From the Dean’s Desk

Harold W. Attridge

Sex is much on the minds of many in the churches these days. The Anglican communion is being torn apart by disagreements over the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson. Methodists have been battling over whether to welcome gays into their churches. At the 2006 general assembly of the Presbyterian church, a task force on “peace, unity, and purity” will offer its recommendations regarding issues of sexual orientation. Ordination of women remains a controversial issue in several denominations. In the Roman Catholic Church, still reeling from the pedophilia scandal, Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, on love, celebrates the value of heterosexual sex within matrimony. Other churches, such as the United Church of Christ, profess an “open and affirming” stance toward people of all sexual orientations, although several dozen local congregations rejected the denomination’s direction. 

The Church’s preoccupation with sex and gender issues reflects the general American obsession with such matters. On the airwaves, on the silver screen, in print, and in person, we are bombarded with vibrant images and conflicting messages about the value or the problems of being the sexual creatures that we are. Sexual violence is a pervasive and enduring problem. The recent death of Betty Freidan reminded us all that the issues of women’s liberation, for which she was such a prominent spokesperson, remain current today. Our political parties have been caught up in “culture wars” that often focus on issues related to sexuality. Presidential elections, and the fate of the nation, can be decided by voters concerned with abortion rights or gay marriage.

All of the contemporary concern about issues revolving around sexuality is hardly new. Despite Paul’s proclamation that there is neither “male nor female” in Christ, the distinction and its implications have long been part of Christian reflection on the human condition, from Augustine’s Confessions to the latest works of moral theology and Christian ethics. The conversation continues in these pages. Contributors to the issue include Dale Martin, of Yale’s Department of Religious Studies, much of whose work has focused on issues of biblical hermeneutics in the postmodern world; James B. Nelson, longtime professor of Christian ethics at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and specialist on matters of sexual ethics; Kelly Brown Douglas, Episcopal priest and professor of religion at Goucher College, who addresses the issue of attitudes toward sexual ethics in the Black Church; Debra Haffner, director of the Religious Institute on Morality, Justice, and Healing, and author of the Religious Declaration on Sexuality, Justice, and Healing; Michael Kelly, who assesses the ministry of Sister Jeannine Gramick in the Catholic Church.

This issue of Reflections steps back from the current fray over gender and sexuality and offers some thoughtful perspectives on the general issues, on the ethical principles that guide our thinking, and on the ways in which scriptural resources and “difficult texts” might be engaged. Our hope is that these reflections will help our readers to work through some of the divisive issues within communities of Christian conviction today and to help such communities address a comprehensible and liberating message to the world.