‘If our culture cannot form people who can speak with both conviction and empathy across deep differences, then it becomes even more important for the church to use its theological and spiritual resources to produce such people. The Christian calling is to be shaped and reshaped into people whose every thought and action is characterized by faith, hope, and love – and who then speak and act in the world with humility, patience, and tolerance.’
– John Inazu[i]
Sexuality and gender identity can be highly polarising issues, with little constructive conversation to guide us forwards.[ii] Our goal is to convene a better conversation than the often divisive one that dominates our culture – helping you think and live faithfully as a disciple of Jesus in our contemporary culture.
We’ve assembled a diverse group of Christians to contribute towards this series to have such a conversation, practising ‘triple listening’ – to the word of God, the world, and one another. In doing so, we learn to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus in our contemporary culture.
In this piece, Christine Woolgar, a prolific blogger on hope, sexuality, and consent, helps us listen to what’s going on and why in this cultural moment.
This five-part series accompanies Wisdom Lab: Following Jesus in a Sexular Age, in which each of the authors delivers a TED-style talk on their topic. Wisdom Labs help churches and small groups explore issues facing Christians today.
The unexpected voice
The tweet was something like, ‘What a brave boy.’ My friend Amy was being genuine, commenting on an article about a transgender teenager, aged 16 or 17. This young person was already on hormone therapy to transition from female to male, but debating whether he should temporarily halt and partially reverse the process. Doing so would allow him to have his eggs harvested and frozen, so that one day he might still be able to have children biologically related to him.
Once I finished reading, I put my phone back in my bag. My tube stop was only a few minutes away.
I didn’t frequent my friend’s Twitter feed to agree with her, but to listen. Amy was a sex blogger and long-standing advocate for people with diverse gender identities and sexual orientations. And whenever we met in person, we had fantastic conversations.
But I wasn’t sure what to make of this trans boy’s story. There was a time when I thought dying your hair was a rebellious rejection of God’s ordained design. Yes, I was long past that point, and I’d even come to believe that same-sex marriage is consistent with Christian theology. But I still had many questions and misgivings.
In the moment I saw that tweet, probably the logic that went through my head was that we should own the choices we make for ourselves. I didn’t like the idea of this trans boy trying to transition and hold open the possibility of biological children. It stretched my theology and ethics too far. So, I said to God, ‘OK, I think I’ve found my limit.’ I would avoid the topic when I next met Amy.
I didn’t expect God to reply to me in that crowded tube train. But no sooner had I uttered my prayer than the Holy Spirit said: ‘But you’ve never wanted to have children of your own.’
Reader, I don’t know how to convey to you the compassion and gentleness of that voice. But it touched me deep in my spirit and, having heard it, I couldn’t help but be changed. It called out my lack of empathy, showing how I didn’t understand this person’s desire. In classic terms, you could say I became less judgemental or that I learned to love my neighbour better. But I think what changed most in that moment was my understanding of God. I say this because, afterwards, I felt like I had permission to entertain the prospect that this young person’s desires were legitimate, that God could work with them, even though they were utterly foreign to me, even though they were happening in a messy context.
Of course, I can’t build an entire theology on one commute encounter with the Holy Spirit, as much as I might want to. But that experience is a valid piece of data. Wherever my search takes me, it needs to include that moment.
The crowd of voices
When I was invited to contribute to this series Following Jesus in a Sexular Age, I was asked to write specifically about listening – both to God and to our present culture – in matters relating to sexuality, marriage, and gender. I won’t pretend that I’ve found this easy over the last few years. I shared the example above to illustrate how I’ve been stretched and challenged – both by God and our present culture – but the process is in no way finished. And I expect that many people reading this will also have found the task of listening and discerning difficult. Perhaps this task has never been easy, but I can point to several factors that make it particularly difficult in our current time.
First, the UK’s legal framework relating to sex, gender, and marriage has shifted dramatically in the last 70 years and continues to change. Instead of gradual developments over centuries, societal norms have been reconfigured several times in the course of a single lifetime. We’ve seen huge legislative milestones: for same-sex relations and same-sex marriages,[iii] divorce reform[iv] and civil partnerships,[v] sex equality[vi] and gender recognition,[vii] abortion[viii] and embryology,[ix] and even blasphemy[x] and indecency.[xi] Not to mention consent.[xii]
Or to put it another way: 70 years ago it was illegal for two men to engage in consensual sex, but technically legal for a husband to rape his wife. Spouses had to prove fault in order to obtain a divorce and employers were allowed to pay women less than men. Roberta Cowell had only very recently become the first trans woman to have reassignment surgery and her birth certificate changed. IVF was impossible and neither same-sex marriages nor civil partnerships existed.
These seismic changes in the law were shaped by, and in turn shaped, huge shifts in society and cultural expectations. Shifts which have been seen in communities, enacted in workplaces, reflected in the media, and reacted to in churches, each causing their own ripple effects. Meanwhile, the internet has transformed connectivity between people with marginalised experiences, and social media has brought its own challenges for dialogue and privacy.
And as if all that weren’t enough, the priorities and language of these topics continue to evolve. 1970s feminism used the phrase ‘no means no’ but today, consent educators argue we need more than that. The word ‘queer’ has moved from being a slur to being both an orientation and a celebrated umbrella term for the LGBTQ+[xiii] community. And in 2014, Facebook offered not two, but 58 different options[xiv] in English for users to describe their gender identity.
The church’s response
To a degree, the church has taken steps to meet this challenge of change. Churches recognise their responsibility to be informed about these matters, and various efforts have been made to gather divergent voices and foster discussion.
For example, the Methodist Church recently wrote their collaborative report God In Love Unites Us and, following various consultations, individual churches can now vote on whether they will register for same-sex marriages. The Church of England has undertaken a much larger project, Living in Love and Faith, producing its own suite of materials to stimulate discussion within church communities. Meanwhile, organisations like Creating Sanctuary have developed materials to help churches grapple with divergent interpretations of Scripture with the agreed goal that churches should be safe spaces.
No doubt, some of the people reading this article will have found these projects, and others like them, have offered new opportunities to talk in depth about sex, gender, and marriage. And I have no complaint about the ways in which these projects have enabled greater dialogue and understanding. Arguably, they’ve paved the way for LICC to run this series.
However, I think it’s important we acknowledge two things.
First, many Christians were forced into these conversations years ago, for a variety of reasons, and the experience often wasn’t pleasant. For these people, watching the church play catch up can be painful and frustrating.
Second, the church’s recent debates are quite far removed from the issues currently under discussion in secular culture. In 2022 churches are asking whether it is possible to form a doctrine of marriage that affirms LGBTQ+ identities. Society, meanwhile, settled legal same-sex marriage in 2013 – eight years ago; its debates right now are over sexual expression and sexual ethics outside marriage, outside monogamy, and outside the bedroom.
I don’t make either of these points with the intent of criticising the church (though there are criticisms to be made). Rather, my aim here is to highlight that projects like these have limited usefulness in equipping Christians for the reality of their everyday experiences with other people. What do we say when a young twenty-something sets herself up on OnlyFans, or gets stalked on Tinder, or throws herself into a relationship with a man who’s already married?
These scenarios might sound extreme, but I’ve encountered a good few situations like them and they weren’t all far flung from the church. So how do we navigate these kinds of complexities? How exactly do we follow Jesus and listen well?
Image and agency
The word I come back to, again and again, is this: agency. Our desires, our choices, our capacity to act as autonomous beings. I believe our agency – which encompasses all of these things – is one of the ways that we are made in the image of God. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the question of free will is both ancient and modern. But I would summarise the current landscape, particularly as it relates to sexuality, in the following way.
First, there is what people want for themselves. They want to ‘self-actualise’, to be their full, authentic selves, and to not be harmed and not be a cause of harm.
Then there is what they want from other people. They want their desires affirmed and their account of their own experience – internal and external – to be believed.
And lastly, people are searching to understand how they can best fulfil these desires. They want affirming principles that can guide both them and others towards their respective goals. Or put another way, they’re looking for a shame-free framework of life choice and calling, and consent.
It might be worth taking a moment to re-read those three statements.
Now, what I’ve described isn’t confined to the realm of sex and sexuality. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Disney, but the quest for identity, for authentic, unapologetic self-expression and self-actualisation, is plain to see in stories like Frozen, Coco, and Brave.
The church, however, faces theological fault lines when it comes to sex and sexuality. What some people see as moral, others see as harmful; what some see as ethical, others see as sinful. The details of these disagreements are not the purpose of this article; the point is that when people in the church talk about self-actualisation and desire, these faultlines often manifest.
And when the conversation is then shut down – or rather, when people feel that they have been shut down – this is almost invariably because their agency has been disregarded.
They might have been told something is a choice, when it’s not. Or that something isn’t a choice, when it is. Or they might be told repeatedly what they’re called to or created to be, when they have no resonance in their spirit. They might even be told that they can’t really know what’s good for them or that they can’t make good decisions because they’re confused, immature, naïve, indecisive, uncommitted, selfish, individualistic, fallen, damaged, brainwashed, corrupt, depraved, or even demonised.
Never mind that such statements can be wildly misinformed. Even when they’re true, they’re not kind and they don’t engender a willingness to change.
People want to be free to examine their own internal sense of who they are and make their own choices about their futures. And they don’t want to do either of these in a context of fear, manipulation, or inappropriate power imbalance. They want to take their own informed risks and make their own mistakes as they decide who they are intimate with and how their bodies are presented, medicated, and altered.
Now, I know full well that some people make very unhealthy and harmful choices. Others do not have good decision-making capability. But I also know it’s very easy to underrate the agency and discernment of other people when you think yourself intellectually or morally superior.
That’s why we need to remember humility, especially in the church. We need to embody the gentleness that Jesus modelled[xv] and Paul exhorted, using our strength and skills to help people in their search for answers. Coming alongside someone doesn’t require you to agree with them or to be fully on board with their goals. But it does require a willingness to respect their agency, and openness to the possibility that you might be changed by the search.
You see, when we think that a person’s desires and direction of travel are necessarily outside of God’s purposes, we spend our efforts on trying to block them, finding ways to argue against what they’re trying to do. But if we think there might be a path, our posture changes. Instead of blocking a person, we can come alongside them; we can adopt a posture of ‘co-seeking’: searching with them for ways they might fulfil their desires whilst still honouring God and their fellow human beings.
And it’s when we’re alongside people that we’re best placed to listen.
Of course, if someone doesn’t want you alongside them, don’t insert yourself. And if you don’t feel safe with someone, don’t put yourself at risk. God doesn’t ask us to come alongside everyone, but rather the people he calls us to. My point here is that I believe he only very rarely wants us to make decisions for other people; usually, our role is to help others navigate their own decision-making process.
Put another way, it is not for us to transplant our agency into someone else’s life, but to help them cultivate their own agency.
I hope what I’ve written here won’t be misunderstood. I understand that pride, ego, and entitlement can all bend our agency, our will, towards decisions that are ultimately selfish and narcissistic. Coming alongside people should be about companionship, not the enablement of abusive and destructive behaviours. But if we are to follow Jesus well in these complex times, I firmly believe we need to prioritise regard for other people’s agency. To do that, we need to be prepared to unlearn habits and assumptions that, however well-intentioned, do not produce good outcomes.
The good news is that, when we get it right, respecting other people’s agency is one of the most powerful forms of witness we can give. It has the potential to be transformative in other people’s lives and surprise us along the way.
At least, that’s been my experience.
One of my most memorable encounters with Amy (my friend the sex blogger I mentioned at the start of this post) is from when she announced she was committing herself to a lifetime relationship. I didn’t like the power imbalance that I saw favoured her partner, and I didn’t think he could be trusted. So as Amy enthused about her hopes for the future, I thought carefully about how I might communicate that I was supportive of her, whilst still being honest about my convictions.
In the end, I decided I would sing her a song. We met up one evening – in a church actually, because it had a piano I could play – and I sang her Alanis Morissette’s ‘That I Would Be Good’. The song evokes a longing to be good and loved even if we lose our health, beauty, money, status, security, partner, everything. Amy had never heard it before, but I said that its lyrics were my wish-list for her future. By the time I finished, she was in tears.
I thought little more of it, until several years later when we met up again, to hang out and sing songs together (mostly from musicals). By this time, Amy had allowed herself to acknowledge how abusive that man was, and she’d broken up with him. When I started to play ‘That I Would Be Good’ again, I was surprised to hear her voice behind me, matching the notes and complex rhythms. Amy had learned the song.
She told me that it had stayed with her powerfully after the first time I’d sung it. And that later, she realised I’d been trying to tell her something that I couldn’t say. She didn’t blame me for not telling her that I thought her ex-partner was abusive, or for not trying to dissuade her from making a commitment to him. Instead, she valued that I’d tried to be there with her and, when she broke up with him, she knew I’d be a safe person she could talk to. And sing with.
Christine is an accountant, a blogger on hope, sexuality, and consent at Light in Grey Places, and, more recently, theology student. She also runs a sister-site for devotional content at Faith in Grey Places. Twitter: @hope4greyplaces.
[i] John Inazu, ‘Introduction’, from Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference, ed. Timothy Keller and John Inazu (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2020), 16.
[ii] The portmanteau ‘sexular’ was first coined by Australian theologian and cultural commentator, Stephen McAlpine: ‘A Sexular Age’ (July 11, 2015). Riffing off Charles Taylor’s celebrated work, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), McAlpine uses ‘sexular’ to refer to the dominant cultural story/feeling that who we are sexually (our gender, identity, orientation, and expression/practice) is the bedrock of our reality and who we are in essence. The dominant culture of our day holds that this idea is universally given and thus unchallengeable. (Source: personal correspondence with McAlpine, 1 November 2021.)
[iii] Sex between two men was decriminalised in 1967 in England and Wales, in 1980 in Scotland, and in 1982 in Northern Ireland. The age of consent for same-sex relations was lowered to be the same as for opposite-sex relations in 2001. Marriage for same-sex couples was explicitly made illegal in 1971 but was later legalised in 2013. Source: Stonewall.
[iv] The Divorce Reform Act 1969 allowed either spouse to petition for divorce (but not both jointly) and changed the possible grounds for divorce. Divorce law is set to change again when the Divorce, Dissolution, and Separation Act 2020 becomes law in 2022. Source: Gov.uk. Divorces rose from 50,000 per year in 1971 to 150,000 per year ten years later. Source: Parliament.uk
[v] Civil Partnerships were introduced for same-sex couples across the UK in 2004. Civil partnerships were then made possible for opposite-sex/mixed-sex couples in 2019 and 2020 across the UK. Source: Parliament.uk.
[vi] In particular the Equal Pay Act in 1970, which required equal pay for equal work, and the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, which (amongst other things) removed the need for women to provide male guarantors when applying for a credit card. Source: Law Society.
[vii] The Gender Recognition Act 2004 allows transgender people legal recognition of their reassigned gender and the right to a new birth certificate – though gender options are only male or female. The Equality Act 2010 made gender reassignment a protected characteristic. Source: Stonewall.
[viii] The 1967 Abortion Act extended the circumstances for legal abortions beyond those established by the 1938 case law decision of R. vs Bourne, though decisions for abortions still lie with the medical profession. Source: BPAS.
[ix] In 1978, the first child conceived through IVF was born.
[x] Mary Whitehouse successfully prosecuted Gay News Magazine for blasphemy in 1977, though all blasphemy laws were repealed in England and Wales in 2008, and in Scotland in 2021. Blasphemy is still an offence in Northern Ireland. Source: Wikipedia.
[xi] Prior to the Obscene Publications Acts in 1957 and 1964, obscene materials could be seized by the police, but the creation, possession, and distribution of them wasn’t a statutory offence. Today, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will typically consider offences under other laws when prosecuting cases involving illegal pornography or indecent images of children. However, in 2019, recognising that obscenity standards had changed since 1957, the CPS issued guidelines with the effect that depictions of safe and consensual activity between adults are now unlikely to result in prosecution. Source: Lawble.
[xii] In 1991, the House of Lords recognised the existence of marital rape, undercutting the assumption that consent comes with marital status. Source: Bailii.org. Until the Sexual Offences Act 2003, despite the popular term ‘age of consent,’ there was no legal definition of consent for sex. See: Matthew Waites, The Age of Consent: Young People, Sexuality and Citizenship (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 117.
[xiii] There are many variants of this initialism, but common terms included in it are: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual. The plus sign recognises that there are identities beyond these. For further reading on how ‘queer’ is used, see this article in Cosmopolitan.
[xv] The word for ‘gentleness’ as the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23 is the same Greek word translated as ‘meek’ in Matthew 5:5 (‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’). The word is used of Jesus in Matthew 11:29 (‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart’) and Matthew 21:5 (‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey’). For further reading, see this post on gentleness that I wrote as part of a poetry series on the fruit of the Spirit.