I was lucky, I guess.
I grew up in a solidly middle-class Lutheran church and never got the message from that community that sex was bad, dirty, or something to be ashamed of. I was never told not to have sex outside of marriage or that same gender attraction was sinful. These negative messages were neither explicit nor implicit.
However, neither was I told that sexuality (however defined by each person) is an integral part of the human experience, or taught about enthusiastic consent and how it honors the human dignity of every person, or that sexuality is a deep affirmation of the incarnation. These positive messages were neither explicit nor implicit.
So, I was only relatively lucky, I guess.
Instead of learning of the gift and trust of human sexuality from a faith community, I received only silence on the issue. I internalized this silence and coupled it with the generally disordered view of sex present in the culture at large into a relationship with sexuality that can only be described as very fraught indeed. From the church I learned that sex was not to be discussed in polite company; from the broader culture I learned that sex (namely, who was having it and how often, along with absurd expectations around body type) was the only important thing. The result was an oppressive, transactional view of sex and humanity, twinned with the inability to talk to anybody about it. What a mess. Sexuality for me was both terrifying and unknowable.
And so I didn’t engage in it. But I worried about it a whole lot. When I did finally become sexually active, I still worried about it a whole lot. It was only when I took an undergraduate class titled “Gender, Body, and Images of God” that learned that Christians could actually speak positively about sex. (This class also happened to be the first time I read theology that was written after 1965 ::thinking face emoji::) This course was a breath of fresh air and alleviated the anxiety induced by a lifetime of silence from the church.
As a result, embodiment became the prime hermeneutic in my theology, both academically and devotionally/vocationally. Christianity is (obviously) a deeply incarnational faith, and it was liberating to experience this faith made manifest in bodies: each of us individually, corporately as the Body of Christ, truly present in the eucharist. This has impacted all of my relationships, romantic/sexual and otherwise. I can now find joy and delight in sexuality. I can negotiate relationships not according to regressive gender norms, but according to the liberty offered through the gospel. My relationships are more intentional and steeped in mutuality, not in spite of Christian doctrine, but because of the teachings of Jesus, Paul, Luther, Althaus-Reid, and so many others.
So yes, ok, this transformation has obviously been very important to me. But as a candidate for rostered ministry in the ELCA, I have been unable to voice to my candidacy committee how liberating this new perspective has been. I have a overwhelmingly positive relationship with my committee, but I dare not even broach the subject, for fear of shifting that relationship. How dispiriting, to go through a paradigm-shifting liberation, only to be afraid to speak of it with the very people tasked with walking with candidates through discernment and formation.
Silence can no longer be the default mode for the church. It is not enough to be not-terrible; we must actively proclaim an embodied, liberating gospel. A good first step here is giving leaders and discerners the freedom to be their full selves in interactions with candidacy committees…to have real conversations with them in light of the gospel, rather than rooted in oppressive gender and sexual norms. This example will reverberate outward, allowing for more honesty and openness in all circles of the church.
(P.S. — If you’re interested in some good embodied theology, might I recommend the collection Sexuality and the Sacred, or the books Indecent Theology and God, Desire, and a Theology of Human Sexuality to you?)