Seminary forum discusses intersection of sexuality and spirituality


Church of the Brethren Newsline
April 18, 2012

Dr. James Forbes at Bethany Seminary Presidential Forum in 2012
Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Dr. James Forbes speaks for the 2012 Bethany Seminary Presidential Forum. He is senior minister emeritus of New York’s Riverside Church and Harry Emerson Fosdick Adjunct Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary.

Bethany Seminary’s Presidential Forum on “Joy and Suffering in the Body: Turning Toward Each Other” brought more than 160 people to the campus in Richmond, Ind., on April 12-14. Headlining the event was James Forbes, senior minister emeritus of New York’s Riverside Church and Harry Emerson Fosdick Adjunct Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary.

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The forum was the fourth in a series inaugurated by Bethany president Ruthann Knechel Johansen, who said in her introductory remarks that this year’s topic was sparked by controversy in the church and society over what it means to be sexual and spiritual beings made in the image of God.

“The Presidential Forums suggest another way of being in the world and publicly open the witness of Bethany Seminary to a church and world hungering for compassion, justice, and peace,” she said. “The roots of this witness lie in several core practices of our Anabaptist-Pietist heritage. These include the study of scripture in community, the expectation that the Holy Spirit guides and continues to reveal God’s truth to us, and the belief that loving our neighbor or the stranger, even our enemies, embodies Christ’s way in the world.”

Plenary sessions led by James Forbes

Forbes’ sermon-like presentations offered more questions than answers at the intersection of sexuality and spirituality. Asking the group to remember there was a time when you could not talk about sex in church, his opening presentation included a long list of questions from many different points of view--seemingly intended to give permission to participants to ask any question of their own.

“We aren’t going to solve this one,” he said at one point. Although conversation about sexuality “has held the church in bondage for the last 50 years,” Forbes said the church must continue the struggle. “It’s not the achievement (of a conclusion) that’s going to be impressive to God,” he said. “It’s in trying our best that God sees frail human beings pulled toward perfection.”

Panelists at Bethany Seminary's Presidential Forum in April 2012
Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Three of the five panelists who presented at Bethany's Presidential Forum (from left): Amy Bentley Lamborn, assistant professor of Pastoral Theology at General Theological Seminary; David Hunter, Cottrill-Rolfes Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Kentucky; and Dr. David E. Fuchs, medical director for the Brethren Village Retirement Community in Lancaster, Pa.

Panel presentations

There were also presentations by panelists from a variety of academic fields. Presentations ranged from a clinical medical approach to variations in human sexuality by David E. Fuchs, medical director for the Brethren Village Retirement Community in Lancaster, Pa.; to reinterpretation of St. Augustine’s writings on sexuality and original sin by David Hunter, Cottrill-Rolfes Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Kentucky; to the psychological and symbolic significance of sexuality from a Jungian perspective by Amy Bentley Lamborn, assistant professor of Pastoral Theology at General Theological Seminary, who asked people to consider what gift may be sheltered in the "other" whom we fear or reject.

Also panelists were Ken Stone, academic dean and professor of Hebrew Bible, Culture, and Hermeneutics at Chicago Theological Seminary, who argued for alternate “queer” readings of Bible texts as a tool for preaching; and Gayle Gerber Koontz, professor of Theology and Ethics at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, who for years has taught sexuality to ministry students.

Recommendations to the church were part of the presentations by Fuchs as well as Koontz. Fuchs urged participants to remember that when a family or a church rejects a person because of sexuality that serious harm is done, telling the story of losing a childhood friend to suicide. The church’s response to sexuality should have the goal of reducing harm and working against violence, he said.

Among her recommendations, Koontz called for the church to promote “sexual shalom” or “holy love” that is obliged to treat other people as sacred to God. She called for valuing singleness as a valid spiritual choice alongside marriage, called Christians to remember true family is not biological but found in the church community, and called for openness to conversation about sexuality in the church in a variety of ways including sex education from a Christian perspective. A lack of ability to talk gracefully about sexuality has led to anger, conflict, and self-righteous attitudes in the church, she said.

Forum closed with prayer and service of communion

Forbes closed the forum in an attitude of prayer and praise, calling on the presence of the Holy Spirit. The absence of God may be the reason for a less than satisfactory experience of love in human life, he said, adding that the intimacy of one person with another may be a gift intimating the ultimate experience of the presence of God. “I want to know God through God’s Spirit, such that there is nothing stronger,” he declared.

James Forbes and Bethany president Ruthann Knechel Johansen during a time of prayer at the Presidential Forum
Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Dr. James Forbes (left) and Bethany president Ruthann Knechel Johansen (at center) during a time of prayer in small groups at the Presidential Forum. The event brought some 160 or more people to the seminary campus in Richmond, Ind.

After Forbes led in prayer, a closing worship invited participants to a service of communion. Each day of the forum featured worship led by students, faculty, emeritus faculty, and alumni. A concert by Mutual Kumquat rounded out the evening on Friday.

Pre-Forum Gathering

A Pre-Forum Gathering for alumni featured presentations by faculty of Bethany and Earlham School of Religion. Topics included the relational costs of pornography--with statistics on its growing use, influence, and addiction even among church members and pastors; pastoral care that is sensitive to sexuality; the ways young adults search for intimacy; and small group sharing around a Bible text.

Pre-forum presentations were by Julie Hostetter, director of the Brethren Academy for Ministerial Leadership; Jim Higginbotham, ESR assistant professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling; Russell Haitch, director of Bethany’s Institute for Ministry with Youth and Young Adults; and New Testament professor Dan Ulrich, who led the devotional reading of Matthew 20 with Edward L. Poling.

Excerpts from the forum presentations will appear in the Summer issue of Bethany’s magazine “Wonder & Word.” In addition, DVDs of the forum sessions will be made available for purchase. For more information contact Jenny Williams at willije1@bethanyseminary.edu .

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