The following essay was published in There’s A Woman in the Pulpit, released by SkyLight Press in 2015. It’s an amazing collection of essays by clergy women, which I heartily recommend!
Danielle Steel vs. St. Paul
Long before I became a romance writer, one of my favorite priestly duties was to preach at weddings. I loved to get to know a couple and to tell their mostly secular family and friends about the miracle of their love–the ways it was full of grace and the ways it challenged them, the ways it was an icon of God’s love for humanity, shining outward brightly for us to see.
I also love the description of marriage in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer as meant for mutual joy. Whether a person is religious, spiritual, or a secular humanist, anyone with a body knows that phrase alludes to sex, among other shared pleasures. As an ordained person it feels profound to proclaim this gloriously sexy, and sometimes also awkward spiritual truth: romantic and erotic love are sacramental. Sexual pleasure is divine gift. It’s a radical message, especially to people who expect the Church to be either silent or damning on the subject. Mature romantic love is not saccharine or simple, but a discipline that leads us to transcendence.
As a young woman exploring sexuality, my primary texts were the Bible and romance novels, and they were running in my head side by side. St. Paul endorsed married, straight sex as a stopgap measure for those who couldn’t handle celibacy until the second coming. Romances were the stories of people whose desire and connection to each other were so strong they could overcome immense internal and external obstacles to love.
I am very glad I didn’t only have Paul. Romance novels taught me that passion, mutual pleasure, and that kind of ecstasy were things to seek out. They taught me my desires and the physical expression of affection were good, holy even, and nurtured an inkling that St. Paul was wrong about some things. Right about a lot, but not a perfect recipe for sexual ethics in modern life. The truth is, since the beginning, the Church has failed at putting forward a sexual ethics for everyday life. The tradition has not acknowledged the holy and hard work of being a sexually whole person.
When I was twenty-three, my ordination process was put on hold because I was unmarried and living with my now-husband, though I was honest about our cohabitation and the work we were doing to be ready for marriage. I felt deeply ashamed. The message was clear: as long as my sex life was invisible, it was okay. No one seemed to think I was doing something wrong, it just wasn’t holy enough for a priest…Except, of course, that doesn’t make any sense. The faithful work of being a whole human in reconciled relationship with others IS HOLY.
The church is rightly focused on the noble goal of sexual abuse prevention, yet out of fear, and a tradition of neglecting the fraught subject, we are largely silent about the goodness of sex. Meanwhile, our culture, for both good and ill, becomes more sexually explicit and permissive.
I write and read romance novels because they have helped me find wholeness. They are smart, fun, passionate romps which have taught me about love and all the ways it can heal and redeem. Although I write with a pen name, I’m public that I’m a priest because I want to be a voice in claiming the holy, hot spiritual goodness of human sexuality.
I began writing romance with trepidation, fear for my career, and shame about being a publicly sexual person that lingered from my ordination process (as if my children were immaculately conceived). But thankfully I have received great support from colleagues and superiors. Since I started speaking out about the connectedness of sex and spirituality, I have found both secular and religious people are starving for this conversation. Once, at a romance readers’ convention, someone asked me how writing racy books and being a priest go together. I said, “Very well, because God loves Love.” To my surprise, the room burst into applause.
Since then, I have had people contact me via Facebook for pastoral sex advice because they don’t know any clergy they can talk to, or to confide their pastor condemned romance novels from the pulpit and they felt ashamed because they experienced those books as life-giving. I have met people who did not know there were Christians who celebrated sexuality. Each time something like this happens, I become a little more free of my lingering shame about my own sexuality, and more sure of my pursuit of writing about sex as a complementary vocation.
Because, people long for the good news that their mutual joy in erotic love is a taste of divine blessing. When a clergy person proclaims this truth, God’s wanton love for humanity becomes a little more accessible. And that’s why I write romance novels.