Education, Health, and Safety

Toward ‘an honest theology of human sexuality’

A call to the church from a priest and psychotherapist

By Donald Shields

I can still remember my shock and dismay upon hearing that Jean Vanier, someone whose talks and writings influenced my thinking on Christian community, was sexually inappropriate. L’Arche, the organization he founded in 1964 for people with intellectual disabilities, was transparent in acknowledging the damage this had caused and would continue to cause.

My memories of these feelings flooded back when I read the press release from General Synod addressing Mark Macdonald’s formal relinquishing of his exercise of ordained ministry following allegations of sexual misconduct. What do I now do with the contributions that individuals like Jean Vanier—and many others who have engaged in the crossing of ethical boundaries and sexual misconduct—have made to Christian thought and polity? How do I separate the teachings from the allegations? In addition, what do these stories—and many, many more like them—of human failings among church leaders demand from Christendom in response?

Certainly more than policies and reporting procedures. Perhaps it is time for the Church to address human sexuality openly and honestly. How do we deepen our understanding of human sexuality and develop a theology of sexuality that encompasses the varying dimensions of what it means to be a sexual being? How do we incorporate such understandings of human sexuality to address power imbalances caused by roles and identities? How do we build accountability and honest reflection about the struggles human beings encounter in relation?

The impulses of our humanity, combined with the stresses of leadership and interpersonal relationships, hold the potential to sabotage the “good” we have or will, as we cross lines to indulge in behavior that has devastating and destructive consequences. Deepening our understanding of human psychology and social interaction, and developing an honest theology of human sexuality, may be a good way to address the causes of an all-too-frequent tale that tarnishes the church and those who serve it in ministry.

The Rev. Donald Shields is chaplain and coordinator of spiritual and religious care at Oak Valley Health, Markham, Ont. and a member of the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario.

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