Still Nothing to Celebrate
Ecumenical Student Conference Includes “Pro-Gay” Themes
by Mark Tooley
Four years ago, in what was my first article for Touchstone, I wrote about Celebrate II, an ecumenical student conference endorsed by six Protestant denominations and the National Catholic Student Coalition. In 1994, about 1,800 students and campus ministers met in St. Louis to listen to the musings of goddess proponents Edwina Gateley and Rita Nakashima Brock. Memories of the first Re-Imagining Conference, which occurred in 1993, were still fresh. Thanks to reporting by evangelical renewal publications within the endorsing mainline denominations and by Christianity Today, Celebrate II set off a minor controversy in early 1995.
Perhaps due to that controversy, Celebrate III was somewhat more subdued in its theological explorations. None of the plenary speakers was as openly provocative as Gateley or Brock. But traditional expressions of Christian orthodoxy from many of the speakers were counterbalanced by “pro-gay” advocacy and liberal political themes.
Over 1,300 students and campus ministers met December 30, 1998 through January 3, 1999, 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). There was no official Roman Catholic participation in Celebrate III, ostensibly due to a schedule conflict with another conference.
Best known among the conference speakers at Celebrate III 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 for homosexuals, he mentioned environmentalism as a cause that Christians should embrace. Calling the earth “our mother,” Tutu said that “ecology is a deeply religious matter” and that we “should treat all space and matter reverently.”
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.” She went on, “This Word should shock us . . . and sustain us. 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 Shepard 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 Wisdom known by the name of Sophia, God’s creative partner?”
Apart from 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 that 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 was called “All God’s Children Have a Place in the Choir,” which urged full inclusion of all persons in the Church regardless of sexual orientation.
A workshop called “Women for a Change: Women’s Rights on Campus” was led by the cofounder 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 (LGBTQ) 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 catalog 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 Gospels are true at some level. He said that 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,” continued Rutledge, who called Peter and Paul the real founders of Christianity. He contrasted the “finite” pre-Easter Jesus with the “infinite” post-Easter Jesus who 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 its “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 meeting place for Celebrate III was a Southern Baptist conference facility. Banners outside the Ridgecrest auditorium proclaimed that Jesus Christ is the only way and quoted John 3:16. I smiled when I saw them, wondering if they did not discomfit, or at least contradict, some of the conference speakers.
I also observed that the Southern Baptist bookstore seemed to conduct a brisk business among the students. Its materials were very different from many of the books offered at the United Methodist Cokesbury book display area.
College students who would devote a chunk of their Christmas break to a church conference are presumably serious about their faith, or at least their search for faith. Celebrate III was not quite as outlandish as Celebrate II. But it was another sadly missed opportunity by mainline denominations for genuinely helping young people to mature in the Christian faith. We can pray that Celebrate IV will do better.
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“Still Nothing to Celebrate” first appeared in the July/August 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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