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Love, sex, and God

24 May 2019

Vicky Walker tells Madeleine Davies about what was revealed when people told her their ‘real life love’ stories


WHEN responses to Vicky Walker’s Real Life Love survey started arriving, it was the quantity rather than the content that surprised her.

The amount of people who had a lot to say surprised me,” she says. “I thought maybe a couple of hundred of people would want to say a little bit about what had happened in their lives; that many responded within the first weekend.”

A book that she thought might take six months to write ballooned into a three-year project, published this month as Relatable: Exploring God, love and connection in the age of choice. While the book draws on the work of historians, sociologists, scientists, and theologians, it is the stories gathered through the survey which stand out for their candour.

The survey was not designed as an academic exercise, “more as a story-gathering exercise, and place for people to share and vent if necessary”, she explains. About three-quarters of respondents were Christian (with “Just Christian” being by far the most popular response); about 40 per cent were married; and about 80 per cent were aged between their early twenties and late forties. Most (71 per cent) were women, and 90 per cent identified as white.

There were 1447 respondents. “I felt betrayed by Christian culture,” one wrote. “I was completely unequipped to deal with a relationship in a physical sense once I started one.”

Another described feeling “like my life was worthless for two years after I lost my virginity”. There are accounts of loneliness, sexual frustration, and regret. But there are positive reflections, too: “I think it’s important to say for balance that abstinence before marriage doesn’t necessarily make for unhealthy body image or bad sex after marriage,” one correspondent wrote.

That many of the stories relate to sex, and rules concerning it, tells us something about “Christian culture’s predominant messages about relationships,” Walker writes.

“The dominant message given to young people in the Christian faith about personal relationships is: ‘Save yourself. Stay pure. . .’ The softer version of the message is transactional: ‘Stay pure and the sexual payoff when — not if — you get married will be amazing.’”


WHILE traditional teaching (as set out in Resolution 1.10 at the 1998 Lambeth Conference) states that sex is “an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship”, pastoral practice at parish level varies. The view that sex before marriage is always wrong is now held by a minority in society at large, and by only about one third of Ms Walker’s respondents. Nearly 70 per cent of couples now cohabit before they get married, and people are consequently marrying at a later age, if at all (Features, 4 February 2011).


In the United States, where the teaching of abstinence has received federal funding, authors such as Linda Kay Klein are challenging “purity culture”, documenting psychological and physical harms that have been caused.

In 2017, Joshua Harris, who wrote the bestselling I Kissed Dating Goodbye when he was 21, delivered a TED talk, “Strong enough to be wrong”, in which he explored the experience of hearing from people who had been harmed by following its ideas.

“It’s fostered the sort of shame that follows me into my relationship now, and it makes me angry at how dating or relationships without marriage as a pre-determined point, let alone sex or any kind of physical affection, were robbed of any joy for me,” Sarah Galo, a contributor to a discussion on the book hosted by the Toast website, observed.

Ms Walker often adopts a humorous tone in analysing Christian relationship advice (one chapter is entitled “A brief history of Christian sexual awkwardness”); but her book does not shy away from this territory.

“I was always told I was a flower and each sexual encounter was like a petal being plucked from me until I was nothing,” one woman wrote.

PUBLISHED shortly before Ms Walker’s, the Revd Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Shameless (Canterbury Press, 2019) (Books, 22 February), pulls no punches in delivering a manifesto for a “new sexual ethic”. The subtitle for the Lutheran pastor’s contribution is “A sexual reformation”. Many of the stories featured come from LGBTQ people within her congregation. “God planted so many of us in the corners,” she writes, “yet the centre-pivot irrigation of the Church’s teachings about sex and sexuality tends to exclude us. . .

“It doesn’t feel very difficult to draw a direct line between the messages many of us received from the Church and the harm we’ve experienced in our bodies and spirits as a result. I’m not suggesting we make a few simple amendments; new wine in old skins ain’t gonna cut it. I’m saying let’s burn it the fuck down and start over.”

The church Fathers get short shrift. When it comes to St Augustine’s teaching on sex, she concludes, “he basically took a dump and the Church encased it in amber.”

For Ms Bolz-Weber, it is not purity that should be our focus, but holiness, which “happens in those moments when we are blissfully free from our ego and yet totally connected to our self and something else. . . I’m here to tell you: unless your sexual desires are for minors or animals, or your sexual choices are hurting you or those you love, those desires are not something you need to ‘struggle with’,” she writes. “They are something to listen to, make decisions about, explore, perhaps have caution about. But struggle with? Fight against? Make enemies of? No.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book received a critical review in Christianity Today in the United States. In the reviewer’s view: “The message of Shameless, in short, is that feeling like a transgressor never bears the seeds of redemption, and the way to flourishing lies in throwing out any standard that isn’t giving you life.”


YET in challenging the prevalence of shame when it comes to sex and relationships, Ms Bolz-Weber has common cause with many Evangelical writers, both here and abroad.

“Christendom’s dysfunctional attitudes to sex helped create the discontent that triggered the revolution and propelled it forwards,” Dr Glynn Harrison, a psychiatrist, writes in A Better Story (IVP 2017), which has at its heart a critique of the sexual revolution that he traces to the 1960s, but laments “our body-denying pastoral theology”.

In Faithful: A theology of sex (Zondervan, 2015), Dr Beth Felker Jones, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College, offers what she hopes will be “an antidote to some of the poison that has seeped into Christian sexual morality”. Drawing on Sarah Coakley’s description of desire as “the precious clue that ever tugs at the heart, reminding the human soul — however dimly — of its created source”, she sets out “how we can bear witness to the goodness of God through holy sexuality”.

Here she has much in common with the Roman Catholic theologian Christopher West, whose work popularises Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. In Fill These Hearts: God, sex and the universal longing (Image, 2013), West contrasts the “starvation diet” offered by the Church (repression of desire) with the “fast-food diet” offered by culture (the promise of immediate gratification through indulgence), before setting out “the banquet”: the truth that only in God are all our desires truly fulfilled.

Among the convictions that these three authors have in common is the belief that traditional teaching — sex belongs within marriage — should be upheld. “It’s a case of right words, wrong music,” Mr West writes.

Felker Jones is keen to take on claims that Christians are simply “hung on” sexual behaviour. “Sex matters because embodiment goes to the very heart of what it means to be human,” she writes. “The way Christians do — and don’t — have sex is anchored in the deepest truth about reality, and it witnesses to the reality of a God who loves and is faithful to his people.”


ALL three books were recommended by the Revd Dr Sean Doherty, shortly to become Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, at a recent Youthscape lecture for youth workers at St Mellitus College, where he is a tutor in ethics.

Much of his talk drew on Fill These Hearts, including an exercise in audience participation regularly deployed by West, involving two questions. To the first, “How many of you were raised in Christian or church environment?”, almost everybody present at St Mellitus raised a hand. When they were asked to keep their hand up “if you would say that within that Christian upbringing you received a positive affirming appreciative vision of sex”, very few complied.

While he doesn’t use the same language, Dr Doherty shares Bolz-Weber’s doubts about what he calls St Augustine’s “teensy little hang-up when it came to sex” (although he went on to praise the saint’s teaching on the sacraments).

“The way our culture takes [sex] and says: ‘This is something of beauty,’ and ‘This is something sacred,’ I think that that is actually truer to what this is meant to be than the starvation approach of Augustine, to say: ‘This is trash; let’s throw it away.’ At least our culture knows that this is something good and beautiful.”

His story of a couple who married and found it difficult to connect sexually after having spent so long trying to repress their desires is one that is also told in most of the books discussed in this article.

In his lecture, Dr Doherty sought to offer “an unashamed proclamation of the goodness of human sexuality, marriage, sex, singleness, and even our sexual desires”. Yet underpinning much of the event (“Marooned on Love Island: has the Church lost its way? The emerging sexual ethics of young people”) was a sense that the dominant sexual ethic in culture was causing harm, leaving the Church “marooned”.

TEDXJoshua Harris delivers his TedX talk in 2017

Rachel Gardner, the president of Girls’ Brigade England and Wales, and relationship-lead of Youthscape (Back Page Interview, 19 October), spoke at the same event of the pressures of consumerism, with its message: “You are not enough”; of the harmful effects of pornography; and of the rise in gender-based violence. Young people were surrounded by “sin structures”, and yet many churches were still delivering a narrow message of personal purity: “God says don’t do it, so don’t do it.”

“Religion is seen as a straitjacket that curtails personal freedom,” she warned. “This makes religion for Gen Z worse than irrelevant — it makes it dangerous, [offering] dangerous ideas about sexuality, particularly around purity. . . Many Christian teenagers, even those growing up in Evangelical homes, are metaphorically ticking ‘none’ when it comes to buying into the traditional views of sex that every church youth group would be teaching in 1995. . . If our Church is holding this idea that same-sex relationships are not supported in scripture, and yet we still love gay people, that is impossible for Gen Z to accept.”

Perhaps “personal sin” was not “the resonating starting-point for Gen Z”, she suggested. Gen Z needed help to “identify the sin systems at work in culture that are oppressing people”, from online porn to sexual exploitation, and to “build plausibility shelters, where fleeing sexual immorality becomes plausible”.

The Church needed “a new language, a far more intelligent and culturally engaged way to make deep sense of Christian morality”.

REFLECTING on her research, Ms Walker’s sense is that new voices may also be needed.

“It seems that all the advice I get is from married couples who have been married for ten-plus years who got married in their early twenties,” one survey respondent wrote.

The “ideal” trajectory of abstinence, marriage, and then “hot-date nights” was not the norm for most of her respondents, many of whom talked candidly about challenges — from longing for a partner to mismatched sex-drives. Only 13 per cent said that their romantic lives had been “straightforward and happy”.

“Almost nobody could say: ‘I did everything that I was supposed to do, and it worked brilliantly,’” she reflects.

A prominent theme in her book is a perceived disconnect between congregations and church leaders. Only 19 per cent of respondents agreed that the Church understood modern relationship challenges well, and almost half felt that church leaders were often out of touch with what was happening romantically in their congregations. Only a quarter of people would go to their faith leader for advice about a relationship.

A recent feature in the US magazine The Atlantic, “Why are young people having so little sex?” (a trend also recorded in the UK), explored a range of issues, including the rise of online pornography; women who report that sex is painful (linked, in some instances, to men who attempt to repeat behaviour seen in porn); teenagers’ hectic extra-curricular schedules; anxiety; confusion about the status of relationships; and swipe-based dating apps.

One student quoted was entranced by speaking to a couple who had met each other before the rise of the smartphone: “They met; they got each other’s email addresses; they emailed one another; they went on a first date; they knew that they were going to be together,” she recalled. “They never had a ‘define the relationship’ moment, because both were on the same page.

“I was just like, ‘Damn, is that what it’s supposed to be like?’”

Ms Walker says: “My suspicion is that a lot of church leaders are probably very relieved that they are out of the loop, to be honest. For many, they didn’t follow a calling into the Church to then hear about whether someone’s been sexting or not.

“For me, one of the things that came out strongly was that this doesn’t need to be a front-led, one-person-owned situation in a church: that, actually, people have lots of wisdom to share between them, cross-culturally, cross-generationally, across different life-stages.”

When asked what they would like from the Church, a common response from participants was: “I don’t want to be told what to do, or what not to do. I do want someone to just listen to me, to be heard”; or “I’m not really sure what I should be doing, but I want help figuring that out.”

GRAPPLING with unwanted singleness should be a priority in the Church, Ms Walker suggests. Between one quarter and one third of the people in a congregation are single, depending on denomination. Many are happily so, but, among her survey respondents, only two per cent said that they felt called to singleness, and 39 per cent said specifically that they did not feel called.

In an article, “The gift no-one wants: Millennial Christians and singleness”, Dr Ruth Perrin, a post-doctoral researcher into young adult faith at Durham University, documented her interviews with single Christians in their early thirties who described feeling isolated and “left behind”.


“That personal sense of failure to hit either deadline can be exacerbated within church, when so many people are marrying,” she said. “What is hard is that so often the combination of societal and church culture overrides theology.”

(Her work also explores challenges within marriage and warns that that churches have “often propagated expectation that marriage is the answer to everyone’s needs; that ‘nuclear is normative”).

Ms Walker praises the work of the Single Friendly Church campaign, and the “brilliant example” of Canon Kate Wharton, the author of Single-minded (Features, 16 March 2018). But she believes that more needs to be done to ensure that those who are not married are not left feeling that they are either in a “season of waiting” or second class.

“I think, for a lot of leaders, they probably don’t understand why it matters so much, because it didn’t cause them the same pain or confusion or that same journey,” she says. “There are some fundamental things about how we define success . . . and who feels valued.”

The opportunities for women in terms of personal and professional independence are still relatively new victories, she points out, “and that’s easily forgotten. . . But also I think we need to recognise where single people need extra support and don’t have someone that prioritises them.”

Friendship is “biblically significant” Ms Walker writes. “Without friendship, both single and married people are prone to loneliness.”


THE focus of Relatable is “what healthy heterosexuality could look like”. There are people “far better qualified than me” to write about same-sex relationships, Ms Walker explains in a note at the end. Her feeling is that the bulk of relationship advice about male-female interactions — “the majority of relationships within the Christian community” — falls “within a narrow theological range, and it is rarely analysed”.

Those most likely to describe feeling “hopeless” in Ms Walker’s survey were women in their late twenties to mid-thirties, single, and looking for a significant relationship. Women outnumber men in most congregations, and, while female respondents were most likely to list “shares my faith” as their top priority in a partner, this was lower down for men (who were most likely to cite “kind”).

The gender ratio was also brought up in Dr Katie Gaddini’s research with single women (Features, 30 September 2016). The Church has failed to address this, Ms Walker says; instead, often resorting to evangelism drives to “bring more men in”, in a way that “hinges on stereotypes”. Meanwhile, “what you have a lot of the time is very faithful women within churches who are told that they are the problem.”

Women are no longer willing to “sit and wait and hope for these manly men to come bursting into church and then suddenly they will be brilliantly matched”, she warns — and some have left the Church altogether.

Under-explored, Ms Walker suggests, is the impact when women form relationships with, and go on to marry, men whom they meet outside the Church. “Perhaps the answer to more men in the Church is trusting women to have discerning conversations outside of the Church with men that they meet, with men who may become part of this. . .

“One of the things that came out very strongly — and I think everyone should learn from — is that the response from friends and family mattered more than anything.”

Ms Walker has previously blogged for an online dating website, and her compassionate, practical, and humorous advice has more in common with the American author Sara Eckel (author of It’s Not You: 27 (wrong) reasons you’re single) than some of the more intimidating offerings on the self-help market.


IS THERE a danger that, in highlighting the stories of those who feel let down by the Church’s guidance on relationships, it is easy to fail to acknowledge the “sin systems” highlighted by Gardner, or the life-giving message of scripture?

During the course of her research, Ms Walker was challenged by an “orthodox” correspondent who argued that the spiritualisation of desire was not “a bad thing”.

“Actually, everything about us should be spiritualised, nothing should be separated out,” he told her. For the “vast majority” of her survey’s respondents, their faith had influenced their relationships; but, for many, “how that had manifested had changed over time.”

Ms Walker has come to the conclusion that what is needed is “a fresh and dynamic conversation”. Her recommendations for churches include “focusing on biblical teaching about the whole person, what personal holiness could encompass, how each of us should relate to God and to others”, and “valuing life in different shapes, not emphasising one way over another”.

In a recent article in Christian Century, Dr Jennifer Beste, Koch chair for Catholic Thought and Culture at the College of Benedict, in Minnesota, and author of College Hookup Culture and Christian Ethics, described asking students how they thought Jesus would have behaved if they had encountered him on campus.

“Jesus would help those who make bad decisions, and not simply look away and do nothing,” one wrote. “If he saw a girl passed out on the couch because she drank too much alcohol, he would not treat her in a way that was disrespectful. Nor would he walk away and do nothing. He would cover her up and find her friends to make sure that she had a way home.”

“It is striking to me”, Dr Beste writes, “that, while most of my students imagine Jesus reacting to the college-party environment with concern and sadness, not one has depicted Jesus being angry at the injustices he observes. Typically, students imagine Jesus expressing regret that students’ current culture is not making them truly happy.”

“If we are talking about the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace and so on, the world needs more of those not less,” Ms Walker says. “I think that distinctive and how we treat each other, as brothers and sisters in a wider community, and a family that isn’t just by accident of birth, but actually about who we are brought together with: those things are incredibly relevant and important, and society is lacking them. . .

“If we lived in that way, other things would start to work themselves out in quite a different way . . . If we could then take marriage off the pedestal that it’s been put on and stop prioritising that as a thing to aspire to then I think that we would start to see something that offers a distinctive that is really attractive to people, rather than something that turns them away.”


Relatable: Exploring God, love and connection in the age of choice is published by Malcolm Down at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70).

Shameless by Nadia Bolz-Weber is published by Canterbury Press, £16.99 (£15.30)

Listen to an extended interview with Vicky Walker on the Church Times Podcast.

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