By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:
A number of clergy in Southwark Diocese have privately expressed concern to the Bishop about an event at the cathedral on London’s south bank which took place on 21st August. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor from Denver with a high profile in the secular media, spoke to an enthusiastic audience of around 500, before being one of the headline speakers at the Greenbelt festival the following weekend.
Bolz-Weber, a former stand-up comedian and recovering alcoholic is instantly recognisable with arms covered in tattoos. Her message takes aim at caricatures of conservative, ‘repressive’ Christianity, and advocates a way of relating to God free of shame, especially sexual guilt – hence the title of her book “Shameless- a sexual reformation” (see review here). Bolz-Weber’s caustic wit and fury has been particularly focussed on traditional teaching on sexual purity.
While it has always been difficult for Christian parents and church youth leaders to articulate a plausible bible-based sexual ethic for young people, in the past 50 years this has proved an increasing challenge, with campus ‘hook-up’ culture, the easy availability of contraception, abortion and STD medication, and more recently, internet pornography so-called ‘dating’ apps all increasing the allure of ‘consequence-free’ sex.
Powerful and seductive voices from within the liberal wing of the church, and latterly even among some evangelicals, have sought to downplay the rising sense of alarm, perhaps saying that an Augustinian foundation to our theology has made us too hung up about sex, that as long as its consensual and over-age then most expressions of ‘love’ are OK, that guilt is bad, that perhaps we haven’t read our bibles right, that authentic Christian disciples should be more concerned about social injustice or the environment than what people do in their bedrooms. That it’s too powerful and we couldn’t stop if if we tried, that Christians frowning about sex puts people off the gospel, etc.
As a result various movements emerged in the 1980’s and 90’s concerned to teach again the historic biblical vision of women and men, sex and marriage. Incentives were designed to help teenagers make commitments to sexual purity, such as the wearing of a cheap metal ring as a token of a pledge not to have sex until marriage. Many young people found this helpful, although some faced ridicule and worse for their courageous and costly stance – and of course some fell away because of peer pressure.
This teaching about sexual purity is a consistent and distinctive element within the Jewish and Christian Scriptures clearly related to the character of God and the true nature of love; the rejection of occult spirituality, the protection of women and children, the benefits to society of relational faithfulness with personal discipline and self control. For Bolz-Weber, though, it is not just old-fashioned and killjoy. It is profoundly harmful, preventing in her view healthy sexual development through experimentation. The purity message can even be a form of abuse, part of a system of legalistic religious control which Jesus came to abolish.
In her book Shameless, she narrates a series of testimonies where people struggled with the tension between the attitudes and behaviour they were taught in their conservative churches (no sex outside of marriage, no gay sex); they fell into what they thought was sin, felt guilty with shame reinforced by church teaching, repented for a while, sinned again – until they discovered a true ‘liberation’ in deciding that sexual expression in ways which are enjoyable and feel comfortable are not bad, but approved by God.
As a skilled operator in the field of communications, Bolz-Weber knows that its not enough to write books or blogs promoting her message. Her own personality, her irreverent humour littered with expletives, her ‘neo-punk’ appearance serves to gain followers, and also the message is reinforced by powerful visual icons such as the now notorious sculpture, made of discarded ‘purity rings’ and shaped into a symbol of female genitalia which she unveiled at a feminist conference in 2018.
It’s difficult to think of a more vicious way to ridicule biblical morality and the sincere intention of thousands of Christian girls to follow Jesus in the area of sexual purity, than to publicly destroy their symbols of discipleship and replace them with something resembling a gross pagan idol. So its not surprising to learn that Bolz-Weber also publicly advocates incorporating elements of religious practice from ancient pre-Christian Europe, in particular the idea of a feminine diving figure borrowed from Wicca whom she calls “the goddess”.
Her supporters claim that she is making Christianity more accessible to ordinary people, especially progressively-oriented women. It’s worth reading this adulatory profile of Bolz-Weber in the New Yorker which reads almost as a caricature by a conservative satirical site.
The Southwark Cathedral gig isn’t Bolz-Weber’s first with the Church of England. In 2017 we saw the Archbishops of Canterbury and York signal a new policy of “radical inclusion”. Following the Scottish Episcopal Church’s acceptance of same sex marriage, the C of E’s July Synod called for liturgies to celebrate gender transition and a ban on any pastoral care to help people leave homosexual feelings and lifestyle after bitter debates in which conservatives were heckled for quoting from the bible. Later that year, Bolz-Weber, obviously considered an expert, was invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to conduct a day-long seminar for all the Bishops as part of an in depth discussion on sexuality.
Have her teachings had an effect, or is giving her these platforms merely symptomatic of the C of E’s rapid slide towards a form of religion unrecognisable as authentic Christianity? Certainly we now have the transgender baptism guidance (never rescinded despite apologies from the Chair of the committee which signed it off, and a petition of over 3000 people). We have more and more senior appointments of people who believe and teach a version of Bolz-Weber’s theology rather than the official doctrine of the Church. We have examples of official “pastoral guidance” towards “full inclusion” of all without questioning sexual lifestyles, while at the same time warning against the pastoral harm of publicly holding to historic sexual ethics. We have testimonies of clergy not appointed to new posts because of conservative views on sexuality (I heard of one last month, from an outstanding young man prepared to work in a difficult area – the parish in question remains vacant).
Most recently we have heard reports that in the crucial debates in the House of Lords about the undemocratic imposition of a liberalisation of the abortion law in Northern Ireland, not a single member of the 26 Bishops eligible to take part were present.
They can’t all have been on holiday – was this perhaps a three line whip from the top strategists in Lambeth Palace and/or Church House who felt that the C of E had better keep silent on such a controversial subject as the life of children in the womb? Nadia Bolz-Weber would be delighted, although she would have preferred some Bishops to turn up and support a woman’s right to choose. (If any Bishops have spoken out in support of this most vulnerable group – unborn babies – I’d be very happy to be made aware of it).
Meanwhile in Southwark Diocese the Bishop is deflecting criticism by referring again to the autonomy of the cathedral, and the commitment of the Diocese to “mutual flourishing” (ie, the holding together in one church of mutually contradictory views, with a bias towards the heterodox). This “mutual flourishing” idea is seen by many conservatives to work for them as well, so some may consider it in their interests to prevent their more seriously spiritually-aware laity from finding out about Bolz-Weber’s visit, reflecting on its implications, rocking the boat or getting out of it altogether.