Come as you are?

March 2002 'Small Fire' column for Ship of Fools

My brief this month is to write on the theme of sex. This poses a problem. Sex is a subject that the alternative worship movement, in the UK at least, has been studiously avoiding for the last seven years. For those who are new to alternative worship I'll rehearse the well-worn story one more time. The Nine O'clock Service, the first, the most ambitious, the biggest alternative worship experiment, fell apart in 1995 amid allegations of widespread sexual impropriety by its leader.

In fact the sexual misdemeanours were only part of a system of psychological and spiritual abuse at the centre of NOS. The abuses had been going on for years, kept secret by the fear, isolation, even complicity of the victims. Their complicity had been bought, at least in part, by theologising the abuse. It was presented as an issue of discipleship; the blurring of sexual boundaries was justified by radical theology. Christians need to express their sexuality to be spiritually whole, it was said. And much of that expression seemed designed to gratify one man.

When NOS collapsed other alternative worship groups fell under suspicion of harbouring secret sleaze. Although the abuses had been far more than just sexual it was, of course, the sex that dominated the headlines and everybody's minds. The whistle-blowers complained that the Church of England had ignored earlier warnings about abuses of power in NOS, but pulled the plug immediately when there was a whiff of sexual scandal. Even now, years later, one suspects that the quickest way to get into trouble in alternative worship is to investigate the subject of sex and sexuality. Just like any church, really.

But the absence of sex as a subject from alternative worship can't, by now, be blamed entirely on the NOS debacle. If people were bursting to explore the issue it would be visible in their pants, so to speak. There certainly aren't any big inhibitions. Alternative worship lacks the prudery and hangups at work in many churches. Sex is one of God's good things. People who turn up in overtly sexual attire are more likely to draw appreciation than condemnation. Most groups wouldn't bat an eyelash at drag, I'm sure. The general vibe, after all, is be yourself, wherever you're at.

But that's not the same as sexual content in the actual service, which is what people outside the movement half-expect [and hope for]. This expectation, needless to say, derives from NOS. Their 1992 Greenbelt Festival service featured dancers in bikinis, and the resultant fuss reached the secular media. The criticism most heard was that such things excite not worship but lust, at least in one half of the congregation. Certainly, if the intent was to worship God using the body and sexuality as was claimed it's interesting that non-lustworthy bodies - non-female bodies - were not displayed. Which kind of gives the game away.

Still it is assumed that alternative worship, in its pushing of the boundaries of what can be done in a church service, will at some point lead to nudity or sexual intercourse on the altar. But to assume such transgressions are just around the corner is to misread the nature of alternative worship. The intent is not to transgress for its own sake, or to make an artistic statement as such. The intent is to worship God in ways that make sense to the participants. Which of course involves crossing the tight and rigid boundaries of most forms of worship on offer - there simply isn't the variety or the flexibility in the official product.

But sex on the altar remains unlikely for the same reason that sex in the road remains unlikely. It's embarrassing and inappropriate, even if the participants are good Christians married to each other. Sexual activity in a public gathering is a distraction. It dominates the attention. Even displays of intimate affection are vaguely embarrassing in front of other people - there is always something exhibitionistic about it. So the lack of erotic performance in worship doesn't imply that sex is dirty or unholy. Just not an activity compatible with corporate worship. It always diverts the focus from God to other people's bodies.

Alternative worship is supposed to be a space in which real life can be dragged before God without fixed rules over how. So there are possibilities for the exploration of sexual matters - aside from sexual display - without the usual religious restrictions or sensitivities. The core issues are privacy and pride. We all wear public facades of sexual competence, which hide private vulnerabilities that we can scarcely bear to reveal even to our lovers. Discussions in church invariably get strung up in the gap between the two. We know we're not supposed to maintain the facade but we daren't be very honest, either, in a room of half-strangers. Some of whom we might want to impress with our sexual competence later.

Alternative worship experienced purely as a church service perhaps lends itself to maintaining the facade. Your chosen persona will not be challenged directly by other people - though you might become aware that God can see right through it. But alternative worship is not really about isolated acts of worship but about Christian community, and communities are at the same time supportive and challenging. In community we might find a way to go beyond our protective shells, if we can trust one another well enough. Whatever and however, I suspect this is an issue best suited to private exploration in deep community and only obliquely to be dealt with in public worship.

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