Ready to Be Shameless

Introduction

I

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:

  1. As a wife, stay faithful to your husband
    till death do you part.
  2. 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.

Amazing Grace

II

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

III

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.’

Shameless Confessions

IV

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.

Blessing

V

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.’

Dance-Off

VI

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

Kiss