Sexuality Conference Debates Study Guide

Episcopal News Service. May 12, 1988 [88097]

Mike Barwell, Director of Communications, Diocese of Southern Ohio

COLUMBUS, Ohio (DPS, May 12) -- "We are trying to listen to Christians and to help them think, not to convert or propagandize anyone to any particular point of view about human sexuality."

With that remark, the Very Rev. Robert R. Hansel, Director of the Bishop's Center in Southern Ohio and one of the authors of the church task force education manual Sexuality: A Divine Gift, summed up a three-day leadership training workshop at Procter Conference Center near Columbus.

The 12 men and women from the Diocese of Southern Ohio who attended the seminar -- two clergy and ten Christian education leaders -- will now take the program back to their parishes to train others.

Sexuality: A Divine Gift is the most controversial and perhaps misunderstood educational booklet available in the Church today. Some church members view it as dangerous, misguided, warped or without a spiritual base.

"Our purpose is to enable people of all ages to find or support a perspective in which Christian spirituality and human sexuality are seen as divine gifts intended for our sacramental fulfillment," Hansel said when opening the workshop. "This program has three goals: to establish a caring, non-judgmental climate for sharing beliefs, experiences and information while enabling us to differ and still entertain views; to demonstrate the clear relevance of our religious heritage to everyday life; and to affirm God's holiness in the midst of our brokenness -- and the hope of redemption.

The clear purpose of the seminar was to get people talking -- and listening -- about their own thoughts and feeling about sexuality. Several of the participants said that they simply appreciated being able to talk with other Christians about their concerns, questions, hopes and fears -- in many cases in relation to their roles as spouses and parents who must deal with sexuality every day.

The ground rules for participants were clear. All agreed to confidentiality; everyone had the right to refrain from speaking; everyone had the right to participate; speakers spoke only for themselves; it was perfectly all right to differ with an idea or opinion but it was wrong to judge; and the group agreed to a routine "temperature check" to determine how everyone was doing as the discussions progressed.

"One thing we want to make very clear is that this is not a 'how-to' course on sex," Hansel said. "We're here to explore the role sexuality plays in our lives. There's a big difference."

He defined the differences between three common, often misused words:

  • Sex deals with the physical, genital characteristics of a human being;
  • Sexual deals with the energies, drives and dynamics that inform and shape our creativity, decisions and vocation;
  • Sexuality is "that unique person of gender that you are" and deals with "how you relate to yourself and others."

Too often, said Hansel and co-leader Rose Dwight, we get become preoccupied with the genital aspects of sexuality. Almost everything we do, however, reflects our sexuality and is related to how we see ourselves. In our society, we have the idea that sex and sexuality we can be shut up in a little box and deal with only when we want. Nothing could be further from the truth. God made us as sexual beings.

"In this course, we're here to help people listen and hear various viewpoints of representative Christians, rather than arrive at some generic Christian viewpoint and think that we have solved all the problems. We want people who take this course to be enablers of a lifelong quest, not people with all the answers," he said.

"In most parish situations, getting to know each other and to trust and listen is far more urgent than coming up with answers about sexuality. That is what [Sexuality: A Divine Gift] is all about. That is real Christian education -- building community.

"While we try to nourish a sense of community, we also want to give specific information about what we believe as Christians. The clear statement about sexuality is that anything that is manipulative or exploitive in human behavior is wrong. Anything that affirms a relationship is good, and God's will. And that is the problem with this manual and for our critics: we're saying 'look at the quality of the relationship, rather than the behavior.'"

Some people are disturbed or threatened by talking about sexuality, one leader suggested, but, if you talk in terms of "intimacy" -- how we treat each other as human beings -- there is a wide range of behavior that is an expression of our sexuality.

Conference participants identified seven levels of intimacy: 1) courtesy, when we don't look and we don't touch; 2) acceptance, when we touch by shaking hands or greeting one another; 3) caring, when we help someone else or behave in a way that shows the other person is important; 4) trust, asking for help, listening or showing some commitment to another person; 5) affection, the "I like you" behavior; 6) sensual, "I like you and it feels good;" and 7) genital intimacy, in which bonding and commitment take place.

"If you look at that range of human intimacy, we spend 99 percent of our time in the first six areas. They are daily, hourly events. That's where we operate most in terms of our sexuality, and that is the least understood part of us," Dwight said.

The manual itself is actually a training manual to help groups enter a process. It is designed as a "cookbook" of exercises, in which a leader or leaders can design a series of classes or seminars around different topics, using the resources with which they are most comfortable and guiding the group into areas of faith exploration.

"One thing misunderstood about the program is that a leadership team can design a program and bring in any speaker or viewpoint it wants," Hansel said.

The seminar participants had a chance to test their group skills by designing and leading one 90-minute session. Each session opened with an inclusion exercise. One group had each person select an object from a table as they entered the room -- a chess piece, rock, flower or an apple, for example. Then each participant had an opportunity to tell why he or she chose that object, and the discussion moved naturally into the topics of how and why we make decisions.

A group activity followed in which the participants were placed in two circles facing each other while a leader asked a series of "what if" questions, such as: "What would you do if your son or daughter were involved in a pregnancy? How would you react? What would you say?" Sharing with one another, the participants were able to tell their reactions, how they decided what to do or say, and what they might do differently.

Throughout the seminar, the participants were able to share openly and listen about the wide range of human sexuality, and to be given resources for continuing to learn about themselves and God's gift of sexuality.

"We are like the early Church, still scrambling around in the darkness," Hansel concluded. "We have here a structure and a process which invites people into discussion, building a sense of community in which we can learn about ourselves and God's gifts to us as his creatures."