October 1, 2018

UM Voices: The Disturbing Legacy of Rev. Robert “Ted” McIlvenna

 Today’s guest author is Rev. Karen Booth, the former director of Transforming Congregations and a former member of the Institute on Religion & Democracy’s UMAction Advisory Board.   

Here’s today’s trivia question. Who amassed what might be the largest porn collection in the world?

Hugh Hefner—or someone of his ilk—would be the wrong answer. Because the dubious honor goes to Rev. Robert “Ted” McIlvenna, a recently deceased pastor in the Cal-Nevada Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. According to his own claims, McIlvenna spearheaded the collection of over 3 million pornographic books, magazines, videotapes, films, and photographs. When mainstream museums refused to accept this troubling legacy, he co-founded the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas with strip club magnate Harry Mohney.

Sin City—appropriately—is now home to McIlvenna’s massive collection of smut. But where was home before that? Since McIlvenna served in an officially approved extension ministry of the denomination during most of that time, one could argue it was technically The United Methodist Church.

The Annual Conference announcement of McIlvenna’s death ended with a generic invitation to “continue to give God thanks for Robert’s life and witness.” I absolutely refuse to do that. His “ministry” was depraved and the porn collection just the “tip” of an extremely corrupt “iceberg.” His story is featured in a chapter of my book Forgetting How to Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution. What follows is a summarized account.

McIlvenna had served only a few years as a local church pastor when he was appointed to Glide Church as Director of Young Adult Work in San Francisco, a regional extension of a denominational program. He quickly made connections to leaders of the local homosexual community and with their help, he presented an educational event for clergy called “The Consultation on the Church and the Homosexual.” Funded by the Glide Foundation and several Methodist agencies, its major theological take-away—delivered by McIlvenna himself—was “being or not being a homosexual [is] not salvifically important.”

Over fifty other events followed, including one co-hosted in Bloomington, Indiana, by the Kinsey Institute. An organization called The National Sex Forum launched afterward, and McIlvenna left his then denominational position in Nashville to shepherd it at Glide. Somewhere along the way, he had begun to use pornographic films at his educational events, and now, with assistance from fellow Glide pastor Laird Sutton, the NSF began to create them. A committed “sexologist,” McIlvenna believed he was on a “sacred” quest to document “what people do” sexually and to share that information with as many people as possible.

Ultimately the porn was incorporated into a multi-media presentation called an SAR, an acronym for Sexual Attitude Readjustment, sometimes termed Sexual Attitude Restructuring or Reassessment. The highlight of the experience was a sustained, non-stop barrage of pornographic images and sounds, human and even animal intercourse mixed with moans, shouts, squeals, and classical music. Based on an educational theory that humans were only capable of rationally following a few different information sources, the sensory overload was intended to cause disorientation and desensitization to personal beliefs. A panel of “experts” could then re-sensitize participants afterward to a more open-minded worldview.

But contemporary scientists understand that more than just worldview is affected. Viewing pornography, even for a short period of time, changes the brain physically. Reasoning processes, emotional responses, and even memories are remolded, reformed and coarsened.

Could some of our denominational sexual pollution be attributed to SAR exposure, since McIlvenna and others claimed they were presented to a Cal-Nevada Bishop, Cabinet, and Board of Ordained Ministry, to US-2 missionaries and the Chaplaincy Corps and to denominational staff (and spouses) in Nashville, including the General Boards of Evangelism and Education?

McIlvenna himself is a perfect example of the corrupting influence of porn exposure. In the mid-70s he left Glide to form his own foundation, Exodus Trust, and yet another “educational” establishment, the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. Free from any apparent ministerial oversight or restraint, he engaged in some very sordid activities:

  • Published a book called Meditations on Sexuality, which included nude photos of adults and children, some of which simulated sexual acts;
  • Granted an interview to Hustler Magazine, in which he said he had assured a grieving mother that her desire to perform oral sex on her 8-year-old male child was a “great opportunity” to show maternal love;
  • Was brought up on mail fraud charges for selling a bogus aphrodisiac; and
  • Publicly supported BSDM, lap-dancing (for his pal Harry Mohney) and swinging as healthy forms of sexuality.

Bear in mind that until his retirement in 1990, most of these activities were under the auspices of the Annual Conference and denomination.

In personal correspondence with Jaime Stroud, mother of defrocked United Methodist pastor Beth Stroud, McIlvenna had this to say about his relationship to The United Methodist Church:

“I am thankful … that when they assigned me to find out what people in the helping professions needed to know about sex, they promised that, for political reasons, they would never support me financially nor would they agree with what I found out, and that as long as I always told the truth and got my reports in on time, they would never interfere with me. And they never did.”

At least he got his reports in on time.

I realize that neither Bishop Minerva Carcaño, her Cabinet nor anyone else currently in leadership in the Cal-Nevada Annual Conference is responsible for McIlvenna’s many reprehensible actions. As the Bishop personally acknowledged to me, she didn’t know the man. And almost all of it happened before she took office. But I do have to wonder what she—or others in leadership—will do now that they know.

I’m praying it’s the right thing.


19 Responses to UM Voices: The Disturbing Legacy of Rev. Robert “Ted” McIlvenna

  1. Wayne says:

    Gee, Rev. Karen, just why are you so extremely interested in a porn collection and in the life work of the deceased Rev. Ted McIlvenna if you have NOTHING positive to say about his contributions to human knowledge about variant sexual behaviors? I’m sure you are not interested in getting your PhD in human sexuality from the IASHS, though it might be eye-opening for you, including SAR training. Your writing sounds like it is intended just to titillate your readers and yourself while lambasting a dead man and a denomination. Those of us who actually knew Ted greatly respect his work and legacy. My point is that you can argue with stupidity, but finally you can’t argue with the truth. Too bad you never had the chance to recognize the truth about Ted if you ever saw it.

    • J David Trawick says:

      Are you for real??? Are you a Christian? Do you have any moral anchor that would allow you to see something is seriously wrong here?

  2. Lance Thomas says:

    This guy makes McCarrick look decent! God forgive us. Can you imagine what Paul would say to our denomination? This is where the OCP will lead the UMC. Remove all objective standards. Cut the anchor of truth & God’s word. Each one decides for himself what is right. This is why I support the WCA traditional plan.

  3. Anneke9 says:

    It’s Glide Memorial. That place has always been nominally Methodist and worldly in actuality.

  4. Truth Talker says:

    Lord God Almighty have mercy. I actually felt dirty after reading this article. To think that a clergy person in good standing is lauded for his vile and reprehensible conduct is beyond belief and understanding. It is total insanity. The Annual Conference that enabled this abomination is complicit and shares guilt by tolerating this demonic lost soul’s blasphemy.

  5. bobp says:

    To think we have to point out and denounce as sin what is obvious.
    Meanwhile things like Columbus Day and
    Kavanaugh are weighing our holy conscience.
    Lord, come quickly

  6. Jean Dee says:

    Only the Lord knows. Have we tried prayer?

  7. Don As Tauno Hagelberg says:

    Grace unto You and Peace.
    The Reverend Ted had nothing but deep care and deep concern for the soul of the other and would not attempt to corrupt or mislead the other into hurtful belief or hurtful practice.
    His mainstay of practice was to do that which presented the deepest thing which would elecit the most helpful response…from his days placing military service objectors into spots of alternative service to educating students to receive the Master’s Degree or Doctorate’s Degree in sexual knowledge so that they could counsel people who were having difficulties with their sexual identities.
    Ted? May you find the smile on Jesus’ face in heaven, now, similar or a copy of the smile of acceptance which you gave to those your met. For sure! You spread the message of agape as Jesus spread.

  8. Lydia Mali Gesmundo says:

    I was one of Dr Ted Mcillvena’s loyal pupils and believed in his, however controversial mission regarding human sexuality.

    I’m dismayed I was not informed of his passing! When, exactly did he die? My journal and thesis requires this information, that is not clear on google.

  9. Lydia Mali Gesmundo says:

    Please answer my inquiry…

  10. Jody Bailey says:

    Dr. Ted was a pioneer in helping us reconnect with our very human existence…SEX. i had the pleasure of working with him for a very brief period of time and have much of his art and education in my own collection. I can never reproduce my time with him and I hope that I do him justice in carrying his work forward.

  11. Look him up rather than the view of naysayers.

    I hope that I do justice to his legacy.

  12. I think we will soon discover our sexual energy again and realize how it effects EVERYTHING in our lives.

  13. There are many I respect in this field but it is definitely an uphill battle.

  14. Lee D. Cary says:

    I would think this post a spoof, except for this: In the early-mid 1970’s, I sat in the Church and Society class at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, the day the instructors (who will go unnamed) showed a short video of homosexual acts between males. As I recall, the stated purpose was to acquaint us (unworldly neophytes) with the diversity of real life. Or some such thing. I confess I was more befuddled than shocked – since men having sex is not nearly as shocking as war. I still had remnants of a tan from a tour with the US Army in the Mekong Delta and thought the exercise thoroughly bizarre. And still do. Guess it wasn’t an anomaly after all.

  15. Carol says:

    Ted was a jewel, and a genius. He was a kind and generous man. Here is the deal: What Ted collected was an essential part of society. We are all sexual in one way or the other. That seems to be the problem, the “other”?. The deal is simply this: what you maybe born with , and what you may be hard- wired with, does not make you wrong or a bad person. I love the people I met there was on the few occasions, (one of which was a Christmas party), I entered the building. Rest in peace Ted. You were very kind to me, and I was not ever a student. But you gave me a gift, which I have not opened to this day. It is preserved and rolled in a tube. It is labeled with a date and time. It must be a print of some kind.
    A surprise on the future date I open it. You had such an important value here on earth.
    The contents of your library are of extreme value. My personal belief is that to destroy anything you have collected is in the same as the burning books. Is this not in direct violation of what we believe in America? The information you acquired should help to educate those in the field who are investigating serial killers, etc. Because, we know that sex is such a basic need,and this factor is present in all killings. I t is imperative that the truth be known, not just religious views, which may in the way. Thank you Ted. Rest in peace. Please don’t
    cease to help. We need your wisdom.

  16. John says:

    So glad we live in a country where religious fanatics can pretend to be moral but can’t impose their pathological ideas and thoughts in everyone else! Religious fanatics who engage in pedophilia, homosexuality and what not, and simply can’t admit their pervertions yet what everyone else to be clean and pure!
    Thank God there are people like Rev. Robert McIlvenna.
    You don’t need hell after this life! You created one of your own, right here, right now, and you are living in it. Just leave everyone else alone. Enjoy your “Juicy” (whatever that means!) Ecumenism and leave the sane out of it.

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