Covenant Network Conference 2004
"Made in the Image of God: Thinking Theologically about Sex"
|Covenant Network Conference talks about
sex - as part of the image of God in humanity, and as a gracious gift
by Gene TeSelle, Witherspoon Issues Analyst
An octogenarian views 'a
break of dawn'
John Sinclair, now in
his eighty-first year, reflects on the Covenant Network conference
held last November in Chicago, and put the conference, and the issues
of sexuality and ordination and theology, in a long-term perspective.
In the conference he discerned a call to continue
the growth and faithfulness of the Presbyterian Church through the
The organizing meeting of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians took place
in 1997 in the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. It was made noteworthy
by Parker Williamson's long-distance shot of several hundred people huddled
in the front of the long nave. This year the eighth meeting (or the seventh
conference) was held in the same place. The 600 attendees comfortably filled
the nave; the small groups overflowed the meeting rooms and had to get space
in the Chicago Sinai synagogue a few blocks away.
There was official representation and participation by leaders in More Light
Presbyterians, Shower of Stoles, That All May Freely Serve, Witherspoon, the
Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and other organizations. Three members of the
Theological Task Force were present. Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick was
represented by Kerry Clements; Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase was represented
by Vice-Moderator Jean Marie Peacock, who, speaking as a professed
evangelical, read the opening lines of the hymn "O For a World . . . "
After the showing of the hour-long video "Turning Points," the whole Calhoun
family from Newport Church in Bellevue, Washington, featured in one of the
four segments, was introduced. Mark Smutny also showed a 3˝ minute "trailer"
with high points from the video. It should be a good "teaser" for those who
do not have the motivation to watch the whole video; highlighting the
presence of GLBT persons in our churches, the conspiracy of silence, the
crises that inevitably arise, and the change that occurs on everyone's part,
it should stimulate new audiences. Smutny also commented, in answer to a
critical question, that the video is not just "touchy-feely" but is filled
with doctrinal content, worked through by people who are seriously involved
with "turning points" in their lives.
The conference gathered just a day after the election results had become
clear, with amendments hostile to same-sex marriage passing by large margins
in eleven states. Participants came, as Jay McKell said during an eloquent
prayer, "from red states, and blue states, and states of confusion." It was
clear to all that a new struggle lies ahead for equal justice and equal
protection under the laws, and religious voices are needed more than ever.
Cynthia Campbell introduced one of the sessions by commenting that families
have often tried to avoid discussions of sex, religion, and
politics, but this year all of them became the subject of avid debate,
leading from sex to religion to politics.
The topic was "Made in the Image of God: Thinking Theologically About Sex."
The planners wanted to get participants actually talking about sex, and this
happened most effectively in small reflection groups using the "mutual
invitation" method developed by Eric Law in The Wolf Shall Dwell with the
Lamb, giving each person power to speak, invite others, pass, or be
called on again. They started by reacting to the "Turning Points" video;
then they asked, first, what was helpful and not helpful in the church's
teachings about sex, and then what is needed by way of faithful reflection.
Discussion did not necessarily follow this sequence, since there were also
some powerful responses to speakers; but it succeeded both in expressing
concerns and in discussing insights. The group in which I participated
started from a comment that the church has not done very well even in
dealing with heterosexual marriage. It moved on to ask what we can learn
from the couples who come to be married after living together; or from
senior citizens who, for a variety of reasons, are living together without
marriage; or from gay and lesbian couples, who may be overlooked in dealing
with the problems of heterosexual marriage. It was a healthy reminder of the
complexities and our need to learn from them. One participant cited the
saying that it is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to
think your way into a new way of acting; personal encounter, then, trumps
A pervasive question in these discussions was how we can break the barriers
of silence, the wish to be reassured that "No one I know is gay or lesbian,"
the hypocrisy that avoids the issue -- and how we can meet the spirit of
meanness that had been manifested in the recent referendums, to the extent
of trying to nullify the domestic partner benefits that are offered by
The preacher in opening worship was Rick Spalding, chaplain at Williams
College. He began by reminding us how words can say how things might be and
can even determine how things will be (e.g., "I promise," "You are
different"). In an evocative way he traced the story of how "the adam"
was created, then named all the creatures, but no suitable companion could
be found until "the woman" was created; then "the adam," speaking of
"bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh" (Gen. 2:23), found words that did not
hide nakedness but sanctified it as mutual gift.
The next morning began with worship. The preacher, Amy Miracle, spoke
to the Covenant Network on the topic
You Saved?" and got the congregation to answer Yes -- several times. Of
course it was not quite as simple as that. She took as her text Romans
8:18-25 with its rich evocation of the many dimensions of salvation, not
reducible to the simple question that has been used to hurt many people. The
question, she said, needs to be taken back from those who abuse it; and
since salvation comes as God's free gift, the answer is always Yes.
Stephanie Paulsell spoke on "Honoring the Sexual Body,"
concentrating on the Song of Songs, a book whose role in the Bible has
always been puzzling, a book that is usually read only at weddings -- and in
monasteries. One difficulty, she suggested, is that "it is easier to
legislate than to tell stories."
Continuing the same theme, Susan Andrews preached on "Eros and Ethics,"
noting that sex education typically misses the emotion, delight, morality,
and spirituality that are involved. Unlike Genesis 2-3, she noted, the Song
of Songs expresses no shame or guilt. Then she referred to Paul in 1 Cor.
6:12-20, where the sexual body is connected with spiritual love and the
indwelling of the Holy Spirit. She reminded hearers that Paul's concern was
with temple prostitution, which is a different matter from living together
today. She mentioned Archbishop Rowan Williams' recent statement on
marriage, where he emphasizes that it is grounded in covenant as a mutual
relationship. It is exclusive whether with God or with a spouse, he said;
and it is concerned for the joy of the other, for healing and enlarging the
life of the other, and thus excludes casual sex, patriarchy, and abuse. It
is eros transformed by agape, a sharing of bodies in the context of
A plenary discussion was started off by Jack Stotts, developing the theme
"In the Beginning Was the Relationship," taken from Martin Buber. He
commented that relationships always require fidelity, not only in personal
but in economic and political life. He listed some contemporary issues: it
is a time when people often "want love but get sex," a time of casually
"hooking up," a time when "all are using each other," a time when sex is
exploited by the media who in turn are held hostage by the quest for
commercial gain. In such a time an overemphasis on same-sex relationships
amounts to a displacement from the many other issues of sexuality.
In the beginning, Stotts suggested, there was relationship; and in the end
there will be relationship; but in the middle things are complicated and
tension-filled. He commented on the relative weight given to law and
relationship. "If you begin with relationship," he said, "you will be open
to change. If you begin with law [natural law or biblical law], you will be
resistant to change."
During an hour-and-a-half Town Meeting a number of questions were raised,
and a number of statements were made that needed no answering.
The need for serious conversation with brothers and sisters in the Third
World, and with people of color in the U.S., was mentioned a number of
times. Stotts noted that there had been similar problems with the Brief
Statement's mention of God calling "women and men" to all ministries in the
church, and a wise leader simply replied, "We do not agree with you and we
hope you will change your mind." Gene Bay, who had been in East Africa and
acknowledged that this is a difficult issue, said that we cannot be held
hostage by this one issue but must take the initiative in seeking dialogue.
Several people emphasized the need to converse with conservatives as
brothers and sisters, since dialogue depends on relationship, one of the
major themes of the conference. Former Moderator Susan Andrews mentioned
that, during her visit with African church leaders who asked how the PC(USA)
could even be considering a broadening of its inclusiveness, she emphasized
the need to affirm the integrity of all parties to the debate. Vicky Curtiss
of Portland, a member of the Theological Task Force, pointed out that the
TTF's procedure is not to change each other but to understand each other and
seek unity. On the other hand, a young man reminded the gathering that "safe
space" may not be safe and could even lead to reprisals; "separation already
exists," he said, and it might be made worse by dialogue.
Luke Timothy Johnson of Emory delivered a packed, complex, stimulating, and
rousing address on "Sexuality and the Holiness of the Church." He noted that
for Paul the new creation must be worked out through bodies that belong to
the old creation, and in the ancient household with its relationships of
dominance and subordination.
When Paul addressed the fragile household churches, he emphasized
edification, building up. The "saints," those who are holy, include all the
members of the church; they are the temple of the Holy Spirit. This also
conveys a mandate, for holiness means being different from the world. In
summary, Johnson made four points: sexual holiness is relational, not casual
or recreational; it is faithful or covenantal; it is generative of new life,
which need not be the begetting of children, for it can be the nurturing of
others in many ways; and it involves "chastity" or "modesty," including
resistance to the sexualization of all aspects of life.
Gene Bay preached at closing worship with the theme "Don't Give Up." His
text was from Galatians 6. "You reap what you sow" (vss. 6-7): violence
begets violence, but there is always the need to sow good and move forward.
"Let us not grow weary, for we will reap if we do not lose heart" (vs. 9):
we may say, "How long, O Lord," and the struggle is always long and hard,
but it is carried on with hope. "Let us work for the good of all, and
especially for those of the household of faith" (vs. 10): the sowing of good
is not only for the church, but also for the world.
Looking ahead, the Covenant Network is planning
several regional conferences -- April 1-2 at Davidson College in North
Carolina; June 26-July 3 at Ghost Ranch; and October 18 in Bellevue,
Washington. The next national conference will be held November 3-5, 2005, at
the Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, featuring Amy
Plantinga Pauw, Larry Rasmussen, and Eugene Rogers.
For more reports, photos, and the text of some of the
presentations at the conference (which will be posted as they are
prepared), check the
Covenant Network website.
Some blogs worth visiting
Mitch Trigger, PVJ's
Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where
Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and
views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both
personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!
You can post your own news and views,
or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.
for Life" website
Long-time and stimulating blogger John Shuck,
a Presbyterian minister currently
serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton,
Tenn., writes about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized
and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and
Click here for his blog posts.
Click here for podcasts of his radio program, which "explores
the intersection of religion, social justice and public life."
John Harris’ Summit to
Theological and philosophical
reflections on everything between summit to shore, including
kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology,
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens
neighborhood of Ridgewood -- by a progressive New York City
Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon
board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in
Voices of Sophia blog
Heather Reichgott, who has created
this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:
After fifteen years of scholarship
and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the
voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy,
students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers
and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God
in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God
through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through
articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and
Got more blogs to recommend?
send a note, and we'll see what we can do!