Being Single in the Church

The current “hot topic” in our church, the blessing – or not – by ministers and deacons of civil partnerships, has concentrated my mind on a different issue, singleness. In contrast to the positive and negative excitement and passion that characterised the former issue, singleness excites, well, not much passion at all. Having lived alone for all the twenty-two years I have been in ministry, and being an only child, my attention to singleness is not new. But the recent talk of “the traditional family”, and “the biblical model of family” has pressed a few buttons rather too firmly!

Statistics reported in June 2006 by the Registrar General for Scotland announced that 770,000 households consist of one person only. In a recent edition of The Herald, in an article describing indicators for good health, “living with someone” was listed as third most important. Living with someone else may be good for you, but lots of us don’t. I want to pose a question plainly: How do church folk, the followers of Jesus, engage with folk like me who live in one of these 770,000 one-person households?

As ever, Scripture is the first place we look for guidance. Search the pages of Old and New Testament you may – I have! -  but I remain as unsure as ever of just what the Bible thinks is “the traditional family”. You need read only as far as chapter four of Genesis before you encounter a serious family breakdown as Cain kills his brother. Flip the page to the next chapter and a whole new problem arises: all the way down the family tree from Adam to Noah, no women are mentioned.  A problem for another day, perhaps? And maybe not so far off.

Continue, if you dare, through the gripping pages of the books from Genesis to Malachi, and you will encounter every imaginable kind of family and family circumstances. Indeed, before you even get to the last page of Genesis, you will have read of adultery, a father who offers his two virgin daughters to strangers for sex, more brotherly un-love, polygamy, familial jealousy, and a son who has sex with his dad’s girlfriend. At this point I’m starting to rejoice in my singleness!

After a period of rest and recuperation, you may feel strong enough to venture into the riches of the stories of Jesus and the early church. Jesus, of course, doesn’t seem to have a human dad, but he is close to his cousin, and their mothers enjoy a close sisterly bond. We learn that Jesus has several siblings, though, apart from his mother, the gospels give the impression that he was closer to his friends than his family. Another family, two sisters and a brother, seem to have offered Jesus very significant friendship, as did the disciples. But probe the gospels in search of the teaching of Jesus on marriage and you may be disappointed. He speaks of it on two important occasions, on both occasions in answer to questions, first about divorce, and then about levirate marriage. Here, Jesus makes a stunning declaration: when the dead rise to life, they will be like the angels in heaven and not marry. Ever tried telling that to bereaved family? Of course, we have no evidence that Jesus himself ever married or had children.

Continue into the writings of Paul and in 1 Corinthians Paul’s views on the subject are clear. Writing in expectation of the imminent return of Jesus, he declares that single folk are better to continue as he does: alone. Some comfort for me, then?

Perhaps this is a one-sided picture? No. It is simply a brief presentation of the problems in discovering a biblical model of family.

So what is the church to do? It can go on pretending that living as a heterosexual couple with kids is the norm, but it is neither the biblical nor social norm. Both of these must concern us as Christians. Of special concern to me is how we, as a church, embrace folk whose lives don’t fit the “married with kids” pattern. What signals do we, as a church, give on this issue, to folk within and without?

I believe that often the church simply assumes that “married with kids” is the norm, and acts as if we’ve all signed up to that. We talk of “family services”, which usually means that worship is planned specifically with children in mind. We centre our social activities on family type events. We’ve all been there: a summer outing with children in a play park, a barbeque in a field, a dance. We plan pastoral visits in times of illness and bereavement around couples, but forget to mourn the lonely single old buddy whose mainstay has been a friend of similar vintage. We’re constantly thinking up bright new ways to get young people into the church; we’re busy in schools, but our older folk, especially our single older folk, are forgotten.

As a result, the church unconsciously leaves a lot of folk out – even church folk. Let me cite one personal example. The woman who runs dances in our church simply couldn’t understand why I didn’t go along. Not having a partner wasn’t a good enough excuse, as I could always “sit and watch”. Now why on earth would I want to do that? I know she meant me no harm, she simply didn’t think about it. And that, I contest, is precisely what the church does with single people a lot of the time: it simply doesn’t think about us. And when asked to consider anything other than the “married with kids” model, some folk tell us, “but that’s the biblical model”.

With the number of single households increasing all the time, I suggest the time has come for the church to seriously think through its relationship with, pastoral care of, and communication to single people. If we are to be one church, “one kirk”, please make a space within it for folk like me!

Rev Christine Goldie
5 June 2006

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