Our More Light Educational Luncheon celebrated the 25th anniversary of the 1991 Sexuality Report “Keeping Body and Soul Together.” Two of the original report authors, Sylvia Thorson-Smith and Marvin Ellison were on hand to discuss the context for the report as well as the swift and immediate backlash. MLP co-moderator, Annanda Barclay led a discussion on the continued relevance of the report right now as well as areas to further our work on sexuality and justice in the future, particularly in the context of the Orlando shooting and justice for black and brown bodies via Black Lives Matter.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a quarter-century since the General Assembly Special Committee on Human Sexuality completed its report entitled “Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality, and Social Justice.” Back then, three things happened that rarely, if ever, happen to church reports. First, this church document became a run-away best seller. Second, Playboy magazine reviewed it. So did Time, Newsweek, The Des Moines Register, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The PBS News Hour. Third, when the 1991 General Assembly gathered in Baltimore, commissioners rushed to reject the report by a landslide vote of 534 to 31. They also quickly sent out a pastoral letter to congregations to reassure “the folks in the pews” that this notorious “sex report” had been squashed, that the Bible still remained authoritative, and that the General Assembly had “strongly reaffirmed the sanctity of the marriage covenant between one man and one woman.” The only vote that conservatives would lose was the vote to “deep six” the entire report, which would have prevented it from ever circulating again in print.
My dear colleague Sylvia Thorson-Smith and I, as the primary authors of the 1991 report, sometimes joke that we’ve survived the Presbyterian “sex wars.” Looking back, I’m frankly amazed that a Christian faith community managed to produce a report this sex-positive, feminist, and gay-friendly. Offering critique but also a word of hope, we acknowledged that, yes, sexuality can be misused and cause harm, but the church also has “good news” to share about sex. Our erotic power to give and receive embodied love is a remarkable gift from a truly gracious God. We nudged the church to “come of age” about gender and sexual difference. Hungry ourselves for a liberating word, we outlined a contemporary Christian ethic that was responsive to current social realities and, at the same time, firmly grounded in God’s mandate for love and justice in all connections.
Granted, what generated deep anxiety in the church was not only what we dared to say, but also how we went about saying it. Our theological method was explicitly liberationist. We gave central place to experience as a source of moral wisdom, especially the experience of those marginalized by the church’s own teaching. We argued that our solidarity with — and moral accountability to – people who have been made to suffer should always guide our readings of scripture, church tradition, the social and natural sciences, and other sources of knowledge. Those marginalized include most women as well as some men, people of color, LBGTQ persons, sexually active single adults, divorced and never partnered persons, survivors of family violence, and all those, younger and older, abled-bodied and less-able-bodied, who have been harmed because they have been either de-sexualized or over-sexualized. In our view, it’s simply not enough to “do no harm” although that’s a good beginning; we must also strive, as best we can, to “do good.” After all, isn’t our spiritual calling to enhance human dignity and create the economic, political, and spiritual conditions so that all may thrive and communities will flourish?
Twenty-five years ago, inspired by this prophetic biblical vision of inclusive wholeness, we challenged the church to get over its misplaced preoccupation with the so-called “sin of homosexuality.” Such theological claims are non-sense! Instead we should celebrate and give God thanks that same-gender loving is a beautiful and morally principled way, a faithful and fully human way, to live and to love. A contemporary Christian ethic should not focus on anyone’s sexual orientation or marital status, but rather on what truly matters: namely, how we relate to ourselves and others and our promoting relational integrity for all.
If we were to take this justice-love ethic seriously, what would happen? To begin with, the church’s task would be to teach us how to foster mutual respect, deep care, and a fair sharing of power and resources, especially with the vulnerable and marginalized. And what, then, would be the desired outcome of Christian education and faith formation? To spark in us an unquenchable desire to become passionate lovers and to work without ceasing to make gender and sexual justice real, to make racial and economic justice real, and to make earth justice real.
But, alas, when it comes to sex, sensuality, and erotic desire, it’s no secret that Christians are often at our worst; we become rigid, fearful, judgmental, and punitive. The church has long been both frightened and fixated about these matters, so much so that it has refused to abandon its outdated, unworkable sex ethic. But if the church is to offer its youth and adults “bread, not stone,” then the church must renounce its patriarchal captivity to an oppressive, anti-sex, anti-pleasure legacy that has been all about fear, shame, and control. We desperately need a liberating word, a fresh Christian ethic, an “ethic of common decency,” that honors justice-love as the guiding moral norm for all our relating, from the most intimate to the most public.
Contrary to The Presbyterian Layman’s dismissal of the 1991 report as “barnyard theology,” I’m persuaded that a Christian ethic of justice-love is very good news. It’s also demanding. A justice-love ethic does not lower moral standards; rather, it raises the ethical bar, and therein lies the hope and the challenge. I’ve long suspected that the Baltimore General Assembly rejected the “sex report” not because it went “too far” about sex, but because it brought the demands of justice so close to home. Just imagine: IF each of us believed, deep down, that we deserve to be treated fairly, lovingly, and with deep respect — in our bedrooms and beyond, and IF each of us held ourselves accountable to treat others fairly, lovingly, and with deep respect, AND IF we refused to settle for anything less, THEN the world and church would need to change, and change radically. Just imagine the difference that embodied justice-love would make! Just imagine!
I want to begin with a toast to the chair of our committee, the Rev. Dr. John Carey, who led us through the joys and trials of writing and defending this report. John and his wife Mary Charlotte McCall live in Durham, North Carolina, and are unable to be with us for this anniversary event. So please lift your water glasses and toast with me: to John Carey, for your care and devotion to this project!
Now, let me tell you about some of the reaction to this report. Throughout the three years our committee of 17 worked on it, pressure from the PCUSA hierarchy was extreme. At one point, John Carey and I were called to Louisville to meet with church leaders who were worried about what we were writing and begged us not to continue in this direction. Marvin was replaced as writer of the framework, and when the new writer edited the clarity and passion out of it, we voted to dismiss him and stay with Marvin’s framework. We were a gutsy, uppity bunch of Presbyterians who took seriously our mandate to write the best report on human sexuality that we could.
Reaction to the report’s publication was immediate and intense. Part of the Presbyterian Church had a collective stroke, while another part rejoiced with amazement. What I remember most about that General Assembly is how the process was controlled from the very beginning. This was the first GA at which the committee assigned to our report was brought in a day early to do “group-building” — which resulted in agreement not to deliberate on the report itself but to craft a pastoral letter about it. Usually reports to GA are gone over with a fine tooth comb, with committees approving them sentence by sentence and making changes as they wish. Our report was never even discussed in detail by the committee! One of the most memorable experiences I had was meeting with women members of the committee in a bathroom, where they were in tears because they couldn’t get the committee to talk about any of the substance of the report. The process at that point only allowed for tinkering with the pastoral letter, which basically said, “We’re all very sorry. This will never happen again!”
Fear gripped the institutional church in a way that was later seen in its reaction to the Re-Imagining event in 1993. A former moderator said in an interview: “This report is potentially damaging to the Presbyterian community, and I hope the GA puts it to bed in whatever way is appropriate.” (Isn’t that an interesting instruction for a report about sex)
Nevertheless, while the institution and those responsible for it went into gear to make sure it was “dead on arrival,” the outpouring of support for the report was mind-blowing. The first time I spoke about the report was to an MLP gathering in Wisconsin. They were ecstatic over this new word on sexuality that was radically inclusive of gay and lesbian persons. I’ll never forget walking into the retreat center to embraces, balloons, broad grins, and the music of Billie Holliday singing “Body and Soul.” Justice work doesn’t get any better than this!
There was another first at the 1991 General Assembly — the first procession in protest of a GA action, when the report was summarily defeated. From the back of the assembly hall, a large contingent of LGBT persons and allies — weeping as we walked — carried forward a huge cross and sang, “We are a gentle, angry people, and we’re singing, we’re singing for our lives.” As we processed, many commissioners rose out of their seats and joined us. Similar protests would dominate GA discussions of sexuality for the next 20 years.
One of my biggest disappointments is that the commissioners didn’t bother to discuss any of the ten issue chapters in the report. One of the best was by the Rev. Dr. James B. Nelson — our much beloved ethicist consultant — who wrote about sex and persons with disabilities. We were excoriated for having the audacity to suggest that persons with disabilities might be taught how to pleasure themselves, perhaps with the aid of a sexual surrogate. The General Assembly avoided talking about the specifics of this report as if its contagion might be let loose to infect them all.
My husband Mike was a commissioner to the ’91 assembly and our son Stefan was a Youth Advisory Delegate. As we were walking back to our hotel after GA action on the report, we saw coming toward us a tall young man whom we had seen as part of the gay community. He was wearing a t-shirt that said on the front: “I had sex with the Presbyterian Church.” As he walked by, we turned and saw that on the back it said: “And it was awful!”
Marvin and I have written and spoken much about this report in the last 25 years. We often ask “what was at stake?” that made this report so controversial. The answer is, we believe, nothing less than overturning the patriarchal regulation of sexual and social relations, which produced great fear in the defenders of the status quo. Established sexual arrangements are at stake when a church document proclaims boldly that human sexual pleasure is godly, that same-sex couples deserve religious approval, and that the substance of justice-loving relations rather than the form of marriage should govern ethical relations. No wonder a Presbyterian newspaper headlined its post-GA story: “Assembly rejects report, strongly affirms marriage.” (and that did not include marriage equality for same-sex couples!)
I want to close with a comment from an enthusiastic review in — of all places — “Playboy” magazine, where the writer said: “When the committee members sat down to write, they didn’t pull any punches. As they launched bravely into the tough-minded and enlightened proposals, they suggested the way to start was to imagine ‘a gracious God, delighting in our sexuality.’ That phrase alone was enough to keep me reading, because it blew away the dark spirit of everything I’d ever been taught about Christian sexual morality.”
I’ve always liked a line by Flannery O’Conner that Marvin Ellison is fond of quoting: “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you…odd.” In 1991, the lovers of this report were thought to be an odd bunch of Presbyterians by a majority of the church. But what is odd in one moment of history is often quite conventional in another — and we’ve lived to see a tidal wave of change in 25 years.
Many people knew at the time that this report was part of a collective breath blowing away two millennia of pleasure-avoiding, flesh-denying, control-based Christian sex talk. And we’re here today to celebrate 25 years of that Holy Windstorm! Blessed Be!
Given the recent event of the largest mass shooting in recent United States history occurring at an LGBTQ club in Orlando, Florida it is more than appropriate to consider this horrifying event as an example why the work of justice-love is so important.
What we are talking about today is how the 1991 is still relevant, how it still challenges us to encounter The Divine in abundant ways. What is uncomfortably and unfortunately relevant, is 49 people all bearing the face of God were murdered.
49 people who went to one of the safest places they could express their sexuality and gender identity where murdered in their safe space.
And I say most recent in rememberance of Native communities. It is not a coincidence that this event, happened to this mostly brown latinx and a few black queers in the state of Florida, in the United States. It is not a coincidence that those who are considered sexually, and or gender deviant struggle to find comfort in institutionalized religion, let alone the church most of whom, in that particular city and state, are not welcoming to LGBTQ people.
All human beings are worthy and deserve at the very least, a place at the table simply because we exist. For the ability to thrive in this life, to live and experience glimpses of heaven in this here and now, to love ones self, and others, to be in love, to touch, to feel, to name, to desire, and to experience pleasure. Life, is also about experiencing heaven. Not just calling upon it when hell has broke loose.
One of the overarching themes of the 1991 sexuality report blatantly reveals what is at stake is not just the lives of those our LGBTQ siblings in humanity, or their chosen and biological families who accept them, persons with different abilities, or even allies, but also, the lives of religious leaders, politicians, and everyday people who deny or refuse to respect or knowledge a life outside of the white supremacist, cisgender, able-bodied, heteronormative status quo.
The reaction of the report by our denomination, reveals much about the shame, and discomfort of expanding the status quo, and normalizing sexuality, desire, and pleasure in the context of spiritual fulfillment and body affirmation, instead of religious damnation and body denial.
When it comes to the preservation of the Presbyterian Church (USA), it is all too often a scapegoat to control, who’s bodies are worthy of the church community and outpouring of Gods love. We are not the gatekeepers of God, The Spirit does not follow Roberts Rules of Order, the Book of Order, or the Book of Confessions. All of these politics and references were designed for the inverse purpose of us finding a way to manifest God’s love.
When we talk about the church who’s church are we preserving? Quite literally what are the multiplicities of identities of the people who are making this claim? What does that church look like and is it truly dying? Or is it thriving for the people who hold the multiplicity of identities that the church normatively acknowledges and celebrates? Would I as a black, queer, woman want the church that struggles to name, hold, or see my existence and culture in the pews or normatively in leadership?
What life can find in that church to survive, let alone to flourish? I use myself as an example, not because it’s all about me, but because this report shed more light on what it will take for the church to expand is understanding of love. An understanding that’s so incredibly inclusive it sheds light on human sexuality as a whole, freeing many heterosexual relationships and sexual practices that are also considered taboo or shameful.
The 1991 Sexuality report gives a detailed framework from which we are reminded grace is always offered at the table. There is so much abundant room for the multiplicity of our identities and our mutually consenting sexual desires and spirituality to perechoretically exist. Living justice-love, embodying it, not just talking about it will be a crucial for the integrity of the church.
It creates holy space that has enough room to hold all of our identities equally instead of putting one over and against the other. It allows us to see God’s abundance in expression of human sexual, sensual, body affirming love just as we are. None of us should have to split our identities. Should not have to choose between LGBTQ rights, black lives matter, and then women’s issues. It should inherently be recognized all of these identities exist in one body.
To erase and not acknowledge that many of our identities overlap certain cultural and social spaces, is to ignore our complex reality as humans. And to deny sexual desire, is to deny a reality for all sexual beings. The sectors of the church that understand and operate under this reality, will be sectors of the church in where more people would be welcome and free to come as they are. The result of Justice-Love is an abundant expansion of God’s kingdom. May we live into that, instead of simply talking and praying for it.