43 Miles: On Lauren Winner, Sexuality, and Church Division

43 miles. That is the distance between Andover Newton Theological School and Gordon Conwell Theological School. On the same day in June 2008, both schools had scheduled public forums to discuss sexuality and sexual ethics. Andover Newton partnered with Hebrew College and the Boston Theological Institute to hold a conference entitled “Covenant, Community and Sexuality.” Gordon Conwell invited Lauren Winner to read and teach from her book “Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity.” 

The Andover Newton conference had panelists, including evangelicals, from a wide range of traditions discussing how their churches were grappling with questions about who could be ordained and who could be married. They discussed the divisions between the various traditions and more importantly, within each tradition. I sat in the audience and heard “Presbyterians for Renewal” debate with “More Light” Presbyterians. It was painful to watch. I left Newton saddened by the divisions of the Church over these very important issues of compassion, justice, and tradition, but grateful for the people who were willing to have these conversations in front of their ecumenical and inter-religious partners. I drove 43 miles north to South Hamilton in silence, trying to absorb what I had just heard.

I arrived at Gordon Conwell in time to hear Lauren Winner speak on her book about chastity. She is a compelling teacher- charming, faithful, witty, and kind. She was unabashed in her critique of the ways evangelical sub-culture warps a God-given, robust sexuality, especially for women. Yet, Winner argued for a reclaiming of chastity within the bounds of heterosexual marriage. As much as I can recall from the Gordon Conwell lecture and the Q&A that followed, the schism-inducing topics of same-sex relationships and the reality of LGBTQ people in the Church never came up.

The distance was too much for me that day. Each conversation felt like it was happening without the other; one almost entirely about institutions, the other almost entirely about personal sexual ethics. In Newton, we wrestled with sexuality in the Church; in South Hamilton, we wrestled with chastity in personal lives. They were both important conversations and I am grateful that both schools were willing to create the space to host them. I long for the day when we can have these conversations together. Most days I can live with this cultural commute across the Church, from the mainline to the evangelical and back again. God called me into this ecumenical ministry of reconciliation. Most days, I can travel the distance. Truly, all the baptized are called into the ecumenical ministry of healing the divisions of the broken Body of Christ. But that day, my own body couldn’t bear the commute-43 miles was just too far to travel.

Lauren Winner has a new book out entitled “Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.” Much has changed in her life since that 2008 lecture. From Yonat Shimron’s excellent Religion News Service article:

Winner followed up with two more popular releases: “Mudhouse Sabbath,” about the Jewish spiritual practices she missed after her conversion, and “Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity,” in which she argued that biblically sanctioned sexual relations are only those confined to marriage.

 

Winner said she no longer feels comfortable doling out advice on sexual ethics. Nor does she want to talk about her marriage or any other subsequent relationships. The couple were married six years and split up in 2009.

I’ve admired Winner’s ministry from afar. She is a historian whose memoir “Girl Meets God” crossed over from Christian bookstores to popular culture. She is a Jewish convert to Christianity who longs for the spiritual practices of her earlier years. She is unabashedly Anglican and yet conversant in evangelical culture. I admire her ability to reconcile seemingly divided communities in her own life and writing. And for all the sadness I felt at that 2008 lecture, I am grateful for a public Christian thinker can acknowledge  her changed perspective. I am grateful for a writer who is willing to share her own struggles to reconcile her belief in God with a very real crisis of faith.

I bought a copy of “Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.” I will read it as I go away on vacation this week. It is good to find more real and literary companions to travel across the divide.

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2 thoughts on “43 Miles: On Lauren Winner, Sexuality, and Church Division

  1. Knowing only a little about Lauren Winner, and having placed her in an evangelical box along with other people I don’t pay attention to, I was truly surprised to receive her email offering her book to members and friends of RevGalBlogPals, an effort to get her work into the hands of clergy*women.* That said something to me about an evolving spirit. Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Thanks, Martha for the comment and for sharing your experience. It seemed like a wise and generous move to share the book with RevGalBlogPals- a group I’m just becoming acquainted with myself. When you’ve finished reading it, I’m curious to hear your perspective. Warmly, Laura

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