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Rev. Debra Haffner Headshot

Sexuality and Religion 2020: A New Vision

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Ten years ago, a multifaith coalition of clergy and theologians released the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing in a full-page advertisement in the New York Times. The declaration challenged the nation's religious leaders to become better pastors for sexual health, respond to the suffering caused by sexual abuse and exploitation, and be bolder advocates of social and sexual justice.

In the decade since the Religious Declaration appeared, notable progress has been made. Women now head four major denominations and have parity with men in many more. Ten denominations ordain openly gay and lesbian clergy. More than 3,300 congregations have completed a formal process to welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people as full members. In 2000, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ introduced their groundbreaking sexuality education curricula, Our Whole Lives; at least a dozen other denominations now have faith-based, sexuality education curricula of their own.

Yet, despite this progress, too many religious leaders and institutions remain silent where sexuality issues are concerned, and the pastoral needs of their congregants are largely going unaddressed. Although there have been countless debates about sexual orientation in some of the largest denominations, clergy and congregations are choosing silence over action where sexual health and justice are concerned. Last year, the largest-ever survey of mainline Protestant clergy revealed that more than 70% seldom or never discuss sexuality issues.

So today, we are reviving the challenge first articulated in the Religious Declaration. In a new report, Sexuality & Religion 2020: Goals for a New Decade, the Religious Institute is putting forward a vision for the next decade - that by the year 2020, all faith communities will be sexually healthy, just and prophetic. Achieving this vision is the work of clergy and congregations, of denominations and seminaries, and of advocates and activists of all faiths who believe we must change the conversation around sexuality and religion in America.

The problem is partly rooted in seminaries, where future clergy are not receiving the training they need to address the sexuality issues they will face in ministry. In 2009, the Religious Institute completed a two-year study of how 36 U.S. theological schools address sexuality in their curricula. In all but one of the seminaries, future ministers and rabbis can graduate without taking a single sexuality-based course. Most offer training in sexual harassment prevention, and two-thirds require it of their ministry students. But that hardly prepares a minister to counsel congregants in abusive or dysfunctional relationships, struggling with questions of sexual identity, or harboring histories of abuse, rape or marital infidelity.

Sexuality & Religion 2020 proposes 10 goals to move our religious communities forward on matters of sexual health, education and justice. They call for:
  • Improving seminary education and requiring ministerial candidates to demonstrate competencies in sexuality issues. (Today, the Unitarian Universalist Association, with the support of the Religious Institute, became the first major denomination to require sexuality competencies for all ministerial candidates, effective this year. The UUA, of which I am a part, represents more than 1,000 congregations nationwide.)
  • Lifespan sexuality education programs in congregations and faith communities. These programs must not only serve teenagers but adults as well, so that we can help couples and singles to be both sexual and engaged in religious communities throughout their lifetimes.
  • Integrating sexual justice into broader justice movements. By mobilizing existing networks that address racism, poverty, immigration and other concerns, we can effectively challenge the idea that sexuality can be kept separate from other social justice concerns.
  • Mobilizing people in the pews to advocate for an increased commitment to sexual health, education and justice in congregations and communities.

Breaking the silence around sexuality also means speaking out for sexual and spiritual wholeness. For too long, the only influential religious leaders where sexuality is concerned have been theologically and politically conservative. The intrusion of the U.S. Catholic bishops in health care reform reminds us how important it is that progressive religious leaders who support sexual justice have a vigorous voice in the debate.

For the most part, however, the issues surrounding sexuality and religion need not be partisan. Every congregation - whether liberal, conservative, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Hindu - has a responsibility to address the sexuality needs of congregants in the context of its own beliefs and teachings. Sexuality is too central to our lives, too connected to our spirituality, and too potentially harmful for the silence in our faith communities to continue.

The full report, Sexuality & Religion 2020, can be downloaded at the Religious Institute website at www.religiousinstitute.org.

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