beyond vanilla heterosexuality: Christian women's experiences and transformative faith
Are meaningful contemporary Christian sexual ethics possible? It depends where you look and to what you listen. No doubt many might be surprised, but there is actually a wonderful growing mine of resources, including Found Out: Transgressive faith and sexuality: the incisive and illuminating recent book by Alison Webster. Unfortunately, in bleak contrast, many 'official' Church statements have been far too blind, narrowed or vacuous, even within circles which purport to take human experience and the best of science and reason seriously. Over twenty years ago for example, as a priest in rural England, I vividly remember receiving an official declaration to Church of England clergy from the then Archbishops of Canterbury and York on the subject of marriage. It was unhelpful, seemingly constituting only a bald 'gate-keeper' reaffirmation of a theoretical position which no longer pertained if it ever did. It failed to recognise, never mind address, the pastoral realities faced by clergy: where almost every couple coming for marriage was already cohabiting; (some form of) sex before marriage was essentially de rigeur; and partners who were divorced, in various circumstances, were extremely common. Like the hastily put together statements on LGBTI+ issues of the time (sadly often since enshrined as a kind of fresh holy writ), it seemed like blinkers were the order of the day. Regrettably, things have not improved greatly, leading an increasingly large chasm between the actual sexual lives of faithful Christians and the Church as an institution. The 'official' Church has thus frequently appeared to be a frightened rabbit, hypnotised by the glare of the lights of contemporary sexuality, even when its pastoral practice, and many contributions of its best theologians, has often been quite otherwise. Today, in the face of further developments, not least the profound societal shifts in LGBTI+ understanding, it is hard to see how these things can hold together much longer. Happily, Alison Webster, in Found Out, is one of those who offers fresh and vital pathways, grounded in women's lived experience and a performative faith which leads to flourishing rather than stagnation and spiritual death...
For the heart of the Church's challenge is simply to be real: honest and affirming of the actual God-given spirituality and sexuality of its members. One quotation in Found Out, puts this well:
'My conclusion', says an Anglican female priest, in words so many of us fellow priests can echo: 'is that the church loves vanilla heterosexuality but those who seem to perform it have never actually performed it. People disclose extraordinary things to me as their parish priest and I can tell you that appearances are deceptive... The narrow vanilla understanding of human beings covers layers of silence. Trans, gay, all hidden for the sake of the institution... It is psychologically pernicious.'
The reality is that Christian sexual and spiritual lives are wonderfully and incorrigibly messy, including those of many who outwardly seem to fit the supposed 'norms'. Unless we honour that, we not only hurt or reject people. We also fail to honour, hurt and reject God. For, as Alison Webster and Found Out shows, it is in the full experiences of all of our lives that we find the living God: such a often hidden treasure for our churches and world.
Found Out gives voice to the experiences of a wide range of women (LGBTI+ and straight, lay and ordained) and sets them, beautifully and intelligently, in the context of the immense changes in culture and Christian thinking of the last 30 years. Together with biblical reflection and poetry, it thus it represents a fine work of practical theology, making a very positive contribution to sexual ethics - at least for those 'who have eyes to see and ears to hear'. Its author, Alison Webster, has a long and substantial record in such fields, and in social justice as a whole: among other things, helping to found the Institute for the study of Christianity and Sexuality and the international journal, Theology and Sexuality. Her earlier published work includes ‘Found Wanting: Women, Christianity and Sexuality (Cassell, 1995), ‘Wellbeing’ (SCM Press, 2002), and ‘You Are Mine: Reflections on who we are’ (SPCK 2009), as well as numerous resource materials and online publications in the areas of social justice and faith.
There is much in Found Out's comparatively slim volume for which to be grateful and hopefully others will find many other things of great value. Three things however strike me most strongly: as a priest, a trans woman, and a person of similar age and background to the author. The first, frustrating, aspect is that we are still struggling so much with these things. Indeed we sometimes seem to have gone backwards in some church spaces. As Alison sadly observes, in the 1908s and 1990s, many of us shared 'much creative feminist theological work... much of which seems to have been subsequently written out of history.' It has indeed been so galling to see continuing controversies over such things as female imagery for God, or to be told by some bishops (in relation to sexuality and gender as a whole) that 'we simply haven't done the theological work on these things'. This, as Alison puts it, makes 'no explicit recognition that extensive work on themes such as models of God, divine imagery, critiques of exclusively male language for God, had been happening throughout the 1980s and 1990s.' The similar substantial and capacious work on sexuality and gender since the 1990s is equally hidden or denied by too many. No wonder then that the psychological perniciousness of sexual oppression in many church spaces is now almost unbearable for so many people. As the women in this book illustrate so well, the 'official' Church is often so far adrift of its own people's experience and best wisdom, whilst welcome progress for LGBTI+ people in society at large ironically makes it worse for those who remain the churches.
The second most powerful feature of Found Out for me, and the core of the book, is therefore the voices of the women of faith who are heard into speech. These include many who are most marginalised in the churches, as well as others who, often painfully and with great ingenuity and patience, negotiate leadership ministries within them. The stories are sometimes difficult and heart-rending: speaking of various forms of abuse, exclusion, and shame, and the pressure applied by church authority (directly or indirectly) to encourage hiding, self-censorship, and remaining silent. All of this, as more than one contributor reflects, amounts to being asked to tolerate continual chronic pain, instead of being provided with space and support to find life-giving expression and transformation. One partner of a trans woman thus reports how her bishop encouraged her to divorce if she wanted to proceed towards ordination, as she had, in his view, 'annulled' her marriage by staying with her spouse. What kind of a doctrine of relationship is that?! It is indeed a form of 'soul violation', as other women experience in other areas of unnecessarily contested sexual or relational life unsupported by official church authority or regulations. The consequences are dire, not only driving a wedge between women's spiritual, sexual and other selves, but often disrupting relationships with God. As Alison Webster puts it:
If your declared sense of self is neither believed nor trusted... it is hard to feel accepted or acceptable. As women (and marginalised men), we live with the sense that our very being is contested..
Moreover, if you are constantly made to feel you are 'not good enough', you also feel a need to hide:
how then to avoid a silencing of God within, a silencing between you and God in prayer, a silencing of yourself within community. And if you are a lesbian priest charged with keeping the confidences of those who 'cure of souls' is your responsibility, yet are expected to hide your very self and your relational life in the process, how can this be a sustainable way of life?
How indeed is this a healthy climate for ministry in any church, as a supposed loving community and 'icon of Christ'? What however is even more remarkable, as witnessed by these stories, is that women (like marginalised men) can still find strength and renewed meaning in faith.
For, thirdly, and most vitally of all, Found Out is a prophetic offering of hope: not only for the women involved, or for others who can identify, but even for the life of the most obstructive 'official' churches themselves (if they can but see and hear). In a sensitive and constructive manner, Alison Webster teases out the gifts of the women whose voices she enables. These gifts are manifold and have the potential to transform the death-bearing elements of churches, as well as wider society and particular selves. Not least they include fresh vibrant understandings of God; faith as provisional and exciting, not boxed and finished; the renewal of a holistic sense of body and sex; and the understanding of being intersex, trans, or whatever we (partly) are, as a calling. Wouldn't it indeed be wonderful if coming out was affirmed as joyful liberation by all, including official church bodies? For being happy being gay, among many things, involves being vulnerable in one's godly strength and integrity - surely a most desirable gift for priesthood (lay and ordained)? Is not this also the reality towards which much maligned 'queer theory' speaks? Alison Webster concisely outlines such contributions. For this, as a fine example of practical theology, is a work which impressively unites lived faith and belief, experience and theory. Drawing on such thinkers as Eve Sedgwick and Judith Butler, together with Christian theological interlocutors in such works as Loughlin's Queer Theology, she thus presents the value of understanding faith itself as 'queer' and 'performative': allowing us thereby to move between the false dichotomies of choosing propositional or no faith at all; to avoid the 'god-trick' of supposed scientific objectivity which bedevils much Christian thinking; to hold together the 'known' and unknown', 'traditionally received,' 'different' and 'other'; to unite our actual lives and faith commitments in a renewed dynamic; and, crucially, to honour the experiences of everyone as the spiritual loci of God and theological reflection. In doing so, at this time, the value of transgender experiences is particularly significant. Much space is thus given to transgender insights such as those of Rachael Mann, so beautifully and powerfully expressed in her book Dazzling Darkness (an autobiographical work which wrestles so wonderfully with the liminal spaces, challenges and gifts of chronic illness, disability, and gender identity and transition, in relation to the 'dark, living God'). As Alison Webster says:
The transition and transformation that trans people model highlights something true for all of us. There is a mystery in what God wants for us. Our calling is to a pilgrimage of being the best that we can be: to becoming who we should be. There is a compelling pull to becoming who we are meant to become, in God. It is disruptive, unpredictable. It is not always friendly to the church's desire to keep everything under control and in the right place.
We are therefore called to recognise the transgressive Christ: the One who crosses and stands at all borders and liminal places. In doing so, we can thereby welcome everyone's experience and insights, developing life-giving 'situational' theologies which intersect with and enliven others. In this we then develop realistic ethics for human sexual and societal growth and flourishing, reflecting what Carl Rogers named as three essential conditions: empathy (hearing and being heard), unconditional positive regard ('mutual prizing'), and congruence (being real). For Found Out's message is that:
reclaiming spirit means embracing a faith that is integrated, holistic, artistic and embodied.
an invitation to all of us. whatever our combination of power and powerlessness, to step forward and risk the vulnerability of hearing others and being heard; of sharing our questions, struggles and doubts; to risk finding freedom in being known, accepted and loved. For it is only as a community of the vulnerable, standing together, that we can bring any sense of God's love and fullness of life to our world...
(so) don't just hear us, join us.
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The Revd Dr Jo Inkpin: