Relationships: they're a huge part of life. But has the church always got its approach right? Writer and speaker Vicky Walker thinks there's a lot about the church's teaching around singledom and marriage that needs to be updated for the modern age. She spoke to 1,500 Christians about their views and compiled her findings in her new book, Relatable. She speaks to Christian Today about why she wrote the book and what she's learned.
CT: There's a huge amount of advice for Christians out there about dating, relationships and gender roles. What convinced you there was a need for another book, and how is yours different?
Vicky: Despite society changing, the way Christians talk about men and women hasn't significantly moved on. It's often the same for relationships. It's common for Christians to be told their personal lives will unfold a certain way simply because of their faith – often romantic fantasies are spiritualised, and advice proliferates without varying much.
I wanted to look at what already existed, find out what had helped people – or not – and why. Exploring what people had been told to expect, what had actually happened and how they'd navigated that gulf seemed pressing when so many were reporting being harmed, not helped, by advice they weren't supposed to question.
I also wanted to look at life as a whole rather than dating, being single, being married and so on as separate categories, and gather wisdom from people at different ages and stages. I felt we could learn from each other, rather than one person claiming to have all the answers.
CT: The book's based on an extensive survey, The Real Life Love Survey. What are some of its findings? Was there anything that particularly surprised you?
Vicky: Just 13 per cent of respondents had a relationship history they'd describe as "happy and straightforward", which meant the vast majority had experienced things they hadn't been taught to expect, and experiences varied a lot.
Faith was important to the participants, for better or worse. Only 2 per cent believed God wasn't involved in their personal lives and almost nine in ten said they found it helpful to pray about relationships.
The diversity of views was striking, as well as the evolution: 85 per cent said their faith had influenced their dating and relationship decisions but almost half said their views on how had changed.
It was very clear people who call themselves Christians don't all have the same ethics.
Understanding people may have read the same text and arrived at different conclusions is something the church struggles with, but assuming someone can't have a genuine faith because of this creates a lot of conflict and condemnation.
CT: A lot of Christians assume that the Bible's teaching about sex and marriage is clear and set in stone. Are they right, or is there a bit more to say?
Vicky: I deliberately didn't want to write a definitive book on 'how to' or not, but I did want to explore what was cultural or subcultural rather than directly related to faith. An odd mix of Old and New Testament, Victorian values and the 1950s seems to dominate teaching, with a lot of 'Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus' stereotypes thrown in!
The stories plucked from the Bible reflect the society they were written in, where, for example, women wouldn't have had a choice about marriage and men may have had multiple wives, but are rarely contextualised.
Tracking the history of marriage from its origins to the present day demonstrated how much was historical rather than 'biblical'.
Exploring how people could flourish rather than be damaged by teaching is vital, when so many have been hurt and even left faith behind.
CT: Has today's church done a good job in helping people navigate sex and sexuality?
Vicky: The short answer is no! Often advice is given by people who fall into the 13 per cent and the advice tends to be: Don't do it! Get married. Do it non stop!
They're often in leadership too, and personify something it's assumed others can emulate, and should aspire to: easily-found, apparently trouble-free marriage with children and influence.
I set out to write specifically about relationships between men and women and explore what 'healthy heterosexuality' could look like, rather than explore wider questions around sexuality, as this is the water we swim in.
Seeing marriage as a promotion is deeply unhelpful but very common, and the lack of understanding about sex and bodies is often veiled in fear of sinning so there's little honest conversation.
CT: What are the issues people struggle with – and how is the church helping or hindering?
Vicky: Much depends on life stage, and moving between situations. Single people can be assumed to either have no needs or to be desperate to marry! There are very few resources to help unmarried people – who range hugely in age and experiences – and little understanding of how relationships are formed and develop in the present day.
More seriously, there can be an unwillingness to face the fact that churches are not immune to abuse and dysfunction. Indeed the opposite can be true: ready made excuses for domination, submission and forgiveness overruling personal safety.
The pronounced gap between men and women is also a factor – a number imbalance that can lead to poor behaviour as men feel 'spoiled for choice', and women are told they shouldn't look outside the church for potential partners.
CT: You have a chapter on 'Girls and Boys and Women and Men and God' on the ways in which Christians have tried to prescribe how males and females ought to relate to each other. Why is there such an obsession in some circles with defining masculinity and femininity?
Vicky: Because in some circles everything depends on it! Only men can lead, women should aspire to stay at home – that's what God ordained. This sets the tone for how entire faith communities are structured, and what men's and women's lives will look like. Women are told to pray and wait, men to be active and 'take a wife' at the right time and both will then play out roles.
While this may suit some people, it definitely doesn't suit all and shouldn't be presented as the right and only way. While pastors with significant platforms are still questioning whether women should have jobs where they can be a man's boss, or even if they are 'naturally' suited to being homemakers, it's a conversation that needs to be had as real lives are being affected.
CT: You write a lot about the harmful effects of bad Christian teaching about sex. Has 'the world' got it any more right?
Vicky: Does anyone have it 'right'? It's a deeply personal act that has been used since the dawn of time with many agendas. Mutuality has often been absent. A key difference between the church and 'the world' is the idea only one way can be right.
Increasingly, bodies are being understood differently. There's growing acceptance of asexuality, for example, and factors that create or diminish sexual urges rather than assuming – as many Christians were taught - that men have almost uncontrollable sexual urges and women have very few.
Breaking down of stereotypes seems to come more easily outside of the church – not necessarily more healthily, but with less insistence only one way is acceptable and of course, it's not tied to someone's eternal destiny, with the pressures that belief brings!
CT: What should the church be saying about sex and relationships?
Vicky: Well, the book has lots of suggestions! An important shift would be away from elevating marriage above other ways of living. Single Christians often feel overlooked and sidelined rather than supported and encouraged to flourish. Emotional health should be central to how church communities exist, with members trusted to develop discernment, responsibility to each other, cross-generational conversation, and outworkings of the fruits of the Spirit rather than a focus on 'follow the leader' front-led model. Each person will have a different journey and experience – even the 'successful' ones – and respecting that diversity is key. Everyone matters equally.
'Relatable' by Vicky Walker is out now from Malcolm Down Publishing priced £12.99. Vicky Walker is a writer, speaker and radio broadcaster fascinated by modern relationships and where faith fits in the world. She has presented BBC Radio 4's Daily Service and on Premier Radio. She also organises the Gathering of Women Leaders and a faith community for artists in London. She tweets as @vicky_walker and her website is https://vickywalker.info/books/