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18 March 2023

Who might I be now if, during my religious upbringing, I had never heard the word “sin”?

We were encouraged to have “accountability partners” to whom we would confess our “darkest” acts and desires.

By Pippa Bailey

When I was in my third year of university I broke my foot in two places. Presenting at A&E, I was greeted by a knowing look from the staff: big night out, was it? Actually, I told the doctor, it happened while I was walking home from church. He recovered from his surprise with: “Ah, Communion wine, then…”

I was raised in the neocharismatic house church movement in the Nineties. We met in my primary school hall: there were no pews or hymns; only plastic chairs and pop-y guitar songs. It was, to me, perfectly normal that people threw their hands to the sky in worship, or danced, or fell to the ground; that they laid hands on one another in prayer, as though conducting electricity through their palms, or spoke in tongues. People talked of healings, though I never saw one.

As a teenager attending a girls’ school, church youth group was primarily a place for meeting boys. But it was also the place that I was taught that though sex within a marriage was something to be enjoyed and celebrated, sex before marriage was sinful and must be confessed and repented of. (As an adult I have sat with many friends as they process the physical and psychological trauma this volte-face can cause.)

The UK didn’t take to purity culture like the US did: there were no pledges of virginity or formal ceremonies in which girls exchanged promise rings with their fathers – and yes, the onus was always on the girls. It was Eve, after all, who tempted Adam. But we were told that true love waits. That sleeping with more than one person was like attempting to reuse a piece of Sellotape: it loses its stickiness a little more with each use, until it is no longer fit for purpose.

[See also: Everything I Know About Love review: Why Dolly Alderton’s drama leaves men baffled]

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When I started university I toyed, briefly, with the idea of leaving the Church. But I found myself afraid of – as I perceived it – the drug-taking and promiscuity of the culture around me. I was a Good Christian Girl; I didn’t belong here. There were, of course, many positives about the church I became part of – it was community like nothing I had experienced before or have experienced since, and my sense of a spiritual self was intoxicating.

But still the shame was insidious. We were encouraged to have “accountability partners” to whom we would confess our “darkest” acts and desires. A commonly used conversation starter was: what do you not want to tell me? People talked about the “soul ties” formed between two people when they shared a sexual encounter, and how they had to be broken in prayer.

At a seminar about relationships on a student weekend away, a recently married young woman said when she was dating her now husband, she had asked him to identify which outfits of hers he found “unhelpful”, and had thrown them away. We were never to do anything that would cause a brother to stumble. Is it any wonder that, when I was sexually assaulted in my first year, I went to church the next morning and asked God for forgiveness for my revealing outfit, for the pride I had felt in how I looked that night? Oh, the anger and grief that stirs in me now.

I have been reflecting on the ways the impossible pursuit of purity shaped me as I have attempted to explain – in pieces, so as to not sound too weird – to the “heathen” (his word) I am dating why I did not have the typical university experience he did; why so many of my friends got married at 22 or 23; why my “number” is rather smaller than might be expected in one’s thirties.

I still attend church semi-regularly, though my belief, such as it is, is altogether less fervent, more grey. As I have grown older, the intellectual questions I have always had about faith have become more prominent as the feelings that once overwhelmed them have faded. Today, church is more of a social exercise than anything, and I am comfortable with that. But sometimes I struggle to separate what I was taught was true from what I really believe to be true. I wonder who I might have been had I never heard the word “sin”.

[See also: Whose freedom?]

Bringing a date home these days means introducing them to two small children, and running the risk of being woken at 6am by a screaming match over a Duplo model.

When the eldest asked me recently who I was texting, I replied, “M—, you’ve met him, remember?”

“Yes,” she answered. “Is he your best friend?”

“Well,” I said, euphemistically, “he’s a very good friend.”

[See also: Acts of service review: Lillian Fishman’s novel explores the purpose of sex]

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This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink