Let's talk about sex: 10 questions with Bromleigh McCleneghan

July 31st, 2014

UMC LEAD: Hi, Bromleigh. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me for UMC LEAD. Your writing is all over the place: The Christian Century, Ministry Matters, Fidelia’s Sisters. You’re even writing with me at Portico Collective. But I know you’ve been preoccupied with a bigger project these days.

McCleneghan: Yes, I’m working on a book for Abingdon Press. The working title is "Like Nitroglycerin: Sex, Love, and Faith." It is exploring issues of love and sexuality, and what it means to be a person who hopes to live as God calls us to live. I’m trying to give an answer for what that all looks like and what makes that complicated. The church tends to talk about love and sexuality as if they are clear cut, but my sense is that is not the case. If that were the case, we’d have it all worked out.

Which clearly, we don’t. My social media feed is filled with evidence of that on a daily (and even hourly) basis. Will this book help the church reframe those conversations? Is that your audience?

My hope is that the theology and the ethics, and the consideration of ideas will be useful enough that clergy might be interested in using it with groups in their churches, or even just for their own learning and growth. I also hope that seminarians would see it at a tool for them and their own self reflection. But largely it is for an audience of layfolk — Christian as opposed to anything else — but not necessarily deeply churched. It is primarily looking at issues of sexuality and romantic love outside of marriage.

Was there a moment or revelation that made you want to wrestle with such a heated issue?

I started reading about Christian sexuality and love when I was in my 20′s. And it all said, “Anything that happens before you are married doesn’t matter. Anything that happens outside of marriage is lust and a sin.” And that was so denigrating to all the wonderful experiences I’d had. By the time I got married, I’d been in love three times, and each of my prior relationships was critically important in helping me to become the person that I am today. So I want to do this work so people can be empowered to claim the value of their experiences.

When did Christianity become so concerned about sex?

Well, we’ve always had concerns and questions going back to the story of Adam and Eve, so this has been a part of our story for a long time. Of course, there is always a difference between the conversation we have and what we practice.

The early Puritans whom we know as being stringent around sexuality had plenty of premarital sex; there were a lot of pregnant brides in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And for a long time, marriage itself was, and still is in some places, an economic privilege. So, we’re not being particularly honest when we say that love, sex, and marriage have always gone together in the same ways.

Part of the big noise now is that sexuality has become the battleground for larger questions like, “How we interpret the Bible” and “What does it mean to be created in God’s image?” and “What is the Christian life supposed to look like?” The divide in regards to sexuality has been reflective of other divides, particularly in American Christianity. We’re just really focused on sexuality because it is interesting. Far more people have a position on human sexuality than have one on how to read the Bible.

You gave the Puritans as an example of the divide between teaching and practice. Today, we’ve got folks like Bill Cassidy. Why does this kind of thing continue to happen?

We see trouble when we try to pretend that we’re something we’re not. We have conflicting needs as human beings. We long for security, we long to be surrounded in a community that gives us meaning, we want to be supported, we want to have increasing intimacy and openness. But sexuality comes from a different need. We exercise our sexuality out of our need to feel alive, dynamic, and vital. That is the erotic side and it requires instability or uncertainty. I sure love kissing my husband, but I rarely doubt whether or not he’s going to kiss me back. You know, there’s not the same mystery about it. So, we need to recognize that humanity has these conflicting needs. The problem is that we try an assign different times in our life to one of those, or we just say that erotic side is all bad. We try and tuck it away, or shove it in the corner, and that doesn’t work very well. So, instead, it ends up coming out in ways that are not healthy or ideal.

I’ve had a chance to look at some of your early chapters and was struck by the way much of the church’s teaching around sexuality is done as an attempt to create a healthy marriage, that it is the only thing that is important about sexuality, in fact. As United Methodists, we seem to have done this, too, with our rule about “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.” Aren’t there other things about relationships that we should be focusing on, too?

Absolutely. To simply collapse marriage, which is a huge and wondrous thing, into the same category as sexuality, which is also a huge and wondrous thing, but not exactly the same, seems to be missing the point. So, as leaders, what I believe we should be doing is a little more parsing. We should be more honest about where we are in our own experiences. For a whole host of reasons, pastors don’t convey what they believe about sexuality in their churches. So, people then assume that there is only way to think about it because they aren’t hearing any differently from their leaders. So, we should be more honest in our reporting.

You do just that in the book, sharing some of your own experiences with readers. What was that like? And what did your husband think when you told him you were going to write these?

This is my second book. I wrote one about parenting with a colleague of mine (Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People), so I’m sort of practiced around talking about things that I hold close and dear to me in public ways. I try to be really reflective in my narrative voice. I think that is an important modeling of how to do theological reflection on one’s own experiences. It is easier, though, to talk about how you relate to your kids.

In this book, the subject matter is different, so my husband has been my first reader. My intent is not to share things that are private to our relationship, so he gets veto power in a way he wouldn’t for other projects.

Also, a lot of these stories are told from a time before he and I were together. There is a huge emotional distance from them for me. I’ve only told stories that I feel okay telling that are also fruitful for theological and ethical reflection.

You also surveyed a bunch of your friends and colleagues for this, right?

Yes. I loved the survey. I put together all the things I wanted to know from people, posted a link, and had 300-some responses. This allowed me to tell less of my own stories, so not just my husband but also my parents would be less concerned about how many [personal] stories got into the book. [laughs]

It was really amazing to see the stories people shared. I think of my own experience as being not wildly out of the ordinary. Most people have stories of love. Most people have stories of some hurt, of crossed wires and missed connections. There are some universal kinds of experiences, but we don’t really talk about those in the church that often. We say “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness,” and that’s all we ever say. So hearing those ordinary stories from others is helpful and validating for all of us.

Were you surprised by the level of their sharing?

Yeah, I was amazed at how vulnerable people made themselves. I was also really distressed by how much hurt people have suffered. Out of those 300-some responses, 99 said they’ve experienced some sort of sexual abuse or harassment. There is a lot of bad stuff going on. And it shapes us, but the good news I saw was that you can also recover.

So it sounds like sexuality is something that people want to talk about. What will it take for us to have these kinds of conversations in our faith communities?

I think it requires a couple of things. First, it requires a carefully cultivated sense of safety within the community. And that is hard. I’ve been at administrative council meetings where people yell at each other about carpet, and think, “That is the last group of people with whom I’d share anything close to my heart.” So, as a church, we have to get better at talking about easy things before people will be willing to talk about the difficult things. I also think we need to be able to hold ambiguity more lightly. One of the things about our sexual experience is that a lot of them are fine, or they weren’t fine, or they were wonderful. And we in the church have a problem with that. We want people to decide if it was good or bad. And we also really need to clarify where the hope is. Just because things are complex doesn’t mean they are devastatingly bad. Just because it is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile work. So, finding ways to speak grace into people’s sexual experiences is important.

What is a word of grace about human sexuality that you would want to share?

One is we don’t have to control everything. Those who love their lives, lose them. We don’t have to have everything go exactly as we anticipated. We don’t have to worry so much about protecting ourselves. When we start to let go of our fear, we can open ourselves up to the joys of intimacy and vulnerability, of being seen, and known, and loved as we really are. The other is that Jesus came that we might have life. God wants life to be good, and enjoyable, and lovely, and wonderful, and awesome. God didn’t make us to suffer.

Thanks, Bromleigh. We’ll keep an eye out for the book next year.

Thank you!

This interview was originally posted at UMC Lead and is used here with permission. 
Watch for Bromleigh's new book in Fall 2015!

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