sweden can choose to marry in either a civil ceremony or a church ceremony, homosexuals are currently only allowed to register their "partnerships" in a civil ceremony.
Civil unions granting gays and lesbians the same legal status as married couples have been allowed in Sweden since 1995.
If the new legislation is adopted, Sweden, already a pioneer in giving same-sex couples the right to adopt children, would become the first country in the world to allow gays to marry within a major Church.
In 2007, 74 percent of Swedes were members of the Lutheran Church.
The Lutheran Church, which was separated from the state in 2000, has since January 2007 offered gays a religious blessing of their union.
It has previously said it wants the word "marriage" reserved for heterosexual unions, and a Church synod late this year is expected to take a formal decision on Wednesday's proposal.
According to the proposal, pastors who do not want to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony would have the right to refuse, something gay rights' activists criticised.
The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education said that gave "authorities a legal right to discriminate", and suggested that all religious communities' right to perform marriage ceremonies be withdrawn.
Sweden's four-party centre-right government has been split on the issue, with the junior partner Christian Democrats also opposed to the use of the word "marriage" for homosexual unions.
However the three other coalition members, the Moderates, the Liberals and the Centre Party, as well as the opposition Social Democrats, the country's biggest party, are in favour of a gender neutral law and would together garner enough support to adopt the legislation in parliament.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

“The Meaning of West”

In the modern West, we are in transition between two versions of Christianity. The first is the old ecclesiastical version that ended in the early nineteenth century and is now slowly passing away. The second is our late-modern or postmodern civil society, which, with its liberal-democratic humanitarianism is the “Kingdom on Earth” version of Christianity. This is the thesis of Don Cupitt’s important new book, “The Meaning of West.” Liberal-democratic civil society is, he suggests, Quakerism writ large. Christianity is now becoming purely this-worldly and human. People are just leaving the clerical hierarchy behind. Cupitt calls these the officer-class of religious professionals who would control everything. One need only look at the collapse of the church in, for example, Spain, Ireland, and Italy to see the truth of this. In these once actively Christian countries hardly anyone goes to church and hardly anyone listens to, much less obeys, church pronouncements. The division between the sacred and the profane is gone. Now, we know only one world, our secular, human world. The entire divine realm has become scattered or disseminated into human beings.
Notwithstanding, the West is indelibly Christian. We are what Christianity made us. The modern Western-led international ethic is simply a continuation of Christian ethics. The proof of the ascendancy of the new “Kingdom" version of Christianity in the West is the fact that civil, secular society is now more consistently Christian than are the churches. The Church holds onto discrimination and injustice, as with its own employees, women, and gays, fighting inclusion and equality at every turn. Thus, the church is obsolete, and, Cupitt writes, we should leave it and commit ourselves with full religious seriousness to the best of our contemporary secular cultural life. Doing so, we would become better Christians. Of course, it hardly matters what the few people in the churches do. They are seen rightly as outdated anachronisms.
But even without the churches, Christianity is the active heart of the modern West, even though, as Cupitt points out, both religious dogmatists and Enlightenment scientific rationalists err because both are “realists,” wanting us to believe that the special bodies of knowledge out of which they earn their bread are objectively and permanently true. This isn’t so because any knowledge is always conditioned by our own human vantage point, our place in history, and the language we think, speak, and write in. And, because our language is always changing, our reality is also always changing since we have only our language to describe it. As a result we are learning to live without eternity, without foundations, without any absolute knowledge or reality.
Cupitt argues that this attitude helps us glimpse the long-awaited Kingdom of God on earth. This nihilistic religious-humanism-for-a-world-that-knows-it-is-passing-away, was, as far a we can tell, he writes, the original message of Jesus. Because he came to a dreadful end, his followers couldn’t see how his vision could be realized unless he were to return. He thus became a heavenly figure who would return one day to set the world right. This hope persisted, and ironically, drove the Faith toward working for the Kingdom here, because believers felt that Jesus was with them in this world. Cupitt calls this Faith’s own self-secularization. As Jesus emptied himself for us, so we in the West continue to recognize opportunities to empty ourselves into the world to help bring the Kingdom ever closer.

(“The Meaning of the West” was published in 2008 in England by SCM Press. I bought my copy from for $22.49, including postage.)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Gay Children: Treating their families as allies not enemies

An article today at the website, 365gay (, makes an important point: “When families reject their lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) adolescents by telling them the way they act is shameful, excluding them from family activities, or similar behaviors, the young people are more likely to have health and mental health problems in early adulthood.” This point has now been quantified in a paper published this month in the journal “Pediatrics” by Dr. Caitlin Ryan and her team at the César E. Chávez Institute of San Francisco State University. They report that LGB young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence were:
* 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide;
* 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression;
* 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs;
* and 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse, compared with peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection. The study was based on a survey of white and Latino young adults, ages 21-25, recruited from diverse venues in and around San Francisco.

Carolyn Laub, executive director of California’s Gay-Straight Alliance Network, explained why Ryan’s research breaks new ground. “For too long, we’ve served LGBT youth without involving their parents, often because we have feared the parents would reject their child. But to insure that LGBT youth develop into healthy adults, we need to involve parents, teaching them how their acceptance of their child impacts their health outcomes,” she said. She added, “Caitlin Ryan’s research changes the paradigm for how we think about serving LGBT youth in the context of their families, and will have a profound impact on the safety and health of LGBT youth. These findings need to be shared with everyone who works with youth and their families.”

This, of course, includes churches: their members and their clergy. For too long churches have acted as if sex doesn’t exist, and if it does exist, it’s bad, at least until heterosexual marriage. Church people must begin to talk about sex with each other, including sex practiced by the sexual minorities in their midst. This means that sermons should discuss sex and that discussion groups should work with sexual issues. As the 365 gay article points out, “Dr. Ryan realized early on that the very process of being interviewed was therapeutic for the families, very few of whom had ever talked about having LGBT children before. Even parents who were rejecting of their LGBT children and reluctant to participate would end up talking for hours. After completing the research, she also went back to the families that had participated in the qualitative study, as well as families from other ethnic groups, to share the findings. “We were having a dramatic impact on their behavior,” Ryan observed. “For the very first time, they could see how their specific words, actions, and behaviors were affecting their LGBT child.”

So the lesson for churches is clear: Recognize that LGBT people are in your congregations; talk to them; let them talk with the people of the congregations. Maybe together as we talk, we’ll hear the Gospel.

“The Scarlet Empress” and “The First Christmas”

“The Scarlet Empress,” Josef von Sternberg’s surreal mediation on the rise of Catherine the Great of Russia, was a box-office flop when it opened in 1934. Even the seductive charms of Marlene Dietrich as Catherine could not endear this exercise in realpolitik to American audiences who wanted, at least at the movies, that good should triumph over evil and that love be without self-interest. “The Scarlet Empress” instead shows Catherine fully realizing that to avoid being killed by her crazy husband, the Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe), she must give up on love and use the only weapon she has: sex. Her shedding of her humanity is chillingly portrayed in the banquet scene, in which the Archimandrite Simeon Tevedovsky (Davidson Clark), one of the few clergy at court sympathetic to Catherine, conducts the ritualistic alms collection for the poor. Of course, begging for charity is an inadequate substitute for standing up for justice for the poor, but such thoughts are far from the minds of the court clergy, who clearly relish their positions and are content to be subservient to the royal power. As the alms bowl is passed, Catherine puts in much of her jewelry, while Peter’s mistress (Ruthelma Stevens) contemptuously throws in a crust of bread. Peter shows his scorn by slapping the Archimandrite in the face. With that, we see a change in Catherine. Catching the eye of her current lover, the young officer Orloff (Gavin Gordon), who was standing behind her chair, she viciously knots a scarf. Orloff understands his mission, and after the banquet, we see him strangling Peter, thus ensuring the throne for Catherine. As Robin Wood writes in the notes for the 2001 Criterion Collection edition, which we saw, such a perversion of reciprocal love into sadomasochism within a culture built upon power relations is one of the recurrent themes of the films von Sternberg made with Dietrich.
The scene and indeed the movie itself also illustrate the theme that Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan develop in “The First Christmas,” their groundbreaking book. They write that following Jesus is a political decision, an alternative to following Caesar. Christian disciples are called on to be committed to peace through justice, in contrast to peace through victory, the way of the Caesars of the world.
Victory, of course, is won through violence: war; injustice; and, in Catherine’s case; murder. In contrast, justice almost always requires nonviolent resistance to unjust power. In the movie, neither the clergy nor Catherine is willing to resist power with nonviolence, because they themselves want power.
The movie climaxes and ends with Catherine’s ecstatic assumption of power. She ruled for more than 34 years and helped open Russia to enlightenment values, but she is remembered more for her victory than for justice. As von Sternberg’s movie emphasizes, She was not a virtuous fairy-tale princess. She was heroic, not sympathetic. This was not a recipe for box office success in 1934 or now, but the movie is a fascinating look at how power corrupts.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Question for Bishop Spong

I subscribe to Bishop Spong's newsletter. I think the Q&A from this week's newsletter is particularly important. What do you think?

Dr. Ray Schofield, from Waukesha, Wisconsin, writes:

I subscribe to your letters, and I have read most of your books and have found them helpful in my personal search for truth and in the search for my own identity as a Christian. I am 75 years old and retired from a busy practice of family medicine. I consider myself a second-commandment Christian. On both counts, human suffering has been one of my primary concerns. Early on as a physician and caring human being, it seemed clear to me that, of all the causes of human tragedy and suffering, there was no greater cause than that of people having children they didn't want or couldn't take care of. Therefore, potentially we had no more effective weapon than family planning against it. So I became an advocate of family planning. In the mid 1960s, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, there was and still is a religious bias against birth control, and not just from Catholics. Vasectomies were not done openly in the state of Wisconsin, as they were considered both immoral and illegal, so I was referring my patients to a urologist in Rockford, Illinois. After determining that vasectomies were not illegal in the state of Wisconsin, and having failed to persuade my urologist colleagues to do them, against all advice and in the face of religious criticism I decided to do them myself. Over the next few years I did thousands of them, as many as ten between morning hospital rounds and noon. I carried a surgical kit and did them on the road. Within five years, the practice of vasectomies was accepted and widely practiced in the state of Wisconsin. I continue to be an advocate of family planning. Based on polls taken by our local health department and my own experience, I believe the majority of people favor making contraception and sex education available to all women of childbearing age, including sexually active teenagers. So my question is this: Why the deafening silence from our Christian churches — conservative, mainline and liberal — regarding this humanitarian issue? Why the absence of family planning from all organized religious outreach programs? I have interviewed pastors and elected officials and concluded that religious leaders fear being seen as condoning sexual promiscuity, and both elected and religious leaders fear being divisive. They both dodge the issue by touting education and economic development, already long accepted approaches to the problem of poverty. But come on, that's not the issue. It's easy to support popular charities. I've always liked this somewhat obscure quotation of Emerson's that might apply here. "Your goodness must have some edge to it." You've never been afraid of controversy, so I'm interested in your take on this issue, particularly if you can think of ways to change the thinking of the broad Christian community in a way similar to the way it changed regarding the specific issue of vasectomies a half century ago.

Dear Dr. Schofield,

What a terrific letter and what a powerful witness your life has made. Thank you for that. The question you raised is daunting and powerful. Before trying to address it may I say that you are obviously part of the Christian Church, a "second-commandment Christian" as you call yourself — so the Church spoke loudly and eloquently through you. What you are asking about is why institutional Christianity has been so silent on things like family planning. There are at least two things that I think can be said, not to excuse, but to help us to understand. First, institutional Christianity has always been tied up over and repressive to issues of human sexuality. This stemmed from its move into a dualistic Greek thinking world in the second century that identified flesh and bodies with sinfulness while extolling souls and spirits so pure and holy. In time denying the flesh or the desires of the body came to be identified with Christianity. Later the Church declared that the holy life was the sexless life and so virginity was the pathway to holiness and celibacy was the mark of the holy or priestly life. A wide variety of negative things flowed out of this, including the negativity toward family planning, negativity toward a married priesthood, negativity toward women who were defined as "temptresses" if they were not virgins and the sense that sex was somehow dirty or unclean. For years women had to go through a ceremonial cleansing after childbirth before they could return to the Church. During the Middle Ages, cathedral choirs were normally made up of men and boys because menstruating women in the choirs might pollute holy places with their unclean menses. I think it is also fair to say that institutional Christianity's negativity toward homosexual people and even the outbreak of priestly abuse of young boys that has drained the resources of many part of the Roman Catholic Church in paying off lawsuits is one more illustration that unhealthy and sometimes violent expressions of sexuality always result from the repression of healthy sexuality. Once these negative attitudes are present in institutional Christian life, any attempt to change the cultural attitude is defined as immoral. So nations and states have made it difficult to oppose laws that when they were enacted reflected that distortion of the dominant religious perspective. Today, efforts to teach sex education in public school are opposed by an unholy alliance of traditional Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestant fundamentalists. The current administration in Washington, bowing to the pressure of its "religious right" supporters, had advocated the teaching of abstinence instead of sex education. It has been a colossal failure, as statistics reveal. It has been about as effective in curbing sexual activity as the "Just say No" campaign was in controlling drug use. This administration has also refused to fund international family planning clinics around the world for the same reason. Perhaps your letter will give people new courage to act. I do see a new day dawning in America on these and many other issues.