Ecumenical conversation marks a significant step in dialogue on human sexuality
by Stephen Webb (*)
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A series of ecumenical conversations has been organized at the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Porto Alegre, Brazil, to provide a space for delegates to share their experiences in addressing key concerns for the future of the churches and their common witness and action.
One topic under discussion is human sexuality. Few issues could benefit more from the opportunity to address together prevailing dynamics and trends, and discerning the signs of the times in the light of faith.
Differing responses to ethical challenges posed by human sexuality have undermined common witness within and among the churches. The WCC has organized conversations on sexuality at the Porto Alegre Assembly to continue dialogue requested by the Assembly in Harare in 1998.
Moderated by the Right Rev. Garry Maarquand of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, the conversations on human sexuality took place over three days. They began with an overview of the many issues of sexuality that churches are dealing with, and a theological reflection by Orthodox Fr Heikki Huttunen, from Finland, on human sexuality as a gift of God.
Through sharing stories of hope and struggle, the first session reviewed the reality churches face. Small group discussion was followed by some participants describing how the issue affected them personally, or naming what they considered the consequence of sexuality needing most immediate attention.
The second session examined how issues of sexuality had been addressed by the churches and theologians, and the third asked in which direction a fellowship of churches seeking unity might attempt to listen to the concerns of its members.
Participants heard how a reference group on human sexuality organized three seminars over as many years at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland, as well as several regional seminars. The reference group found that the challenges, attitudes and opinions on the subject were different according to geographical location and varied experiences.
Topics have included changing patterns of family life, HIV/AIDS, pornography, sex trafficking, sex tourism, sexual abuse such as pedophilia and incest, open affirmation and recognition of different sexual orientations, theological education, marital infidelity, abortion, polygamy and violence against women and against sexual minorities. Sexuality was described as a very private matter, often sensitive and taboo. Victims often have been silenced by the powerful.
Father George Mathew Nalunnakkal, of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, said the reference group received over 80 documents from churches that were asked to send statements on human sexuality. Commenting on the absence of discussion on the "globalizing culture of sexuality", he said the reality that sexuality is much wider than the issue of homosexuality was not reflected in some churches' statements.
There were common aspects to the statements: acknowledgement of the discontinuity between traditional church positions on sexuality and the reality "out there", consideration of the Bible as the foundation for ethical decision-making, albeit in different ways and with different emphases, and the adoption of a humble approach, recognizing the need for further study and reflection.
He said, "The most glaring aspect of these documents is their diversity. One of the reasons for these conflicting positons on human sexuality is the diversity in the way the scripture (Bible) is understood and applied vis-à-vis human sexuality issues." For example, when the approach of considering the Bible as the supreme rule of faith and life, following the Bible literalistically, is combined with an appeal to natural law, "it tends to result in positions that are less inclusive".
Generally speaking, he said, all statements tended to affirm sexuality as instrinsically good and as a gift to be celebrated.
Dr Sara Baltodano, from Costa Rica, reported on regional seminars in India and Costa Rica where points of agreement included the following points: that discussion of sexuality had social and political dimensions; speaking of sexuality should lead to an integrated practice of justice; God affirms human sexuality; the Bible leads us to believe in the equality of all members of the body while affirming its diversity; we must not take literally biblical teachings based on ancient cultural norms; and we should not promote sexual rights without the attendant responsibilities of being non-abusive within relationships and faithful within the configuration of relationships in which we live.
Further discussion among participants revealed the range of experiences represented: from churches with no word for sexuality or awareness of homosexuality, to a church defined by its openness to different sexual expressions; from traditional churches with a quiet acceptance of homosexuality and churches with pastoral responses to social realities, to churches divided on the issue.
Huttunen said more reflection was needed on the nature of the human being and the calling of the person. He said ideology was not helpful in thoughtful conversation and that sometimes theology becomes ideology instead of prayerful discernment.
In contrasting Sartre's observation that "hell is other people" with a saying of St Seraphim of Sarov, he presented what became a motto for the participants. He said Seraphim regarded other people as heaven. Throughout the year and not only during the Easter period, he greeted all who came to him with the words, "Christ is risen! My joy!" Huttunen said, "We must be motivated by that insight."
Wrapping up the conversation were summary lists of issues, barriers and ways the churches could continue working together. Additions to the list of issues were arranged marriages, mutilation, celibacy, youth culture, spirituality and the need to begin any conversation about human sexuality with reflections on love, joy and relationships.
Barriers included religious taboos, differences in biblical interpretation, fear and discrimination. Suggested ways forward included writing narratives involving sexuality into a common lectionary, granting permission for discussion, story-telling to remove fear of the other, conversation starters and educational materials about different persectives on human sexuality.
Organizers considered the conversations to be significant because the group involved was larger than the reference group and was representative of many traditions and cultures. It was also significant because of the respect participants had for one another and their desire for the discussion to continue.
Reports from the conversations will be considered by the WCC Programme Committee as it plans how best to continue the dialogue.
(*) Stephen Webb is media officer for the New South Wales Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia.
Contact in Porto Alegre:+55 / 51 8419.2169