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.