Hatty Calbus shares her perspective on being a single Christian woman and encourages church leaders to make more effort with unmarried women in their congregation.
Have you been waiting forever for a Christian husband? Quite possibly. Are you hideous of face and personality? Probably not. Marcia Dixon, author of Black Christian and Single, reported that 65 per cent of British black Caribbean women are single, with 59 per cent never having been married.
In the UK Church overall, women outnumber men by two to one and the ratio of single women to single men gets put as high as eight to one. Those statistics are all shocking, so where are the headlines in the Christian press? Obviously a bad marriage is painful, and churches need incisive engagement courses so couples find out if they aren’t truly suited. But right at the start of the Bible God says: “It is not good for humans to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).
God doesn’t want lifelong celibacy for most people. Many Christian women want a Christian husband. The fact that so many men reject Jesus is grave in itself and harms women. Being an unmarried, especially older, woman means stigma in wider society, but also, usually, downgrading at church. It means lack of companionship and intimacy. It means childlessness, while being seen as asexual and amaternal.
Single Christian women in their fifties and beyond might as well not exist for all anyone hears of them.
It often means poverty: it’s more expensive to live alone and women usually earn less than men. There is, according to Women’s Pioneer Housing: “No region in England where a single woman on an average woman’s salary can afford to rent a private-sector home of her own.” Rent, not buy. It means, statistically, poorer health – managed alone – while trying not to worry about old age.
How many churches are providing enough supportive community to ameliorate any of this? Thirty-something women often struggle, but can find positives in being single and have hope of marriage and children. The forties can be a terrible experience of feeling abandoned by God. After that – well, who knows? Single Christian women in their fifties and beyond might as well not exist for all anyone hears of them. They don’t fit glib answers (“God’s timing!”), so get screened out. Situational singleness is something to cause suffering.
It’s now recognised that doctors have often ignored women’s physical pain, leaving them to years of suffering. Pastors do the same with this mental pain, despite relying heavily on the free or low-paid labour single women provide that keeps churches running. But there’s something even worse. When women do bring the subject up they’re not only silenced but the silencing gets presented as spiritual counsel. – It must be God’s Will for you to be single! – Because so many men reject him? – Paul says don’t marry! – But he was expecting Jesus’ imminent return. – You’ll be happy in Heaven! – You’re also quite happy on Earth.
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I’d go as far as to say this is wicked, having nothing to do with God and everything to do with the speakers’ discomfort. Marcia Dixon referred to the shame Christian women feel wanting and failing to be married. It’s a very personal shame because it involves being chosen. Because women often take on other people’s “shoulds”, pain and shame get increased by this dishonest silencing: they feel it’s just them and they’re defective.
Women, especially Christians, also often feel pressure to be good and minimise negative feelings. Angry or depressed resignation isn’t acceptance. Instead of being denied or suppressed, feelings of fear, grief, resentment, jealousy, hopelessness, need to be brought into God’s light – this is what the Psalmist and Job did. And Job ends up closer to God than his friends with their easier lives do. Not taking on other people’s ‘shoulds’ includes mine, but please don’t even be partly defined by your erasure. And remember all the women in the Bible who spoke up; and that we wouldn’t have the vote if women had been ‘good’ and stayed silent.
I’d go as far as to say this is wicked, having nothing to do with God and everything to do with the speakers’ discomfort.
God cares when his daughters aren’t valued. One result of the carnage of the First World War was what were labelled “surplus women”. Pastors need to respond to the Church’s “surplus women” rather than with frequently-exploitative indifference (all those volunteers conveniently happy to serve), with acknowledgment of the repercussions for God’s daughters of the numbers imbalance.
Obvious ways to tackle this are prayer, socialising opportunities and pastoral support (Single Friendly Church is a good resource). Some other suggestions: women who have a good non-Christian boyfriend shouldn’t automatically be pressurised to jettison him. It’s possible to marry a non-Christian and “love well for the glory of God”. And he might become a better Christian than his wife. Or the pastor.
With so many available women, unmarried men over thirty-five are usually (not always) avoidant and need help with emotional/family of origin wounds keeping them from committed relationship. Though damaged women tend more to cling to unsuitable men, they can be avoidant too. Lifelong spinsters also need to be encouraged to address relational wounds: we’re all called to wholeness. It’s harmful when a blind eye is turned to avoidant church Lotharios taking advantage and endlessly trying out different women. Certainly they oughtn’t be given prominent roles or recommended for ordination.
Rather than constantly and thoughtlessly – given Church demographics – hymning marriage and married couples, pastors could recognise the gifts single women bring to a church. There’s still a tendency to see highly professionally qualified women as good for serving teas and arranging flowers – while the pastor is exhausted from tasks he could delegate. Paul lists the gifts of the Holy Spirit twice (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12) and doesn’t say, “These are for men – apart from service.” There are women with gifts of prophecy or healing who are just being asked to wash up. Please come together with other women and show them that you recognise this.