YDS added to list of “sexually healthy and responsible seminaries”

By Casey N. Cep ’13 M.Div.

Three years ago, Yale Divinity School was not to be found on a list of 10 theological institutions deemed “sexually healthy and responsible” by the Religious Institute, a Westport, CT-based organization “dedicated to advocating for sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society.” But YDS has now made its way onto the Institute’s updated list of 20 sexually healthy and responsible seminaries, released publicly on Feb. 1.

TownesIn particular, YDS was recognized for its coursework on sexuality, a harassment-free environment, and policies promoting sexual health.

 The multi-faith, non-profit Religious Institute first compiled its “sexually healthy and responsible” list in 2009 as part of a comprehensive 54-page Sex and the Seminary report directed by Kate Ott ’00 M.A.R., but at that time YDS did not meet the threshold of meeting a least two-thirds of the Institute’s criteria.

 Rev. Debra W. Haffner, executive director of the Institute and a former lecturer at YDS, profiled this year’s honorees in The Huffington Post, where she wrote, “I am proud to report that the landscape at U.S. seminaries, divinity and rabbinical schools is shifting toward increased sexuality education.”

 YDS is certainly part of that changing educational landscape, singled out by the Institute for its graduation requirements that all students take at least one sexuality-related course and that all M.Div. students take the “Negotiating Boundaries” ministerial misconduct workshop that was revised to include LGBT issues and sexual health.

 Students and faculty alike indicated that seeing YDS on a list of sexually healthy and responsible schools was no surprise.

 “As the report reveals, we are doing well with integrating course work on human sexuality and healthy professional boundaries, courses in sexual ethics, women in religious traditions and faith traditions, and sexual abuse,” Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Emilie Townes observed.

 Lyvonne Briggs ’12 M.Div. said,  “It’s definitely become the norm to integrate sex talk into our studies here.”  It was only at YDS that she realized, “We can and should talk about race, gender, and sexuality alongside religion, theology, and faith.”

 Specifically, Briggs believes that raising awareness of sexual violence is part of her call to ministry. To that end, she helped create a sexual assault support group for graduate and professional students with Yale’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education Center. “We talk a lot about self-care and serving others,” she said, “yet somehow being a survivor of sexual assault slipped through the cracks.”

 Briggs, who is active in a number of social causes, emphasized how widespread issues of sexual assault are across the various populations at Yale: “Despite our different contexts, we will all encounter survivors: sexual violence crosses gender, racial, and socioeconomic lines.”

 Echoing Briggs and Dean Townes is Kit Novotny ’13 M.Div., who praised the Divinity School’s practical approach to sexuality. She is teaching the United Church of Christ’s Our Whole Lives sexuality curricula this spring in her supervised ministry placement and first learned about it through a course at YDS.

 “Body and Soul: Ministry for Sexuality and Justice [a course offered by Ott] was a refreshing look at Christian sexual ethics, but always with an eye to how we would use that knowledge in parishes,” Novotny said, explaining how she is implementing that course in her work with teenagers at Church of the Redeemer, a UCC congregation in New Haven.  “It was a moment of synchronicity: my supervisor was talking about Our Whole Lives, and I had already gotten to know the material through Body and Soul.”

 Student Body President Jared Gilbert ’12 M.Div. had high praise for his courses, too, but lamented, “There’s still a big silence around alternative sexualities. I’d like to see them integrated beyond biblical criticism. Sex can be woven across all five curriculum areas.”

 Gilbert, who has organized town hall meetings on race and ethnicity, hopes for similar community conversations on sexuality. “If we can’t talk about it now,” he asked, “what are we going to say in the pulpit that pushes our congregations to be more loving, more gracious?”

 One highlight of his time at YDS was working on a video with the LGBTQ Coalition for the It Gets Better Project in 2011. Recalled Gilbert, “It was a great experience that pushed every one of us—even those who had been out teaching and preaching—to talk about sexuality in the context of our life stories.”

 Gilbert hopes for more opportunities for students to talk through issues of sexuality in the classroom and around campus. Town halls are one way of opening dialogue, but he emphasized how other tools for such communication already exist. Describing the Divinity School’s inclusivity statement, Gilbert said, “The documents are there, but they don’t have a voice beyond the page. We must give them a voice.”

 Similarly, Dean Townes noted that, while YDS’s placement on the sexually healthy list is worth celebrating, the school must strive to improve: “We continue to hold ourselves accountable not only to the criteria developed by the Religious Institute, but the commitments we have made in our new mission statement and inclusivity statement.”

Date Posted: Friday, March 9, 2012 - 1:56pm