This new year I got to hang out with one of my best friends. He’s known to be a wee bit judgmental (said the pot of the kettle). I mentioned a friend of mine/acquaintance of his in passing, a friend who is active in the church and not particularly quiet about her active sexual history.
“Ella who we knew in Chicago?”
“Yup,” I responded.
“I love Ella,” I said warningly.
“Many men have loved Ella,” he riffed back, masking how pleased he was with his joke.
My friend is an ardent feminist. He’s pro-choice, he’s pro-LGBTQ ordination, and he certainly wasn’t a virgin when he got married.
That comment sat with me for a long time. It sat with me because he isn’t a prude but he clearly had a sense of how much sex was too much (or at least what kind of non-marital sex was acceptable).
It sat with me because we fight for the right to sexual expression but we can’t fight for the right not to be judged for that sexual expression (and it’s almost hackneyed to point out that women are judged differently than men).
It sat with me, most personally, because the last man I loved told me in no uncertain terms that the 21-year-old virgin with whom he cheated on me and for whom he left me was a better life partner because her love for him was more pure. He had slept with the same number of people I had.
My concern here is that there is a culture around sexuality among people of faith, either conservative or liberal. And there are few places to safely process what we think and what we do and what we want. And unintentionally as a result, I believe, we perpetuate biases we don’t even realize we’re carrying. And we carry these biases because the church has only two modes for processing sex: shame or silence. Because the churches that don’t want to preach shame think the civil and decent alternative is to not discuss it at all. It almost reminds me of the title of an old James Wilcox book: Polite Sex.
When I was in seminary, a friend of mine wrote a pastoral care paper on the concept of “living in sin.” The issue he raised was that people in the church were about as likely to have had sex before marriage as people outside of the church. And the progressive church by and large had a veil of silence around that issue—the people who make up the church by and large know that this is the case, and for politeness’ sake they prefer a don’t ask don’t tell policy. (I was asked pretty hard questions about my soteriology during my ordination process—my understanding of who goes to heaven and who doesn’t—but no one asked me about my virginity.) The problem for people in the church, my friend reflected in his paper, came when people LIVED together outside of marriage, not so much that they had sex. So he wondered, what was the pastoral way of addressing the culture of appropriateness versus the reality of people’s lived experiences?
I have a number of clergy friends, some of whom speak very publicly on these issues and most of whom don’t. Their perspectives range widely. These are only a few:
- Sex is holy and glorious and should be saved for marriage as a blessing to both partners.
- Marriage is a heterosexist paradigm that may work for some people but should not be assumed as the best paradigm for all people and in many instances is harmful and sexually repressive.
- Sex is special, and we encounter God through sex most powerfully when we have a deep spiritual connection with a partner, but we may have more than one such partner in our lives, and marriage is not the only way to experience God in sex.
- Sex should be safe and fun and does not need to directly correlate to emotional connection. Sometimes sexual partners and spiritual partners are not the same people, and we can have different needs met by different people in our lives.
Some of my clergy friends can point to scripture and some to lived experience. Some can point to both. But most of them have only shared their feelings and beliefs on these issues with me, a fellow clergy person, after years of knowing each other and edging carefully around the edges of the conversation in abstracts first. There are very few settings where clergy can discuss these issues safely and without judgment even while disagreeing. (Therefore there are even fewer spaces where laity can discuss these issues with clergy in a way that makes them feel safe in being vulnerable and transparent.)
In fact, in unconscious ways, my friends and I in the ministry have sometimes perpetuated these problems. I remember a friend of mine, one of the most courageous of my friends in tackling this subject, living with her boyfriend while she was in seminary. When he asked what she was going to do about the fact that she was pursuing ordination in a denomination that required of their ministers “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness,” she responded, “eh; we’ll be married by then.” (By the way, this is the cra**y loophole that for many years has prevented gay ordination since they couldn’t until recently get legally married or married in most churches.) I think the argument could be made that she retreated in order to fight another day—it’s an easier battle to fight once ordained than one worth falling on one’s sword over. (I certainly did not push this particular agenda when I was already pushing so many other agendas during my ordination process. That’s another blog post, though.)
Don’t get me wrong. My friends and I in the ministry have stood firm for LGBTQ ordination and marriage. We’ve talked about sexuality being a gift from God. I even did a bible study series and accompanying worship series looking at the biblical model of sexual fulfillment born of equal dignity of both partners as illustrated in Song of Solomon. (This gave rise to my infamous “blowjob” sermon which a shy but progressive congregant bragged about to her friends from her more conservative upbringing: “MY pastor said B-J from the PULPIT!” she giggled to them mischievously. In my defense, I was talking about how the phenomenon of junior high blowjobs by girls to boys troubled me not as a sexual act but as an act of sexual inequality, where the girl’s role was to serve and the boy’s role was to be served.)
But very rarely have we created a space where we’ve said, “Within the clergy we have very different opinions on this, and we have acted in various fashions. The bible also offers multiple models of sexuality, many of which we would reject today as incredibly unhealthy. Our sexual choices as clergy have varied greatly, but they were rarely made sheerly out of hedonistic lust and, when thought through, rarely made with a sense that we were living out of sync with our Creator.”
I believe our inability to discuss this among ourselves and our inability to foster healthy conversations in our congregations has led to clergy actually making unhealthy, closeted choices about sex that actually did move many of us out of sync with our Creator. We’ve seen enough tabloid headlines and seen enough ugly congregational splits when the pastor has an affair with the church secretary to know the community devastation that can be wrought in these situations, all because our only apparent processes for dealing with sex in the church are shame or silence.
Even for my clergy friends who have a “traditional” notion of what constitutes healthy sexuality in the church, your silence on sexuality (or your use of the pulpit to name only one way of understanding Christian sex) shuts down the ability of regular people in the pews to engage in honest discussion of sex, pushing those decisions out of the church completely. I remember Tony Campolo once bemoaning how a single female congregant had tried to discuss her loneliness with her pastor who told her simply to pray that God would lift that burden from her and later found her in a hotel bar in a short skirt and low-cut blouse, having learned the lesson that the church didn’t really want to help her with her issue related to singleness and sexual longing. The church, Campolo mourned, had driven her to that hotel bar, where she was likely to find a very temporary fix to a much deeper yearning.
[I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalists provide healthy sexuality curricula for youth and that there are numerous programs out there for church camps, etc. But in my constant obsessive focus on the role of clergy transparency, I’m focusing particularly on the role we play in hindering open dialogue in the church on healthy sexuality among adults.]
It makes me sad that a treasured clergy friend of mine who has no problem with sex outside of marriage as a concept was so quick to joke about the virtue of a friend of ours who is sexually active. Sad but not surprised. After all, he’s had the same model that I have for discussing sexual ethics in the church: none. And he’s been encouraged to be vulnerable about his own wrestlings with what constitutes healthy sexual ethics in the church as often as I have: never.
It terrifies me a tiny bit to be a clergy person acknowledging in written form that I, a single 38-year-old woman, have a sexual history. And yet it would probably seem ridiculous to many of my non-religious friends that I would have any trepidation admitting that.
It may be true that many men have loved Ella.
But I love Ella.
Ella loves Ella.
God loves Ella.
And she knows that, which puts her miles ahead of a lot of us whose sexual ethics remain closeted in silence or shame or both.
So today I’m seeking out clergy colleagues willing to risk the vulnerability it takes to move beyond silence or shame by owning our own navigation of sexuality and the divine. So we can be a little less binary and maybe a little more Ella.