“Sarah, do you think I had sex last night?… I mean, I can't remember… He's left me money for the pill, so I guess we may have… I didn't shave my legs…”
I had this conversation while I was discerning my calling to be a parish priest in the Church of England. At the time, I was an undergraduate working as one of the hall wardens, who offered pastoral support to the students who lived in the halls of residence. As I waited with the student in the pharmacy and then took her home afterwards, I realized that I didn't want priesthood to interfere with how I related to people, and especially how I related to women facing crisis situations in their relationships.
Following ordination to the priesthood, I served in an urban setting as group curate for four Church of England parishes. The group had a youth organization, which was an umbrella for both church youth groups and community outreach to young people (ages 10 to 25). I assisted with the program and served for a time as Chair. I talked often with the senior youth worker about how to promote healthy relationships and self-esteem in a safe and confidential environment. The two of us were instrumental in creating a weekly “health drop in” program for the youth, where they could get materials and advice about healthy relationships, healthy living, and sexual health. We tested for pregnancy and chlamydia and gave out lots and lots of condoms. We used the term “health drop in,” rather than referring specifically to sexual health, because some of the funding came from a faith-based school that did not agree with contraception and could only teach abstinence on school property.
In order to run the program, we had to get certified in condom distribution. During a training session, the group had to list all the terms used by young people to describe male and female genitalia. The majority of those gathered were secular youth workers or healthcare professionals; I was the only religious leader present. People were initially embarrassed about what words to use, and then I said the C word. People turned around and said they didn’t think a priest could say such a word. That led into a conversation which challenged people's perception of the church. I talked about how as a priest I feel it is important to meet the young people where they are on their journey and not worry too much about the language, but listen more to the emotions and feelings the people are experiencing. From that point onwards the whole training session was much more relaxed and open, and we got over 40 different adjectives/terms used by the youth of the area.
I never saw this work as separate from the rest of my ministry as a priest. When I was doing the pregnancy tests, the 2-3 minutes of waiting was a very sacred moment. Generally speaking, we were silent as the clock ticked by. At least one young person said to me at the end, when it was a negative result, “Thank you for praying,” even though I hadn’t said a word. I never knew which outcome to pray for, but the prayer on my heart was for the young person, that they would know God’s presence in their life and would know that they were not alone. Most of the young people initially came to us to get condoms, but more often than not, what developed were pastoral conversations where they could really engage with how their relationships affected not only themselves but the other person, their families, and the community in which they lived.
As part of my ministry, I accompanied young people to counseling sessions, doctor’s appointments, the abortion clinic, and even to the emergency room following suspected miscarriages. I always gave the young person a choice about whether I would wear my collar or not. (I generally wore a clerical collar six days a week.) On all but one occasion, the young person asked me to keep my collar on. This led to some glares and funny comments, especially at the abortion clinic, because for the most part the people there misunderstood what I was doing. One young person who insisted I accompany her into a counseling session to discuss abortions had to explain to the counselor that I was her priest, and that I was not pushing her into one option or the other. I was there for her whatever option she chose, journeying with her at a time when she felt abandoned and unable to communicate with her family. The young people I worked with seemed to prefer me to be completely authentic in who I was, and for them that included wearing my collar. I did however decide that for the weekly health drop in I would not wear a collar, as I I didn't want it to be a barrier to strangers.
When I talked to the different parish council meetings and even preached on the subject of sexual health, they responded positively to the fact that we were engaging with the young people but did not really want to address the subject of sex. The congregations couldn’t deny the impact of teenage pregnancies in the area, and therefore anything we could do toward preventing such pregnancies was seen as worthwhile. However, this was a narrow view of what we were doing. I would try to get them to look at the issue not just in terms of judging a sexual action but rather as a way of teaching people to be more comfortable in themselves and celebrate their humanness.
If the church really wants to engage with a young population, that means engaging with all aspects of their lives and relating to them as whole people. It means developing a better theology of the body, of sex, and of healthy relationships. For me, we should be modeling ourselves on Christ’s interactions and making people safe first in order to build transformative relationships.
Are you an ordained woman under the age of 40? Email youngclergywomen (at) gmail (dot) com to become a member of the Young Clergy Women Project! Members receive access to a password protected online community, monthly e-newsletters, and advance notice of upcoming conferences and events.