That's where the people are

Posted: Jul 25, 2000 12:00 AM
Unless I'm mistaken -- always an ample possibility -- there was once a time when religious questions didn't center on sex. That would have been about, oh, the first 1,960 years of the Christian era. Just back from 12 days in Denver with my Episcopal brothers and sisters at General Convention, and I'm sorry to report that the old days are truly gone. And, please -- no Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc., etc. gloating. We're conspicuously all in this together. And what's the thing we're in? That state of mind which accords the upper hand to matters of the flesh rather than the spirit; good, full-blooded earthly concerns, such as churches are instructed to embrace because, you see, That's Where The People Are. This means, in quite a few church circles, you don't hear much about sin. (That's not where the people "are.'') You don't hear much about salvation. (Not there either.) What you hear about is sexuality. There -- that's where the people are. How do we know this? For one thing, we hear it conventionally from denominational leaders who mostly came of age around the time Bob Dylan and Woodstock were hot stuff. ("Life is sex,'' quoth Dr. Timothy Leary. Any more questions?) Thus at Denver we heard almost nothing about sin. From which it may be deduced, accurately, that we heard little about hell and heaven. But, oh, my, we heard about sex -- classified in two ways: 1) sexual expression and 2) feminism. The second first. Three Episcopal dioceses, out of 100-plus, still decline to ordain women as priests, believing (with Roman Catholics as well as other Anglicans) the priesthood, as instituted by Jesus, to be a male office. Now one needn't be Episcopalian to understand how that kind of assertion goes down. Why, it defies equal job opportunity, that's what! So, with the spirit of Susan B. Anthony marching triumphantly around the hall, General Convention voted to enforce equal job opportunity in every diocese, keep those scriptural quibbles to yourself, Mac. But this was only after the other, hotter sex question had been more or less resolved -- the one concerning sexual responsibility. Now there's a word unpopular with Woodstockians -- "responsibility" -- at least unpopular in its received sense of accountability to the historic understanding developed over centuries from Scripture. The big issue among Episcopalians, as among Methodists, Presbyterians, and so on, is the affirmation of gay and lesbian relationships: their equation with heterosexual relationships -- which is a new one, to say the least. Whether or not to take such a step divided General Convention for a while, until a formula emerged. The church would study the theology of relationships outside marriage. That was for the Woodstockians. For pre-Woodstockians (in the philosophical sense, I mean; not the chronological one), there was praise of fidelity and monogamy and censure of promiscuity. The main thing was, nonetheless, that the Woodstockians kept open the question of church-sanctioned rites for blessing same-sex relationships. And not these alone, because "inclusiveness'' is demanded of modern people. The resolution's language stipulates possible rites for "long-term, committed, loving unions of persons without the sacrament of marriage, whether heterosexual or homosexual.'' Tom and Rick of different surnames, Joe and Sue of different surnames; each relationship on a par with all the rest (assuming "fidelity,'' of course!); the church's sacramental authority over Christian marriage set discreetly to the side, like a crumpled service leaflet. A viable alternative (in Woodstockian lingo). But, hey, who's going any place but bed? "I am!'' many people used to reply, often with fervency. And if it ain't heaven -- they probably mused, a bit uncomfortably -- it must be a hotter locality. Modern churches seem unimpressed with questions of destination. The sins we are advised to fret about are social and political. (General Convention dallied briefly with a call to condemn "heterosexism.'') No need to "get right with God.'' Why not just "update'' our understanding of what He's really been saying all along? Small wonder a theologically-minded deputy from Dallas became internationally famous for scattering around the joint some salt he had blessed for the purpose of routing evil. You see what impression his action apparently made. After the deputy's untimely resignation and departure, the conversation went on as before: Your sex, my sex, his sex, her sex.