Sex and Church: Connected or Disconnected?

Let’s help the church learn to celebrate erotic love and the bodies which make it possible.. . . .

revrobin2-023Robin: It’s not easy to talk about sex, at least to do so in thoughtful, positive ways that don’t involve judging others or making jokes to mask our discomfort.

That dis-ease was my experience at the 26th General Conference of Metropolitan Community Churches just concluded in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. By my count, out of 31 workshops of 90 minutes each, there were two on sex, one on transgender issues, and one on HIV/AIDS issues. Out of 29 “pop topics,” 25 minutes in length, there were two on trans concerns and one on body tattoos. There also was one plenary session (out of four) about two hours in length, on transgender concerns.  This means 13% of the workshops were on sex- and gender-relatedemerge topics (and only six percent directly on sex), and 10% of “pop topics” focused on gender and body issues (none on sex), and 25% of plenary sessions were on gender and body concerns.

I experienced one exception: during the opening plenary, when keynote speaker Ani Zonnefeld from Muslims for Progressive Values challenged MCC to live out a vision of promoting values of love, justice and peace. In a panel discussion following her powerful message, my new friend from Italy, Mario Bonfanti, spoke clearly on two occasions about the BDSM relationship at the center of his life. I wanted to jump for joy—just to hear someone talk about sex, and especially a non-mainstream sex practice, not as a problem but as a gift!! BRAVO!!!!

Of course, I am not dismissing the value of the other workshops and pop topics and plenaries on a wide variety of topics.  But I am saying we don’t talk much about sex, at least out in the open in organized, planned ways.

I am told sex was a main topic at early MCC conferences—because, in part at least, sex is why MCC came into existence. From what elders tell me, people were truly glad to be together with other people of faith to talk about sex, about ethics and practices and safety AND fun, too. I doubt anyone can honestly contend that sex is no longer an issue needing attention. The reduction in emphasis may well be due to the fact that over the years we have become more accepted by mainstream churches. It’s not easy to be different when you want the approval of others.

Prior Lake Robin
Yes, it’s me at Prior Lake, just north of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

I also experienced a lack of interest in a related topic raised by me. About a week prior to the conference, I posted on various Facebook MCC-related pages an invitation to join me on Wednesday afternoon (the time designated by the organizers for “time off,” no formal conference programs were planned) at a clothing optional lake not far outside Victoria. Four people expressed interest, three saying they hoped to attend. I posted two more times, to give updates on the plans and to be encouraging.

One more person expressed interest; however, ultimately I went alone. I had a wonderful time, so I am not complaining about the lack of company, but I am struck by the numbers of people who spoke to me after Wednesday, asking me if I enjoyed the adventure. I cannot read their minds but I do note that only a couple of people posted a “like” on Facebook, while the bulk of people spoke to me privately. I think it is reasonable to interpret this as indicative, at least for some, of a reluctance to be publicly identified with nudity or potential nudity.

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I can honestly say that I worry a bit that I will be identified as a outlier, as a “crackpot” even, for being so public about my liking for nudity, insisting on the central place of sex and bodies in spiritual living,not to mention writing this blog with Malachi each week, discussing a wide variety of sex practices and even revealing considerable personal information. But I refuse to go back into the “sex is only private” closet. And I believe church communities need to pay lots more attention to sex and sexuality, and bodies, too. I want my church to be sex- and body-positive because I want us to fully human, engaging God everywhere God meets us—and that surely includes in our bodies and our sex and sexuality.

That is the point of this blog—bringing together openly and in positive ways sex, bodies and spirit—and it is the mission of monthly online hour-long sessions devoted to the topic as well.

These monthly conversations were begun last November by Rev. Dr. Kharma Amos and Rev. Dr. Tom Bohache as a way of continuing the dialogue begun in October through a three-day online webinar “Who Are We Really? Re-Engaging Sex and Spirit” sponsored by the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development.

The webinar was a wonderful collection of paper and panel presentations, online conversations, and sidebar text dialogue while others spoke. There was much honest sharing about personal lives, ideas, and anxieties.

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The monthly conversations have been good, but not well attended. There is a new plan to make them more attractive, especially to clergy. Beginning in August, each hour of participation will be counted for CEU credit for clergy license renewal! This means there will still be conversation, but each hour will feature a major presentation on a topic of interest. The topics will be announced in advance so participants can plan their attendance.

And even more exciting to Malachi and me, we have been asked to provide the course offerings each month. This means that we intend to orient at least some of our weekly postings on this blog toward the topic of the month, as a way to help participants be well oriented to the class.

It’s not too late for the MCC movement—begun because men who sleep with men and women who sleep with women (exclusively or as part of bisexual living), and drag queens and transgender people and other sex- or gender-non-conforming and Q/queer people wanted safe spaces in which to worship the God of their understanding—to claim our call, our mission, to not only provide a safe haven for all these fabulous children of God but also to celebrate that wondrous diversity and teach the rest of the larger church about the beauty and joy and divinity of sex in all its manifestations, even including heterosexual monogamy (too many Christians and others can’t even bring themselves to like that!).

It’s a tall order, but somebody has to do it. I’m ready, and I hope you will join me, Malachi, and others as we help the church learn to celebrate erotic love and the bodies which make it possible.

 

Malachi GrennellMalachi: I’ve been a part of Metropolitan Community Church since I was a child (about 8 years old). MCC, in many ways, is my church home… although, like many childhood homes, we find that home much changed from when we left it. Thus is my experience at MCC. I left the church I had grown up in in Richmond, and stopped attending any place of worship for a while. When I moved to North Carolina to live with my mom (who is also MCC clergy), I returned to MCC via the church plant that she had facilitated.

I loved being back in MCC again. It has always been a place that I felt at home and comfortable, and I love hearing my mother preach. But as an adult, the experience of being back in church was a different one. I wasn’t sure if the difference was my age, the location, or being the child of the pastor, but I found that there was something missing from the experience of a predominantly queer church.

Growing up in MCC, I heard my fair share of lewd comments and ill-concealed euphemisms (children truly are smarter than we give them

Carlos McKnight of Washington, waves a flag in support of gay marriage outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday June 26, 2015. A major opinion on gay marriage is among the remaining to be released before the term ends at the end of June. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Carlos McKnight of Washington, waves a flag in support of gay marriage outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday June 26, 2015. A major opinion on gay marriage is among the remaining to be released before the term ends at the end of June. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

credit for). These comments were often jokes across the table at a diner down the street where people would congregate after church for lunch, or over the dinner table when my parents would have friends from church over for dinner. There was certainly no shame or hiding sexuality at that point- 20 years ago, we were still fighting for our right to exist (even more so than we do now), and we spent so much time hiding who we were at work and around our families that the thought of maintaining any kind of façade around our friends was too exhausting to fathom.

The sexuality of queer people was threatening to non-queer people. Thus, many people-particularly gay men- spent so much time trying to project a demeanor that was devoid of sexuality (lesbians were just simply not allowed to have a sexuality… after all, “how do two women have sex, anyway?”)

MCC was a sanctuary. It was a place where we could stop pretending- stop pretending to be non-sexual (read: non-threatening) and celebrate and embrace the vast beauty of who we are. It was a sanctuary beyond just the religious meaning, and broader than the bar scene (after all, MCC was a place for those who were recovering addicts to congregate without the fear of relapse).

And once upon a time, we didn’t fear it. We were outcasts in so many waysawareness-ribbon_HIV that we “let our hair down” a bit when we went to church. We were whole people, authentic and real. We did workshops on safer sex practices. We talked about the risks of STI infection in a real way (rather than a theoretical or hypothetical way). People shared stories that included aspects of sexuality. Some were told in a comical way, some in a heartbreaking way, some in matter-of-fact way, but there was space for it.

Granted, my experience with sexuality in MCC is partially skewed because so much of it occurred in the presence of my parents. I recall one story in which the minister at the time, Rev. Gill Storey, asked my mother if she had talked to me about condoms yet. My mother burst into tears at the thought of her child and the word “condoms” in the same sentence. So, certainly, I appreciate that my perspective is often filtered through the lens of navigating space with my parents (who, progressive as they may be, still struggled to speak openly about sex and sexuality with me for much of my life).

But perhaps that makes the contrast that much stronger: even in a space where I was sheltered from certain conversations and explicit references to sex, I was still aware of it. It was still a part of my understanding and experience of navigating my own journey and growing experience as I hit puberty. It was a church member who encouraged me to masturbate and be comfortable with my own body before trying to be sexual with another person. It was a church member who taught me about the importance of gloves and dental dams as forms of protection when engaging in sex with

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bodies that were assigned female at birth. It was a church member who taught me how to put on a condom.

I do not see that MCC in the denominations any longer. While I see many beautiful things about MCC, I do not see the radical inclusion of our whole selves- bodies, minds, and spirits- in our services any more. I remember an outcry in the church when Rev. Robin- when speaking the chant lifted up by the queens at Stonewall- said the phrase “pubic hair” behind the pulpit. I didn’t know what was so bad about pubic hair, but clearly, it wasn’t something that we were supposed to talk about.

We no longer have to hide our identities in the same ways we used to. We are accepted in more churches, allowed to be out in more workplaces, allowed to marry and claim our partnerships on our taxes, get health insurance and survivor benefits. It’s an incredible step forward for the LGBTQ communities, and I am glad that these advancements have happened. But I wonder if we stopped viewing our churches as sanctuaries for the whole of ourselves because the canister of our lives is less pressurized elsewhere. We’re only hiding a little now, instead of everything that we are, and we have worked so hard to get here that we don’t want to risk jeopardizing it by being too “out there.”

And yet, I wonder if we do ourselves a disservice by removing the sex from our sanctuaries. It feels less “out there,” sure. But we also lose people who might otherwise be interested in coming to MCC… we lose young people who are looking for authentic conversations about sex and sexuality. People like me. People who struggle to find relevance in MCC because we don’t fit in those spaces.

I have, over time, stopped going to MCC for many reasons, but the largest

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among them is that I don’t find that there is room for me to be my whole self- my polyamorous, kinky self- in most MCC spaces. I can be trans (mostly… the ambiguity of my gender presentation can still be a tricky thing sometimes) and I can be queer (or, at least, my partner can appear to have a similar gender presentation to me), but the rest of me doesn’t fit. I leave my sexuality at the door when I walk into a church now, and that never used to be what MCC was about. Because that space should be a sanctuary, not a closet.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What do you think? How do you feel about discussions of sex in church? What are some ways we can help open the dialogue? Please share your thoughts, your heart on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.

We Need Your Input!

As we move forward in preparing the monthly online discussion, we want to ensure that this discussion is as accessible as possible. Please take a moment to provide us with some feedback on the best day and time for you to participate.

Author: Robin Gorsline

Robin is a writer (claiming this later in life) and a spiritual activist--reflecting a soul of hope and faith and joy. He is happily married to Dr. Jonathan Lebolt (18 years and counting), the proud parent of three glorious daughters (and grateful to two wonderful sons-in- law), and the very proud "Papa" to Juna (5) and Annie (2).

4 thoughts on “Sex and Church: Connected or Disconnected?”

  1. Wonderful discussion, Robin and Malachi. I was really impressed by Robin’s courage in seeking to engage the MCC community in “radical body positivity” by daring to go naked in public — clothed only in the raiment of honesty. I also certainly empathize with the disappointment in the members who were willing to express interest in doing so, but only in private.

    I am reminded of a special meeting of the Baptist youth group I attended in college which was intended to specifically focus on the intersections of godliness and sexuality. The meeting was well attended; there was a real hunger there for us youth members to receive some kind of guidance from our pastor (a very nice and accepting man who had led the group for some time) on an issue of such conflict in us and in our denomination. Our pastor tried to engage us and give us a positive message about the beauty of pleasure and sexuality, but he did so in a very abstract way. He talked about sex in general, not his personal connection to sex and pleasure as a Christian and a pastor. We in the group also followed suit: trying to engage in the subject somehow, but unable to overcome the barrier of being the first to talk about sex in our personal lives. As a result, very little new ground was broken in that meeting, which was intended (and promoted) as an “edgy” discussion which was supposed to push our boundaries. I think in that moment we needed our pastor, as our spiritual leader, to show us it was ok to connect ourselves and Christians and as sexual people — to lead by example. There was such a desire to break that silence, but we felt powerless to do so without our spiritual leader taking that first risk. That is why I’m so glad to see Robin courageously putting himself out there (literally, in this case) for the sake of breaking that silence.

    Malachi’s analysis also spoke to me: “We no longer have to hide our identities in the same ways we used to. … I wonder if we stopped viewing our churches as sanctuaries for the whole of ourselves because the canister of our lives is less pressurized elsewhere. We’re only hiding a little now, instead of everything that we are, and we have worked so hard to get here that we don’t want to risk jeopardizing it by being too ‘out there.’ ”

    In the light of Robin’s ventures, I am reminded of the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Having some measure of newfound acceptance, the church clads itself in the fancy new garments of respectability and decorum. In a sense, this is much like a trans or queer person trying to “pass” under the public gaze. While this effort may have some degree of success at appearing less threatening to the mainstream public, the congregation can surely see through the veneer to the truth underneath. MCC loses much of its distinct identity as a radical, body-positive sanctuary by trying to “cover up” and pass. And this is sad, because this is a real missed opportunity for MCC to be a leader in the broader faith community by speaking to the deep, unmet need of their congregations longing for acceptance of their whole selves in church and in their faith.

    – Matt

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    1. Matt, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I have only a dim memory of meeting you long ago, but I admit now I wish you were nearby so we could have coffee and talk.

      Your last phrase, “the deep, unmet need of their congregations longing for acceptance of their whole selves in church and in their faith” rings so true for me. I saw a bit of that at MCC Richmond when I preached a sermon series on sex and in the last of the four messages I mentioned once masturbating to an image claiming to be Jesus. The original event was a very holy moment for me (I had been very ill for months and in that moment I realized I was coming back to life), but my speaking of it induced some people to leave (only a couple) and others to be angry (a larger number) and a few (six or so as I remember) who made appointments with me to tell me some of their sexual history/secrets. They said they had not told many, if any, others but they felt they could trust me because I had made myself so vulnerable. I believe there was much healing in that, for them, and for me, too. I understood in that moment something more about sacrificial ministry–not to beat up on myself but to share, to give away, part of myself, a secret of mine, that others could use to become more whole.

      All that said, I was, as I think Malachi could testify, very nervous about using that picture. It was the first time I have ever been photographed nude–I asked a man I had never met before at the clothing optional lake in Canada to take this one and also one that is full frontal as they say. I had two photos to use (not the full frontal one which I am not sure what, if anything, I will ever use it for), the one in the post and a stock picture of the lake/doc with some naked bodies at a distance provided on the website of the naturist group that maintains the site. I told Malachi it was his choice. That was my way of avoiding claiming my own body and soul–I did not think of this at the time, but I suppose I could have blamed it on Malachi if others had objected. But Malachi wisely said he would use the stock picture because it should be my decision to post my own nude picture. I knew then what I had to do, and later when I got home from an event I made the switch. I write all this to thank you for your affirmation, and to acknowledge that although I talk bravely about being open and honest and positive, it is a struggle at times for me as well.

      Again, as always, for your thoughtful commentary.

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  2. Hello, Robin and Malachi,

    As Robin can attest, I’m no stranger to talking about sex/uality, sexuality and spirituality, and matters of gender, in and beyond church. I do find there’s less of this conversation now than 20-30 years ago. I attribute this to at least three factors: (1) Obviously, the fairly wide acceptance of LGB — and, increasingly T — matters within liberal/progressive religion (e.g., same sex marriage and efforts on behalf of other justice movements involving LGBT communities). This makes it seem less important that we continue to share, or discuss, who we are in relation to sexuality, sexual behavior, and gender. (2) Increasingly, the breaking apart and fluidity of our own “categories” of gender, sexual identity, and how we and our communities experience sexual and gendered dimensions of who we are. This makes it increasingly difficult for many of us to talk about sex or gender with much confidence that we know what we’re talking about. (3) The intersectionality of sex/uality, gender, race, class, religion, ability, and other dimensions of who we and our people are — and, therefore, of how and with whom even to frame our ethical inquiries, priorities, etc.

    I honestly don’t have time for this conversation on a regular basis right now — Am finishing a book this summer (in which sex, race, and gender figure prominently) and am doing my own small part in trying, for obvious — and related — reasons to make sure Clinton wins the White House and Supreme Court. But perhaps at some point in the future, I could jump on board such a conversation. I know I would learn a great deal — as I always do from my beloved friend, Robin!

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    1. Thank you, Carter! Eager to see the new book, as always, and will be glad to have more conversation when that is possible. We would be thrilled at some point if you were able to post a blog or two here. We are seeking to expand the voices beyond us, for sure. And your analysis feels right. I will say that the breaking apart as your describe it is a time when it is essential for us to talk more, we do so much better with getting at deeper truths when we are unsure of the ground on which we stand, at least that is true for me (even as I often resist). And greater acceptance, as you know, remains conditional for many and for others is not very deep, so there remains much to explore. And now our white supremacist/privileged past is coming home yet again to bite us–those chickens Malcolm X talked about just keep roosting–and we are desperate to do better this time. But it does take both activism and conversation. All of which you taught me long ago; in some ways for me it still starts in the relation, always in the relation you wrote about 40 or so (I think that is right) years ago. Be well, and know we await your return!

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