Where the church goes wrong when talking about sex
Summary of Progressive Christianity Gloucestershire’s meeting May 7th 2022
Nine of us gathered to talk about shame in the light of the arguments raised in Nadia Bolz-Webber’s book, Shameless. The discussion was introduced by Rachel who began by reading three passages from the book, which together reinterpreted the first two chapters of Genesis.
These passages spoke of a God who filled the void but who made himself smaller in order to leave room for creation, rather like a kind lady on the subway (yes, she is American) might put her handbag on her lap so that someone can more comfortably sit in the seat beside her. Creation was not an exclusively divine act, the earth and the sea were invited to bring forth abundantly. Creation had sustainability built into it – in the form of sexual union – where the us and them are brought together in union and God is the source code of grace in this union.
As the story unfolds we learn about the work of the snake who corrupts the innocence of Adam and Eve by taking them down a path which leads them to feel shame, to blame others and to hide from God. The point is that Adam and Eve fitted together emotionally, sexually and physically; they were not guilty of any sin until the snake persuaded them to take an action which introduced into their minds the notion that their nakedness and their sexual desires were shameful. In Nadia Bolz-Webber’s eyes the snake is an abuser, causing harm to innocents. God, in so far as he provides animal skins for Adam and Eve to wear (which were less harmful than fig leaves), is seen as the safe-guarder, trying to ameliorate their ‘fall’ from the state of grace. The sense of shame does not come from God, B-W argues, it comes from others who want us to believe that in expressing our sexuality we have something to be ashamed of.
In our discussion, the point was quickly made that B-W’s version is an extension of what is actually written in the Bible and she has put a particular spin on the narrative, in which the church is the snake for its benighted views about sex. We agreed that the church has a history of focussing on the procreative side of sex and has made the relationship strengthening side – the enjoyable side – seem shameful. (eg the 1928 marriage service preamble). But where does this leave recreational sex where there is scarcely a relationship at all. Well perhaps it does still have some value in creating a relationship. But is the woman always more vulnerable than the man because she is somehow emotionally wired to want a relationship, (possibly an evolved behaviour in order to get security in the event of a child). Rachel thought that this was less so of modern girls who could be equally casual about sex as boys. N, a former counsellor, felt there was a significant difference because for the girl the sex act takes place inside her body and this gives it more emotional depth for her. In any case we agreed that in stable relationships, if one partner has sex outside the partnership it causes emotional trauma for the ‘wronged’ party. Is B-W trying to suggest that this should not be such a cause for ‘shame’. M said that sexual freedom should in theory eliminate the hurt but it doesn’t happen that way, because it the breaking of a bond. N said in relationship counselling she often felt that a couple could have found a way through if only the shame and blame around outside sex was treated less dramatically but in her experience very seldom proved possible
We also looked at the power play in traditional sexual mores. All abuse is built on an under-current of power play. Perhaps this is reflected in the desire of some men to marry a virgin bride, even when the groom is not under the same constraint. E pointed out that the unmarried pregnant daughter was a potent cause of shame and public opprobrium. People even moved house because of it.
In the end we thought B-W’s argument makes most sense if the point is to support the sexuality of those who are LGBTQ. In this case the church has been the abusing snake, preaching the evils of gay relationships where it should be recognising that sexuality is a vehicle for mutual flourishing and this is equally true for those whose sexual identity is gay or lesbian. Just as Adam and Eve had nothing to be ashamed about before they met the snake, so it should be with gay and lesbian couples. Could it also work the other way round, that if today’s young people have recreational sex where neither feels any shame, then it must be a healthy expression of their naturally given desires. In his book Godless Morality, Richard Holloway says our freedoms should not be based on curtailing the freedom of others. The point was made that participants in outside-of-relationship sex may feel fine about it, but the partner at home would usually feel betrayed.
Moving us on, Rachel read a B-W version of the opening of John’s Gospel. Its conclusion was that if Jesus was the Word made flesh then his followers are the flesh made Word. This man Jesus who had an unimpressive birth, loved his wine, said confusing things like the first shall be last, and especially about forgiving and praying for our persecutors. Through this ‘Word made flesh’ we are given the grace to become children of God, we are the ‘flesh become Word’.
The point was made that church people rarely talk about sex as we have done today. If only folk would be more willing to share their experiences.
In the course of the afternoon three resources were mentioned other than the book Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Webber:
Godless Morality by Richard Holloway (which we studied a year or two back)
Philosophical Myths of the Fall by Stephen Mulhall
And finally, in relation to the way transgender people are seen by the church try the Sibyls’ website, https://sibyls.co.uk/ where there are some good books on sale.