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Let's be honest

Jo Ind

I recently stood up in front of a group of respectable church women and told them that I have sex and I am not married. It felt good to say it. Not because I wished to offend or start another theoretical conversation, but because this is a group of women I admire and I wanted them to hear a little bit more about who I am.

I don't mind being challenged, I have no problem with being asked to explain my actions in the light of my faith, but what I desire most is honesty in my relationships.

Yet honesty is probably the virtue the church values least. Going to church is a bit like having your posh auntie round as a child. Only after being forced to tidy your bedroom and put on your best frock were you allowed to come down and meet her. I was twitching to blow the whistle and reveal that we didn't normally drink tea out of china cups, that this spruced-up version of us was a fraud committed for her benefit. It never occurred to me until years later that she was in on the lie.

In the church, we are all in on each other's lies. A friend of mine recently told her minister that she and her fiancé wanted to live together before marriage. The reaction was severe: much deep shock and disappointment, talk of her having to give up her positions in the church and of her behaviour being considered by a committee. The prospect of this piece of light McCarthyism proved to much for her, so she relented. Now she intends to sneak down to her fiancé's to live there for half the week instead. Meanwhile the church breathes a sigh of relief that decency has been restored.

For years I listened to church leaders speak of their desire for more young people. But what they really wanted was junior versions of themselves. Real people are messy and unfinished. They make mistakes, go out with odd people and have neuroses undreamt of by Freud.

'Intimacy' is an easy word and a hard reality. I have a good friend who  is cheating on his long-term partner. However difficult I find this situation, however many arguments we have, I can never regret that our friendship is deep enough that he shared with me what is going on in his life.

Church is not the Jerry Springer Show - we don't have to call on unsavoury ex-partners to make surprise appearances in the sermon. But we do have to create a place where people can be really human, which means more than a quick acknowledgment in the confession that we haven't been perfect this week. It means dispelling the atmosphere of respectability that pervades so many churches. That means coming to terms with the fact that people sitting next to you in the pews see God and what God wants of them in very different ways. We all know that is the reality already - I'm just suggesting we talk about it for a change.

This abridged column first appeared in Third Way a decade ago, prompting a large reader response. We reprint now wondering whether much has changed.