Lead us not into temptation

The Church may no longer regard women as `the gateway to degradation' b ut many Christian men still find emotional intimacy difficult, says Heather Pin chen
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The Independent Online
You could say that the battle of the sexes really began in Eden with Adam blaming Eve for making him eat the forbidden fruit.

Since then, Christian history has given us plenty of variations on this theme. From early church father Tertullian, who saw women as ''the gateway to degradation'', to latterday evangelist Billy Graham - who reputedly won't conduct an interview with a woman without leaving the door open - Christian men have always had a bit of a problem coping with the opposite sex.

The trouble is that many Christians are rather reticent about taking responsibility for their own sexuality. Be it an erstwhile bishop of London who reasoned against women priests because his inclination was ''to wrap his arms around them'', or the young men who visit prostitutes rather than develop relationships because the virgin/whore dichotomy - spirit versus flesh - still holds sway.

Now this might not be the norm, but it does provide food for thought. Take last Sunday, for instance. I was having lunch with a group of Christians - one of them a lively and attractive scientist with an Oxbridge first. First he began telling me how difficult he found it to have relationships with intelligent women. Then he got on to the topic of how Christian men found women to be a ''problem''. ''Women are lucky,'' he told me, ''a lot of you manage to stay single. Men usually succumb and get married in the end.''

Not intending to be too controversial, I muttered a tentative explanation. ''Perhaps that's because there are lots of attractive, developed women in the Church and just not enough men to equal them,'' I said. From the expression of horror on his face and the stunned silence that followed, it struck me that this disquieting analysis had gone down like a ton of bricks.

Yet I was being perfectly serious. According to the Evangelical Alliance, the number of single people in the Church is on the increase, with the male to female ratio getting worse.

And from a female perspective, not only are eligible Christian males in short supply, but it is often difficult to act normally around those that are ''available''. Some indeed, adopt a peculiarly hunted attitude which makes for an unmistakable coolness in relations. Because of this, unmarried women feel perceived as either seductive agents of the devil or in desperate want of a husband.

The truth however, is that these days women are generally looking for a deeper reciprocity than many of their male counterparts seem capable of. A common observation along single thirty something Christian women is that their peers are more at ease with a superficial jocularity and back-thumping camaraderie than in revealing any desire for the emotional intimacy vital to their development as mature human beings.

Apart from 2,000 or so years of coming to terms with the idea of women as equals, I began wondering if the often stilted nature of male/female social relationships in the Church exists because, even within a congregation, the sexes find it hard to meet?

I consulted Lisa, a 30-year-old nurse who, like countless other attractive, educated and jolly nice Christian women, has been agonisingly celibate for a very long time.

''My spiritual needs are very well fed,'' she says. ''The main problem is that we spend so much time in service and prayer meetings, that men and women don't have time to get to know each other as friends.

''Our men don't seem to be looking for wives either. They're not taking the initiative. Fear has probably got a lot to do with it. Sex is such a taboo subject - there's such an emphasis on resisting temptation and avoiding illicit sexual relations that you feel terribly vulnerable. Sometimes Christians are so careful not to get into a wrong relationship that we miss out on essential experience in relating to the opposite sex.''

Enlightened clergy try to encourage social intercourse with weekend secular events. The trouble is that while games are OK for 18-year-olds, they are not awaited with much anticipation by anyone else.

One place, however, where fledgling Christians are currently meeting in vast numbers is on the packed ''Introduction to Christianity'' Alpha course at Holy Trinity Brompton, in Knightsbridge, London.

James, 27, is just one of numerous good-looking young men to join the swarming HTB congregation after taking the course. Over the last couple of years, he has been out with two chaste Christian girlfriends and would like to get married - but not yet.

''I had several sexual relationships before I became a Christian,'' he says, ''and certainly used to masturbate. Now I am celibate and am determined not to give in to temptation.

''Singleness needs to be tackled because it's a big problem in the Church. HTB should set the ball rolling and offer a relationship course. We've got a lot of people wanting to go out with someone or even get married. It's subtle, but sex is on everyone's mind.''

Seeing value in James's views, I put the notion of doing more to encourage fraternisation between the sexes and running courses on human relations to HTB curate Nicky Gumble, who expressed a concerned interest.

''We do touch on sexual morality during Alpha, and run separate courses on abortion and divorce recovery,'' he says. ''We'd like to do more but there's no time. The church puts on some social events, but these tend to be organised by members of the congregation.

''We think there are opportunities for people to meet in in-house groups. Relationships here seem to develop pretty spontaneously. We encourage people to think very seriously, along the lines of: 'Do I want to be committed to this person for the rest of my life?' If some men seem reluctant to decide I don't think it's a problem that's only confined to the Church.''