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Lining up for Nadia Bolz-Weber’s talk at Southwark Cathedral, I’m aware I don’t fit in. A young woman beside me is talking to her mother, describing the time she prayed in front of her friends. She wanted to illustrate how she speaks to Jesus in exactly the same way she does to them. She is so matter of fact about it I’m impressed; prayer seems part of her daily existence as a cup of coffee is to mine. Behind me a boisterous group are discussing the role distributions for their forthcoming Sunday service. One woman complains that being the wife means she gets roped into doing too much, she’s been put down for visuals and service management. Looking around the rest of the queue, I try to gauge if I’m the only heathen in their midst as if, for those of us without a dog collar, Christianity could be worn like a cloak.
Once inside I sit down on one of the pews towards the back. The atmosphere in the cathedral is charged, as if we’re waiting to see a sell-out gig at Brixton Academy. In some ways, Nadia Bolz-Weber is a rock star. Ex alcoholic. Covered in tattoos. Former stand-up who swears like a fishwife and wears crimson lipstick. She’s also a Lutheran pastor and orthodox theologian. It is this juxtaposition that makes her so compelling – her ability to inhabit two (seemingly) opposing realms. True to the name of the church she founded in Denver, Colorado, she is a sinner and a saint.
I first came across Bolz-Weber in a video that appeared in my Facebook feed entitled ‘Forgive Assholes: Have a Little Faith’, where she calls those with the capacity to forgive, ‘freedom fighters’. An advocate for social change, Bolz-Weber’s latest book ‘Shameless’ is a call for a sexual reformation within the church. The premise took shape right here in London, she tells us, when she was on tour with her previous book. Weeks into a new relationship, and somewhat overwhelmed by the impact it was having on her body and her spirit, she phoned her boyfriend, who was back in the U.S., waking him up at 6 a.m. with a question she couldn’t shake:
Why has the church always tried to control sexuality?
Eric, who Bolz-Weber casually describes as a heathen, replied instantly, saying he’d always assumed it was because the church viewed sex as its biggest competition. Bingo, she had the subject of her next book.
Perhaps the explosive nature of this subject is why Bolz-Weber admits to feeling nervous when she appears on stage. To allay her anxiety she reads out the order of service, a trademark Bolz-Weber blend of Christian tradition and rebellion against the rule book. Following an a cappella rendition of Amazing Grace, a Q and O session, some shameless confessions and a blessing, tonight will culminate with a dance-off under the cathedral dome. ‘Don’t leave me hanging like they did in Indianapolis,’ she says. ‘That was totally humiliating.’
It is this kind of impromptu remark that makes Bolz-Weber so easy to relate to, that brings her down from the pulpit and on a level with ordinary people. ‘Shameless’ is testament to this, inspired by the stories she heard first hand from members of her congregation. In her introduction this evening, she reads from the first pages, recounting a flight she took from Colorado to North Carolina. Not long after take-off, the crop circles outside of Denver caught her eye. She discovers later that these crops aren’t planted in circles but in square plots of land. They grow in circles because of the way they’re watered. This provides Bolz Weber with a potent metaphor for the church’s failure to reach people that don’t fit inside its circle, whether it’s because of body shape, sexual orientation, gender or faith: ‘God planted so many of us in the corners, yet the center pivot irrigation of the church’s teachings about sex and sexuality tends to exclude us.’
Bolz-Weber is a self-proclaimed planted-in-the-corner Christian. When she was ordained over a decade ago, she signed a contract which stipulated two options for her sex life:
- As a wife, stay faithful to your husband till death do you part.
- As a single woman, remain chaste.
Looking back on it now, post-divorce, and still in a steady relationship with Eric, she says, ‘In what way is it good for my congregation for me not to get laid?’ This has the Southwark crowd laughing out loud. The audacity of it, the honesty, the inherent logic behind the question: what has chastity got to do with one’s ability to pastor? I think of a George Saunders quote I read recently: ‘Humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to.’ One expects this kind of risk-taking from comedians but it’s refreshing to see it come from the clergy.
Luckily, we’ve been given the lyrics to Amazing Grace so I won’t resemble former tory MP John Redwood famously bumbling his way through the Welsh National anthem. As the first verse begins, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. If I did believe in God, this is where I would feel her the most, in the voices of 500 strangers floating up to the cathedral rafters. During the hymn, we’ve been asked to complete the following sentence on a small square of card: ‘I am ready to be shameless about…’ and if we wish to, place it in the basket usually reserved for donations. This, in itself, is heavily symbolic. Repairing the church, Bolz-Weber is suggesting, doesn’t require money, but doing away with the culture of shame around sexuality, shame the church has perpetuated throughout its history, particularly for women and members of the LGBTQ community. I slip my card in my bag for the time being, the sentence left unfinished.
Q and O’s
Bolz-Weber doesn’t do questions and answers because she openly admits she doesn’t have any of the latter. She does, however, have opinions. Lots of them. And for the half an hour that follows she walks the aisles, getting up close to those brave enough to raise their hands.
One woman asks Bolz-Weber’s view on being faithful to the vow ‘till death do us part,’ in light of her own divorce. Her reply is surprising and would undoubtedly have some Bible scholars shaking their heads. ‘I think there are a lot of forms of death,’ she says, alluding to the death of desire within her own marriage, death of respect for one another’s bodies via domestic or sexual abuse, or the protracted demise of incompatible couples. She argues these kind of marriages undermine the very institution they are trying so hard to uphold.
A woman in the pew behind me wonders how to remain authentic in the age of internet dating. Bolz-Weber segues into a section of ‘Shameless’ that broaches the subject of consent, citing the WHO ethical requirements for sexual health as consent and mutuality. For Bolz-Weber, this fails to include the Christian ethic of concern. Sexual health, she asserts, should not simply mean the absence of harm but the presence of benevolence towards both ourselves and others. She compares it to the fifth commandment – or the ‘freebie’ – and Martin Luther’s teachings that ‘thou shalt not kill’ is more than refraining from murder. It’s actively offering support and good will to others. It’s going above and beyond.
After several thwarted attempts, the young priest next to me raises his hand and his voice. If Bolz-Weber could go back in time, would she still sign the contract with the church, even though she knows it compromises her integrity, or would she refuse to do so and risk never entering the church on her own terms? It’s a bold question, especially as the young priest admits to signing an equivalent contract when he entered the Anglican Church, and it takes Bolz-Weber a few moments to answer. Ultimately, she says she would sign. Because in order to truly shake things up, it’s easier to do so from within the institution. Make no mistake, though, she doesn’t mean piecemeal improvements. As the title of her books clearly states, she wants reformation, or in her own words, ‘to burn it the fuck down and start over.’
What strikes me as I listen to Bolz-Weber is that the damaging messages and dogma she refers to around sex and gender are not unique to the church. The idea that a woman’s body belongs to her husband isn’t just found in sermons but is deeply ingrained in our culture and shows up in the most innocuous places: from a well-meaning midwife, for example, who enquires about my (non-existent) sex life six months after giving birth, ‘Doesn’t that bother your husband?’ she asks. It is the insidious nature of these remarks that shock me, the implication that a woman is a second class citizen of her own body, that her sexual desire is insignificant and not worth enquiring after, or that sex is a one-way exchange, with women (in heterosexual couples, at least) morally obliged to satisfy the sexual impulses of their partners or reap the repercussions – aggression, frustration, and potentially, abuse.
As a secondary school pupil, I am told, along with a group of girlfriends, that we shouldn’t wear short skirts because it’s too distracting for the male teachers as we walk up the stairs. This from one of the teachers. In this scenario, young women are not only sartorially censored, they are made responsible for the inappropriate and sexually predatory behaviour of the men into whose care they are entrusted. This is not a far cry from the teaching Bolz-Weber received in charm class as part of her fundamentalist Christian upbringing, an experience she described in a recent interview with Rich Roll: ‘you have to dress modestly because you don’t want to tempt the boys…don’t ever arouse them sexually because once they’re aroused to a certain point, then they can’t help themselves.’ However, the key difference, Bolz Weber writes in ‘Shameless’, is that ‘as harmful as the messages from society are, what society does not do is say that those messages are from God.’ Asked whether she sees a direct correlation between the gendered teachings of the church and domestic violence, Bolz-Weber is unequivocal: ‘Abso-fucking-lutely.’
The congregation at Southwark Cathedral have been given one straight-forward instruction. Once Bolz-Weber has finished reading out an anonymous confession, we must respond in unison: ‘Let that shit go!’ It’s an unorthodox call and response, which takes us a few rounds to get into it, to let go, perhaps, of the unwritten rule of no swearing in church. Bolz-Weber has been effing and blinding since she stepped onto the stage but it’s something else to hear your own voice say ‘shit’ in the house of God. The confessions vary from profound to inspiring, and slightly enigmatic.
‘I am ready to be shameless about my daughter’s sexuality,’
LET THAT SHIT GO!
‘I am ready to be shameless about having the best sex in my seventies.’
LET THAT SHIT GO!
‘I am ready to be shameless about underwear.’
LET THAT SHIT GO!
This last one has an elderly woman in the row in front of me in hysterics. She’s laughing so hard the whole pew is shaking. It’s a joyous, liberating moment to witness, to see the austere codes and taboos of the church broken and replaced with laughter. It demystifies the congregation. We are still a group of strangers but we are a group of strangers who share the same basic fears hopes, hang-ups and #lifegoals.
Bolz-Weber’s book is not only for victims of shame but for those who have done the shaming and regretted it. Why? Because Bolz-Weber is a big believer in grey areas, in non-binary definitions of good and bad, and most significantly, in God’s grace. Tonight she ends with a benediction: ‘God saves us in our bodies, not from our bodies. And I want that knowledge to be a blessing.’
When Prince’s ‘Kiss’ blasts out of the cathedral speakers, it’s time for the dance-off. Suddenly I’m back in 1988 when shame is practically a prerequisite for the primary school disco. Please choose me I want to scream between gulps of flat cream soda and salt and vinegar crisps that get stuck in my throat. But only if there are enough people on the dance floor to hide behind, that is. Southwark Cathedral is bigger than the school hall and there is nowhere to hide. We are in full view of the congregation and theoretically, God. I bite the bullet, even plucking up the courage to ask my neighbour to join me. She declines politely, saying ‘I won’t, but enjoy.’ The female priest at the end of the pew has a look on her face that says, ‘don’t even bother’ so I go up alone. If this event is anything like Manchester, there’ll be a video posted within hours on Twitter. I feel embarrassed about being seen, a heathen dancing on the cold stone floor of the cathedral but then I see a young Lutheran priest dressed in blue launch himself into the crowd as if his life depended on it. Perhaps tonight is not about fitting in – to the church or society at large – but accepting and celebrating who you are, not dwelling on what you’re ‘lacking’ – the feeling of not being enough that is so prevalent in purity culture. As the music fades out Nadia Bolz-Weber slips away to sign copies of ‘Shameless’ in the Cathedral shop, leaving the last word to Prince.
Don’t have to be rich
To be my girl
You don’t have to be cool
To rule my world
Ain’t no particular sign
I’m more compatible with
I just want your extra time and your