Institute on Religion and Democracy
January 4, 1999
ECUMENICAL STUDENT CONFERENCE INCLUDES PRO-"GAY" THEMES
An ecumenical student conference sponsored by mainline denominations included some traditional expressions of Christian orthodoxy, counterbalanced by pro-"gay" advocacy and liberal political themes.
Over 1300 students and campus ministers met December 30-January 3 in Ridgecrest, North Carolina for "Celebrate III." It was the third quadrennial gathering organized by the Council for Ecumenical Student Christian Ministry, a partnership of college students and national denominational staff involved in higher education.
The Council includes the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Best known among the conference speakers was South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who told of his years-long struggle against Apartheid and racial prejudice. "God is biased," said Tutu, "He always takes the side of the weakest."
Tutu compared the struggle against racism to the fight for acceptance of homosexuality. "The passion that drove me to fight apartheid drives me to strive for justice for gays and lesbians," he related.
"We should celebrate sex as a wonderful gift of God. We should accept different sexual orientations," Tutu proclaimed amid applause. "God made us who we are." He urged the audience to "set our faces against homophobia."
Tutu said he had "no truck with those who speak of pie in the sky when you die." The church has a responsibility to work for "compassion, caring and gentleness" in this world, he insisted. Besides racism and justice of homosexuals, he mentioned environmentalism as a cause that Christians should embrace.
Calling the earth "our mother," Tutu said "ecology is a deeply religious matter" and that we "should treat all space and matter reverently." He laughingly recalled the warnings from his critics back in South Africa who insisted that religion should not mix with politics.
"The last thing you should put into hands of oppressed people is the Bible," observed Tutu. "There's nothing more subversive or explosive."
Barbara Lundblad, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, spoke of the Incarnation of the Word as an affirmation of the flesh. "The Word made flesh seemed an oxymoron to the wise," she said. And "the church has been trying to keep them apart."
"This Word should shock us...and sustain us," said Lundblad. "It talks about this world. These bodies. Everybody's bodies." Relating her point to the current debate over President Clinton's infidelities and impeachment, she commented: "Flesh is not dirty or perverse. Flesh is not the source of all sin, even if the Congress votes it to be so. Flesh is not hostile to holiness."
Noting that "flesh is made holy by the Incarnation, Lundblad said she thought most of all about Matthew Shepard, the young homosexual murdered in Wyoming. "Some despised his flesh [and] who he was. Some flesh is dispensable [they think]." She asked the audience to wonder "what our words say that lead people to think that Matthew Shepherd could be gotten rid of." She said a hurting world is asking the church: "If you are gay or straight or bisexual, will you harbor me in the flesh?"
Lundblad was a speaker at the Re-Imagining Community's reunion last year, and she echoed some themes of feminist theology to the students. "Did God have a partner in creation?" she asked the audience. "Was this [the Word] Wisdom known by the name of Sophia, God's creative partner?"
Besides Lundblad and Tutu, the plenary speakers usually steered clear of dicey topics. Disciples of Christ minister Daisy Machado of Candler School of Theology in Atlanta preached about the "non-negotiable, basic truths of Christianity." She cited the value of all human life, the universality of sin, and the power of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. "The Incarnation is the first article of the Christian faith," Machado affirmed.
United Methodist Bishop Ken Carder of Nashville spoke of God the Son having been "born of an unwed teenage mother among the homeless," suffering from unjust taxation, and later a refugee and "undocumented alien" in Egypt. Although God came in humility, the bishop said God is not a "doormat." Recalling the example of Moses, Carder said, "Humility still says 'Let my people go.'"
United Church of Christ minister Jeremiah Wright explained why his local church in Chicago is growing and therefore "not typical" of his denomination. "We pray to Christ, we preach Christ, and we praise His Holy name," said Wright." Despite the success of this method, he said his inquiring denominational officials still did not understand how his congregation was able to prosper with so simple a message.
Wright's sermon was probably the most evangelistic of the plenary speeches. The workshops, on the other hand, promoted themes that would concern many traditional Christians. Several sought to justify homosexual practices. "Gay, Lesbian Bisexual, Transgender: How Do We Survive and Thrive?" was the name of one session. Another one was called "All God's Children Have a Place in the Choir," which urged full inclusion of all persons in the church despite sexual orientation.
A workshop called "Women for a Change: Women's Rights on Campus" was led by the co-founder of "Gay, Lesbian Or Bisexual Employees at Ohio University." Another workshop was called "A Humble Walk with God: Justice for and Kindness toward the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LCBTQ) Community." Still another workshop was called "Lesbian and Gay Liberation Theologies: Embodying Love."
"Wide is the Welcome: Celebrating Diverse Sexual Orientations in Campus Ministries" was a workshop devoted to helping campus groups "remove the barriers" to the full inclusion of sexual minorities. A glance through the workshop catalogue did not reveal any workshop that seemed to offer a robust defense of traditional Christian teaching about sexuality.
A workshop called "Homosexuality, the Bible and Christian Community" promised to foster understanding among persons in the church who hold "opposing opinions." Another workshop was to have featured a debate between evangelist Tony Campolo and his wife, Peggy, who disagree over church acceptance of homosexuality. But bad weather prevented the Campolos from attending the conference, and the workshop was cancelled.
"Love, Sex and Intimacy" was a workshop led by a staffer of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Jim Noseworthy declined to offer his own views about the proper contexts for sexual expression and instead asked for student comment. Most of the students who participated in the discussion affirmed that monogamy and commitment were desirable before sex was acceptable. At the session's close, several students expressed disappointment that marriage was not mentioned as a precondition for sexual expression.
Although the workshop catalog had promised a discussion of denominational statements about sex, Noseworthy passed out copies of official statements from United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and other denominations only when the workshop ended.
At least two workshops examined the Jesus Seminar, a controversial colloquium of academics who categorize most of the Gospels as myths developed by the early church. "The Jesus Seminar: Searching for the Man Behind the Myths" was led by United Church of Christ minister Mark Rutledge, who is an associate member of the Jesus Seminar and a campus minister at Duke University.
"We can't know very much about Jesus," said Rutledge as he summarized what he and most mainline ministers learned in seminary. "This is the church's little secret." But Rutledge said he became a fan of the Jesus Seminar because it affirms that at least parts of the Gospel are true at some level.
Rutledge said the Gospels are not interested in "biographic details" about Jesus and are not "straightforward historical reports." He compared them to whispered secrets passed along, the stories changing with each telling. "The early Christians were making it up as they went along," he said.
"Jesus did not intend to found a church but did animate a movement," said Rutledge, who called Peter and Paul the real founders of Christianity. He contrasted the "finite" pre-Easter Jesus with the "infinite" post-Easter Jesus that is largely a creation of early Christians. "I can't get to a post-Easter Jesus," Rutledge admitted. "I might have to reject a Jesus who makes Himself mediator between man and God."
The "resurrection" was not a physical event but simply the early church's way of describing their "experience" of Jesus as a "divine reality," according to Rutledge. He also said Jesus was really killed for challenging the "economic system" of his day, not for making claims about divinity.
Rutledge told the students he was reluctant to share more of the Jesus Seminar's findings. "What they do is so important I don't want to turn you off by shocking you."
The main musical accompaniment for Celebrate III was a group called "Bread for the Journey," whose members at one point dedicated their music to the "gay and lesbian students" who were present. The last Celebrate conference was held in St. Louis and involved 1800 students, as opposed to this year's 1300. An organizer attributed the decline to a Roman Catholic student group's not participating this year because of a scheduling conflict.