No Doctrine? Call the Lawers

The data sheet for would-be bishops asked for the usual facts -- driver's license number, Social Security code, college degrees.

But by page two, it was clear that this is the 1990s.

"Have you ever been convicted of ... (a) Sexual abuse of a minor, (b) Incest, (c) Kidnapping, (d) Arson, (e) Murder, manslaughter or assault, (f) Sexual assault, (g) Sexual exploitation of a minor, (h) Contributing to the delinquency of a minor, (i) Commercial sexual exploitation of a minor, (j) Felony or misdemeanor distribution of marijuana, or dangerous or narcotic drugs, (k) Burglary or robbery, (l) A dangerous crime against children as defined in (the state code), (m) Child abuse, (n) Sexual conduct with a minor, (o) Molestation of a child, (p) Domestic violence. If so, give full details."

Fill in the blanks.

Obviously, the Episcopal priests who completed this form -- which I received during an early 1990s election out West -- had other chances to answer theological questions and share their ecclesiastical dreams. Often, however, an era's truly crucial questions can be found between the lines of humbler documents.

So the questions continued: "Is there anything in your behavior or background that, if known, might cause concern or distress? ... Do you think that any member of your family, your present or former congregation, ... or the family of any youths with whom you may have had contact would believe that you ought to have given different answers to any of the foregoing questions?"

The bottom line: If church leaders can't reach consensus, then lawyers step in. When doctrine disappears, someone has to legislate morality. If theologians cannot define "marriage" and "fidelity," then lawyers get to define "harassment" and "abuse."

Recently, someone sent me a data form from the East -- with the nominee's name blacked out. In addition to probing questions, it contained definitions, such as: "Sexual harassment is the use of sexual words, gestures, touch or innuendo in an inappropriate manner beyond the bounds of normal social expectations." Or, "Sexual exploitation includes, but is not limited to, the development of or the attempt to develop a sexual relationship between a pastor and a person being ministered to, and exists even if the other is a willing partner or gives tacit consent."

Churches have always struggled to control shepherds who prey on their flocks. Most traditional churches have strict policies that defend biblical sexual ethics verse by verse. The key, in these culturally conservative churches, isn't knowing what the Bible teaches, but getting some all-powerful men to obey it.

Meanwhile, some progressive churches have had trouble honoring their updated credos and pledges not to hide abusive men. After the 1995 suicide of Massachusetts Bishop David Johnson, Episcopal officials admitted he had a number of affairs during his ministry, including some involving "sexual exploitation" of women. The big question: How long had his allies in the national hierarchy know about these affairs?

No one attempts to defend harassment and abuse. However, winds of change keep erasing boundaries and creating new questions. For example: If it's wrong for a married bishop to have an affair with a parishioner, is it acceptable for that bishop to have an affair with someone outside the flock?

Maybe, or maybe not. A classic statement of how far many are willing to bend was made by influential ethicist James Nelson of the United Church of Christ, a former consultant to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He argues that definitions of "marriage" and "fidelity" must evolve.

"Fidelity is the enduring commitment to the spouse's well-being and growth. It is commitment to the primacy of the marital relationship over any other," wrote Nelson. "Compatible with marital fidelity and supportive of it can be certain secondary relationships of some emotional and sensual depth, possibly including genital intercourse."

This kind of thinking certainly opens doors that were kept locked during the ages when church leaders tried to follow a strict, but clear, law -- sex outside of marriage is sin. But times have changed and, today, lawyers have to guard the keys.