In the mid-1980s a group of religious leaders – theologians, seminary professors, and administrators – and clinicians began exploring the ways and means for bridging the gap between religious systems and the growing research, data, and experience of sexology. With the support of Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, a multidisciplinary colloquium was organized to test the various faith communities for a focused, organized effort to relate more effectively in the study of human sexuality and sexual health. Within theological faculties there was increased debate on the classic spirit/body, dualist construct. The place and effect of “experience”, along with scripture, revelation, and history on theological systems, especially ethical and moral systems, was being debated.
Within this milieu, a colloquium occurred at the Sugar Loaf Conference Center of Temple University in April 1989. This Colloquium, later known as the Sugar Loaf Conference, proposed the creation of an interfaith, multidisciplinary agency, which ultimately became the Center for Sexuality and Religion (CSR).
From the Sugar Loaf Conference, CSR took as its mandate and mission that sexual health and sexual justice were necessary aspects of spiritual growth and formation of religious leaders. The emphasis was on appropriate, life-long sexuality education. The special context for CSR was in sexuality education for those preparing for leadership with local communities of faith – the seminary.
However, as CSR was taking up its message of positive sexuality within the theological formation process, religious organizations and faith communities were being buffeted by public revelation of sexual exploitation and destructive sexual acting out on the part of ordained and commissioned professional leaders – ministers, priests and rabbis.
While the movement for quality life-long sexuality education predated this period, the notice given to clergy misconduct diverted the attention and energy of institutional religious systems and masked the role of comprehensive sexuality education from the creative and life giving to the prohibitive. To address these issues, CSR sponsored a mutual consultation for the heads of denominations in the United States. This consultation was supported by a generous grant from the Van Benthuysen Fund. This meeting took place in a crisis atmosphere as the leaders shared with each other a plethora of allegations of clergy sexual misconduct and the escalating costs of lawsuits.
The national religious leadership assembled by CSR reported on the growing conflict and dissention in their constituencies around not only the reports of clergy misconduct, but also the issues of homosexuality, ordination of gay and lesbian persons, the “blessing” of same-sex unions and gay marriage, and other gender related issues. All in all, these leaders painted a picture of their religious systems as riddled with anxiety, tension, and division.
Attempting to refocus the attention and energy of the religious community, CSR sponsored a conference on sexual health and religion for clergy, clinicians, and counselors. The intent was to look clinically at the transgressors and attempt to identify preventive actions in the selection and formation processes. It became obvious at this point that a survey was necessary to assess how sexuality education was being addressed within the theological formation process. The data from the survey was clear: little attention was given to sexuality education in seminaries. Those preparing for ministry were not helped to understand their own sexual values or behaviors, and where there were courses in sexuality, they were not required or connected to the core curriculum.
The Ford Foundation provided a grant to convene seminary faculty charged with teaching sexuality. The faculty testified to their feeling of isolation not only on their campus but with others teaching at other institutions. As part of the follow-up, the Ford Foundation provided a second grant focusing on objectives beyond training individual sexuality educators and building a case for comprehensive sexuality education that would permeate the process of theological formation. With the continuing support of the Ford Foundation, a multi-phased process was identified and a report to the Ford Foundation by CSR for The Case for Comprehensive Sexuality Education within the Context of Seminary Human and Theological Formation was offered in September 2002.
CSR has been instrumental in developing the masters’ and doctoral program in Human Sexuality at Widener University. There is a religious leader track in the program and mentoring of students in the religious leader track is ongoing throughout the time the student is at Widener.
It is in the spirit of our history and mission that CSR now looks to the future training of our religious leaders at both the denominational and seminary level through a merger with the Morehouse School of Medicine and the Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of seven denominational seminaries with one faculty and administration, in the development of a future Chair in Sexuality and Religion.