Friday, May 25, 2012

"Can We Talk?" - Reflections on the Recent Sexuality and Covenant Conference

Rev. Dr. Larry Hovis

For fifty years, comedienne Joan Rivers has made a living off of the question, “Can We Talk?” Her comedy routines typically involve injecting this question into her monologues on humorous subjects that are sometimes taboo. Of course, she doesn’t really expect an answer to her question. She always talks.

National CBF and the Mercer University Center for Theology and Public Life should be commended for initiating a conversation on a subject that is central to our humanity, and therefore to Christian spirituality and discipleship, but unfortunately, is rarely discussed in the church. The conference planners tried to make clear that the purpose of the conference was not to develop policies or make proclamations. Still, anxiety was on high alert in some quarters of the CBF community prior to the conference, out of fear that the conference was simply a smokescreen for launching a particular agenda. Those fears were unfounded.

Though one of the most controversial subjects of our day, homosexuality, was not the focus of the conference, it was on the minds of most conference participants. Plenary sessions, however, covered a wide range of sexuality-related topics, including: identity; discernment; historical and theological resources; covenant; contemporary sociological realities; human sex trafficking; sexual behavior and challenges among young adults, single adults and senior adults; and yes, homosexuality.

Plenary presentations were bracketed by worship, including singing and silence, encouraging conferees to open themselves to the voice of the Spirit. The tone was that of respectful listening and seeking understanding, not antagonistic debate.

A particularly helpful element of the conference was the establishment of Covenant Community Groups. These groups of around fifteen persons met for five dialogue sessions, where we could process and discuss the presentations we heard in plenary sessions. I was surprised at the depth of sharing and the mature level of Christian community our group was able to develop in a short period of time. The conference design of a rhythm between large plenary presentations and small group discussion should be considered for conferences on other topics, as well.

My reflections on the conference have led me to draw several conclusions:

First, this was a courageous first step in resourcing congregations and the CBF community to engage a critically important topic for our time, one which we have neglected, to our peril, for far too long.

Second, my sense (admittedly very subjective) is that those of us who embrace a more traditional sexual ethic (sexual intercourse is only properly expressed within the covenant of marriage) were a minority at the conference. This was not the fault of the conference planners, but because many “CBF regulars” simply chose not to attend. I hope they will participate in this conversation in the future.

Third, I left the conference wanting more in-depth biblical and theological reflection on the topic of sexuality. North Carolina’s own Guy Sayles (pastor of FBC Asheville) delivered a thoughtful presentation on discerning God’s voice, with a creative treatment of the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. As a people bound together by the Lordship of Christ and the authority of the Scriptures, our efforts to faithfully explore sexuality, even in our contemporary context, must be rooted in the Bible.

During the first dialogue session with my Covenant Community Group, I confessed that as a pastor and a CBF leader (and I think this true for most of us), I have had a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with regards to not just one aspect of sexuality, but with all things related to sexuality. This conference was a needed first step to change that reality.

“Can we talk?” As faithful followers of Jesus– “the word [which] became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14), the high priest who is able to sympathize our weaknesses and invites us to approach God’s throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help with all our needs (Hebrews 4:15-16)–we can and we must.

Larry Hovis is the Executive Coordinator of CBFNC. Watch video of the speakers on CBF’s Vimeo Channel. Feel free to utilize them in your own church discussions on sexuality!

Related article:
Why I'm Glad We're Having a Discussion on Sexuality by Laura Barclay, CBFNC Social Ministries Coordinator

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