Who are you?



Over the last while I haven’t posted much on this blog. I’ve been quite busy with full time work and a part-time PhD. I’ve spent the first year of my PhD pondering ‘Who am I?’ in a research sense. What’s my take on the world, what’s my philosophy, how do I make sense of things that happen? I’m not a philosopher on a day-to-day basis. Others tell of constant thoughts about the world, meaning and their place in the world. My most profound thought on an average day is likely to be ‘Ooh, a chocolate Hobnob’*.


So deciding who I was in research terms was both daunting, and exhausting. It was an interesting exercise though, as it made me consider how fragmented life actually is. To give an example, in terms of my previous academic work I’d always pragmatically adopted a post-modern theoretical stance, where multiple truths and realities exist. And yet I hold firmly to a faith that says that in some sense, there is ‘truth’ that exists outside of time. For the moment, I’ve adopted a Critical Realist stance, one which acknowledges multiple experiences of life, but that is also consistent with an understanding that there are ‘truths’ that exist outside of human construction. While influenced by Marxist ideas of change for the good of humanity, it is also adopted by those who have a faith in (a) God (leading Critical Realist sociologist Margaret Archer works for the Vatican).


Enough of theoretical things. Thinking about who I am as a researcher has also led me to think about who I am as a person. In those conversations with friends who ask ‘what if..’ questions, in those moments when friends move jobs or houses, at (other people’s) weddings, as house rental agreements come up for renewal, ideas about who I am, where I should live, where I should be part of a church community have come to mind. Essentially, I know who I want to be: A Londoner not at the mercy of the private rental market. Alas, that identity is not mine to gift to myself, so the next few years will inevitably involve me working out who I can be within London, or who I may have to be outside of London. In the same way, I’d like to be part of a local church with people in similar situations. I’d love to be part of a diverse community of young and old, married and single, those with children and those who are childfree.


Instead, like many single Christians so the Single Friendly Church’s website tells us, I find myself within a church system that is couple and family heavy (whether that be co-parented or single-parented). In a family community where single people over about 28 are in the distinct minority. Single Friendly Church and Single Christian Ltd have done some research into single Christians in the UK (an attitudinal survey in 2012 and a numbers survey in 2014). Their site lists their research, methodology and findings. I made the mistake of reading it in one go, and as a single person it was, frankly, quite depressing. In some ways it validated my experience (yes, there are far more Christian single women than men; yes, as single Christian women get above about 30 they feel increasingly marginalised and begin to leave the church; yes, women feel that the men are looking to date women 10 years younger than themselves and so on and so forth https://www.singlefriendlychurch.com/single-christians-church-experience/church-acceptance-1 ), but, as with much research, it tell me what the situation is, but offers little hope that things will change.


SFC identifies the ‘feminisation’ and ‘Jesus is my boyfriend songs’ aspect of (some) churches as possible reasons why some men are less comfortable in the church than they might be. They reason that single men will have jobs/careers, and be used to being in control and being involved in more risk taking, dynamic and active communities than a parish church might typically offer. The men who are in the church tend to be married to women who are churchgoers and have children who they take to church, says the Single Christian website. I might argue that actually women (single or not) might also have careers and dynamic and active social lives, and that some church experiences may also be counter-cultural for women too. There being fewer men, there is a concentration on ‘How can we meet the needs of men?’, but I wonder whether a ‘How can we reflect the diversity of a local community, single and married?’ might be a better question.  As to the remarks around there needing to be opportunities for risk, dynamism and leadership to get men involved, I think this might be a way to get more people (gender neutral language intended) enjoying church.


The survey of single Christians had a larger number of women responding than men, which, given the makeup of churches that the Single Christian research suggest, is no surprise. Perhaps, to many of my women friends certainly, it is also no surprise to hear that the single women’s view of the single men within the church was that some single men knew that they were in the minority and used it play women off against each other. Or again, that some single men in the church exhibited exactly the opposite of the dynamism and risk mentioned earlier – being what the research politely termed ‘passive’.  Or, the familiar observation, that men had an eye to the use-by-date of the ovaries of the ladies they wished to date.


Some women in the research suggested that they were almost expected (by the wider church) to date any available Christian man, whether they were suited in personality and ambition or not. Men who took part in the research also indicated that the wider church made assumptions about their sexual orientation or personality based on their single status as they got older. The SFC also counsels churches to think about wider issues faced by single people that may not be considered by the wider church, including, crucially, housing costs in cities; sermons that address issues that impact on single people (and don’t just say ‘it’s a gift’, because I’d rather that God had kept that particular gift receipt so I could get a refund); awareness around Mothering Sunday (or Single Woman Sympathy Flower Day as it feels in churches where flowers are given out to women, just NO); awareness that being single emphatically doesn’t mean a blanket greater availability for church rotas (particularly rotas involving children’s groups – I haven’t had the option of making a decision about having my own children, so you think a kind response is to surround me with other people’s?).


So, who am I? A single Christian feminist, who’d like to have financial clout to control housing decisions, but doesn’t, who’d like to be in a church community with similarly-situated, similarly-aged single women, but isn’t. Like the research, knowing this, but not knowing how to alter situations is the hard part and one that I’ll probably be thinking about for the time to come. When I’m not contemplating biscuits, that is. Ooh, a Hobnob.




*UK oaty biscuit – superior to a digestive biscuit, and particularly good in its chocolate-coated format. Excellent for dunking into tea.

Silence is Golden

So it turns out that I haven’t written a post in so long that almost every setting on the site has been changed. I am reduced to the technological equivalent of my mother who relies on the ‘extreme panic button’ (the cross at the top right of the browser) when she’s ‘got too far into the internet and can’t get out again’. I kid you not.

It’s not that there hasn’t been anything to write about recently, more that situations and comments were too specific and individuals would have been identifiable. I suppose that’s one of the problems of writing as yourself, as well as one of the helpful things. As anyone who’s read a below-the-line comment in a national newspaper recently knows, anonymity can create a dangerous sense of boldness that can unleash people’s worst self. Using your own name and image reminds you that you exist in a connected world of people with feelings.

One of the difficulties of writing about real life is the privacy of other people. As a lecturer teaching on a children’s rights, I wonder about how the next generation will feel when they’re old enough to read the social media posts where their parents describe them to all and sundry as ‘little shits’ (I have de-friended that person, so don’t worry, if you’re reading this, this isn’t you!). In the Guardian recently there was an article about Tim Dowling’s weekly column about his family, and how his children have reacted to complete strangers knowing about their lives. For a single person, the consideration of reactions is much more immediate. Within a family unit maybe everything seems to be fair game, for a single person, every interaction necessarily involves someone outside their unit who might read, and be hurt by or disagree with what you said. My self-censorship is set to high on this front, and as a result I haven’t written about anything.

I have been wondering why this might be the case. I suppose because I am really aware that we are all making our way in this world, and sometimes hearing a different opinion can provoke a strong reaction and knock our confidence. Hearing that our actions or words may have unintended consequences for an individual can be painful. I’ve also been in situations where things I thought I’d said in private to friends show up on Facebook linked to my name. In addition to these considerations, I wonder if it comes back to something I’ve talked about before, how we (I) often only reflect on painful things after they’re over. Talking about things strictly in retrospect takes the sting out of any painful recognition – yes I might have said something that wasn’t totally helpful in that situation to her, but look, she made it through, it’s ok! Whereas when the situation continues, any implications of hurt can’t be brushed aside so quickly, there might be fear of having caused on-going pain or feelings of being accused of causing present upset.

People have continued to say really stupid or thoughtless things to me over the past months, amongst the best/worst examples: ‘So you can’t find anywhere you can afford to live by yourself, have you thought of doing some dating and finding someone?’; ‘Do you regret being single and not having children in your late 30s?’ and, my personal favourite ‘Do you think it’s your religion or your personality that’s kept you single?’. My response to the last comment was to say ‘Goodness me, aren’t you rude?’ and then sweep on my way, with poise and dignity that Mary Poppins would be proud of, making it well out of sight before tripping over the shadow of my own left foot and colliding heavily with a filing cabinet. Being aware of the hurt or rage unguarded comments can inspire, I’m keen not to cause anyone else discomfort.

So I continue to write, often just for myself, but when things are general enough, I’ll post them here.  If I can work out the new settings without resort to the extreme panic button, that is.

Equality begins…

I posted something on Facebook today, as a response to an article in the Independent (a UK newspaper) about ‘Christian Fundamentalist Schools’. Below was my initial reaction to a small part of the article that resonated with me:

As a person of faith I still want to call out those parts of our faith systems which are not rooted in love, respect and humility, which instead come from a place of fear and desire for control.

I can really relate to this part of the article: “There was a strong culture of men being revered and women being dangerously sexual and having to cover up. It made me self-conscious of being a woman.”

I am dismayed that this view of women as the dangerous-temptress-other is still being replicated in churches. It has been my experience in some churches and small groups, and was a significant barrier to my faith as a teenager. I couldn’t understand why was I told that we are all equal before God, except that men were privileged and always knew best (even when they were plain wrong).

I also couldn’t understand why I was encouraged to wear tops with sleeves as my bingo-wings were a ‘temptation’, and why shoulders (gasp) were somehow instruments of the devil. I also noted with curiosity that the thinner the girl, the shorter the skirt could be before a comment was made about it being ‘inappropriate’. Was I a temptation or a defective patriarchal decoration? I now know that I am neither, although it took me a long time to realise that.

I am a person loved by God. I stand before Him by His grace, complete, whole and equal, perfectly loved. Just like anyone else who comes to Jesus.

Whoever we are and however we identify ourselves we are free to come to Him. I often think that church attitudes to people who are different are a significant barrier to faith.

So that was what I wrote. The article discusses a particularly dismaying school-type where students are segregated and use flags to communicate with teachers (my mind is truly boggling!). What scares me is that although many features of this school sound abhorrent, a distressing amount of it is only a few attitudinal steps removed from some more prevalent  Christian views and practices.

I am challenged constantly by my work as a lecturer within the Social Sciences to try and locate the cultural practices in our lives which shape our attitudes and views. We unthinkingly replicate patterns, behaviours and values by simply repeating cultural practices and norms. When I was younger I accepted that as a woman I would only ever get to have a view within a church if I was married to a man within the church, and preferably an elder or a leader. I later decided just to move church…

But during the time when I was allegedly being ‘meek’ I was waging a war with myself. I have opinions, I have views, I love words, I cannot bear inequality or structural oppression, and all those ideas were compressed inside me as I struggled to fit in to somewhere that I thought I wanted to belong. I followed the traditions without being able to question them. Outside of church I was confident of my views, but the cultural norms of a congregation denied me my identity as a person purely because I was a woman.

I say ‘purely’, but actually I was also from a working class family, and churches that I went to when I was younger were not working class. I grew up in the suburbs where new estates were built in a time when religion was not fashionable, so they were built with shops, a Post Office, but no church.

To attend a church therefore meant travelling from the area where I lived (a mix of modest-sized houses) to one of the earlier-built estates nearby with bigger houses and upwardly mobile congregations in their brick churches. I heard people mocked for reading the tabloid newspapers and  patronising comments about reaching working class people who ‘didn’t have the same moral values’.

I had managed to slip into their churches without them noticing that I was one of the potentially feral working class with my lax morals and ready access to tabloids. I fitted in because I didn’t reveal my actual self. The message I got was that Jesus welcomes the ‘nice’ middle class people and that He thought that the working class people needed improvement before they’d be ready for His church. (As an aside I see a similar trajectory in education where curricula are more about passing on middle-class attributes than addressing actual social inequality of privilege).

So I am a woman, my parents were working class, and I am also single. A friend was told last week that if she ‘worked on her issues’ then she would not be single for long, and going to church more was the answer. The cultural assumption that ‘normal’ women got married led an otherwise apparently sentient man to tell someone he’d just met that they were damaged and that was the reason they were single. If they had been a better Christian and gone to more church events they wouldn’t be in the awful state they were in (that of being a happy and successful person who is kind, generous and good at roller-skating). The message she came away with was clear: You are not culturally normal, and therefore you are not somehow not following God.

Our church congregations transmit values by how we relate to those around us. We also enforce values by our actions and traditions. This week I want to challenge myself to consider what cultural norms I have made part of my faith for good or for ill. I want to think intentionally about how to sift out those things which are cultural and not Christian, those thoughts and attitudes I hold which might be a barrier to someone.

On a road to nowhere?

My workplace is keen on open-plan offices. If you’ve ever been forced to work in an open-plan office, you probably flinched with me. You’re probably having a flashback: the noise, the jarring lunch smells, the person who taps their teeth with their pencil and can be heard 25 desks away, that person who hums the Casualty theme tune everytime they fill out a spreadsheet.

Working or living in close proximity to other people reminds us of how annoying we all are, and how circumstances affect us: that great walk to work where the birds were singing and the sky was blue can be cancelled out by  10 seconds of Bob in accounts audibly scratching his dry skin.

A book that is going round our office at the moment is The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters. It’s billed as a ‘mind management’ book, essentially a self-help book based on Transactional Analysis* with the aim of helping people to manage their responses to stressful situations. This is why it’s so popular in our open-plan office.

Another strand of Peters’ argument is that often we are unhappy because our actions and choices don’t match with our true desire. To find our true desire he asks his reader to imagine they are at the end of their life, and have 2 minutes to tell a younger relative how they should live: what they should prioritise and what values are actually important.

Peters then reveals that the younger person is yourself, now. That is what you want from your life, what you truly value. He invites his reader to reassess their current life choices based on this. His argument is that if we know what we want our life to be, then we should live accordingly.

It’s this part of the book that has caused the most conversation in the office. It seems totally obvious to review what you do based on your values, and yet this doesn’t seem to be built into the pattern of our lives.

In church at the moment we’re studying the gospel of John, and I was struck by how Jesus’ call to believe and have life in Him was echoed by Peters’ secular call to live life coherently according to our true aims.

In John’s gospel Jesus says “Whoever follows me will never walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.”(Chapter 8, verse 12). The sense of the on-going-ness of faith, the following daily, reminds me of Peters’ call to check we are going in the direction we want to. Jesus calls me to follow Him, and I need to check that my life is congruent with walking in his light, if I have chosen to follow him.

Whether we take Peters’ secular call, or Jesus’ spiritual one, it’s clear that sometimes when we review our current life, there will be things that need to be changed to allow us to continue to be true to our values.

At this point I think of my geranium. I love my geranium. A friend gave it to me 2 years ago in a small clay pot, when it was a tiny plant with 4 leaves. Nelgected on my windowsill, and watered only when I dusted (virtually never), it gamely flowered for the next two years.

In the first week I had it, my mum told me I should pinch out the top to make it grow into a bushy plant that would support itself. That sounded like a good idea, but… that would have involved getting rid of the flowers. So I thought I’d wait until the flowers had gone.

2 years later it had never stopped flowering, and was now a single 3ft stem eminating from a 5inch clay pot. Looking at it leaning precariously against the window, ungainly, unwieldy, and the height of a child, I realised that if I wanted a plant that was self-supporting, I ought to have pinched it out two years ago.

My actions had not been consistent with my aim of a healthy plant.

Worrying that I might be too late, and armed with a pair of kitchen scissors, I cut the stem off at pot level. In the next month I paid it more attention than in the last 2 years as I checked to see if it had survived and would grow back. In week 5 I found myself talking to the dry brown stump, urging it to grow. These were desperate times.

When we were talking about Peters’ book at work, and when I link it to Jesus’ call to follow Him and walk in the light, sometimes we might feel that we have done too much damage, entrenched ourselves in a position too far from our actual aims and desires. We are afraid of change, afraid of the radical decisions that we would need to bring our lives back to the path we want to choose.

We worry that if we make the cut, change direction, our lives would be like the geranium stump – a damaged shadow of our former selves. We feel that we stand to lose so much, that perhaps it is better to limp on in a direction that we don’t really want to go in. If we were to look from the outside, we might urge ourselves to make that cut, but stuck in our inside perspective, that cut might seem risky and dangerous.

John’s gospel would argue that Jesus is worth following. Worth making changes for. Not for the sake of small-minded rules, but because Jesus, the Son of God, promises that ‘Whoever follows me will walk in the light’. For me this week, it’s a reminder to actively follow Jesus, to make choices that allow me to carve out times to pray and read the bible.

I truly believe that while we have breath, it’s not too late. Whether we think about the challenge from the Son of God or from Professor Steve Peters, I believe that we can make choices that will alter our lives. Our lives won’t look the same, and it won’t be as though we never made those off-course choices, but change is possible. A different life, built on past experiences, but shaped by our current choices. Just like my geranium.



*Peter’s book is  a self-help version of Transactional Analysis, whereby we’re encouraged to see some of our responses as a) reflexes (our ‘Chimp brain’in Peters’ model), others as b) reacting to past patterns of events (our ‘Computer’) and a third set of responses c)  which, Peters would say, is who we really want to be (our ‘Human brain’).






My generation…

So, as ever after any family-orientated event (no, I didn’t go home at Easter to visit my atheist/pagan parents, they were camping in gale-force winds, as is their wont), and after being asked to move at church so a family could sit together, I have a quick look on internet dating sites.


Goodness me.


If I wanted to date gentleman who were 20-30 years older than me who use their conservatory as a selling point, then I’d be delighted right now. As it is, I wonder the feminist gentlemen are, who see women as people rather than as breeding-enabled accessories.


Profile after profile of gentlemen my age or older had ‘looking for a woman under 30’ somewhere in the profile.


Some things are fundamentally wrong with this. I am angry, so I’ll bullet point.


  • Women are people. They have personality, vitality and worth, in and of themselves. This is not adversely affected by age or child-bearing ability.


  • Men are people. If they only want to date women 10 – 20 years younger than them, then they come across as creepy people, at this point, no lady wishes to date them.


  • Ovaries do have a sell by date. The person surrounding the ovaries has a much longer life-span, and is worth more than the sum of their fertile years.


  • Gentlemen, if you want unlimited access to unfertilised eggs you may have to consider poultry farming. If that doesn’t appeal, maybe you could reflect on the nature of ageing. You, like women, will get older. Women have this news thrust at them relentlessly. The media may not convey this to you adequately, instead focussing on attractive older gentleman dating young ladies of nubile persuasion. These older gentlemen, by coincidence, are all fabulously wealthy and mostly film or rock stars. They do not live in Barnet.


  • A 35 year age gap makes you older than my dad. No I don’t want to go lawn bowling with you, but thank you for the invitation.


  •  Thank you for indicating that you would not like to go on a date with me. I note your comments, but would take issue with your summary of me as ‘only having a few years left.’ As far as I am aware, women do not spontaneously combust at the age of 40.


  • No, I don’t think that the Lord has selected me to obey you and serve you. I think you may have mistaken me for a gumtree advert for a housekeeper. (And the answer would still be no).

If anyone wants me I shall be rearranging feminist literature and crocheting myself an allergen-free cat.

Don’t stop believing

Lent has given way to Holy week, and we’re within 7 days of Easter Sunday. The 6 Nations rugby has drawn to a close, and England have (somehow) clung on to their first Grand Slam in a long time. Yesterday as I watched the final match of the tournament it set me to thinking about journeys and pilgrimage. In the age of TV talent shows, where we are fed an endless diet of contestants’ ‘journeys’ – generally involving a tragedy or disappointment of some kind – the idea of life as a journey has become hackneyed. Yet part of why sports tournaments are popular is the arc of the narrative – you start somewhere, and you hope your team will end up somewhere. The matches throughout the tournament are scenes and plot-twists within the journey to the final.


I love advent, the journey to Christmas, because it holds within it the chance to explore the deep and complex longings within us for light and hope. It is a journey through darkness, with the hope of light. I’ve always been a bit less sold on Lent, despite loving Easter and Holy Week. Lent in its modern form can feel like WeightWatchers aimed at both body and soul: Give up chocolate and be more holy! Or, perhaps more accurately: Give up chocolate and drop a dress size, with the added bonus of it being socially acceptable to talk about how much you miss chocolate, because giving up something for Lent is somehow virtuous. A festival as a cover for a society’s obsession with weight and image doesn’t seem really my thing.


In an attempt to challenge my Lenten misgivings, this year I’ve been reading through Word in the Wilderness, a book with a poem a day for Lent and Holy Week with brief commentaries by Malcolm Guite. (If you haven’t read any Malcolm Guite and you like poetry, you might want to look him up.) What has struck me most is the sense of journey or pilgrimage. Unlike Advent, when the coming of Light was longed for, this Lent I have been aware of the same sense of expectancy, but around a realistic evaluation of oneself, almost an apprehension rather than a longing. If Advent causes us to look at darkness and ‘lostness’ in the world, Lent is an opportunity to look at these within ourselves.


Easter itself is the brightest of the Christian festivals – Jesus dies for all people of all time, and is raised to life to reign in majesty, declaring us whole and holy. Yet the sense of darkness in Lent is found in the recognition that we most willingly live in the shadows and have created a debt to God, making Jesus’ death a necessity. The brightness of Easter is the lifting of both gloom and debt, through the terrible cost of an innocent death.


Lent becomes a time to more fully know ourselves, and recognise that beneath the outward mask that I show others lie a complicated mass of competing desires, jealousies and stubbornness. Rather than being a time to congratulate myself on giving something up, this year it has caused me to reflect upon myself and my relationship with the community around me.


And so back to the journey. Thinking about life as a journey helps to make sense of life by giving us a way to see events as twists and turns, stops on the way. While we live, we have not yet arrived.In the build-up to any sports event there is much discussion about the team set up and support. This Lent has helped me to reflect both on myself, and those around me who have walked with my on the journey so far.


Some friends join us for a few steps along the path, others will walk with us in easy rhythm for years and decades. Some parts of the journey seem more like an upward scramble over windswept rocks, while others seem like a walk in an ornamental park. I am grateful for those who have walked alongside me thus far.


As I look forward to Easter, to the despair of Good Friday when all is lost, to the joy of Easter Sunday when Life and Forgiveness burst forth, I want to use this time to reflect on Lent and Easter as a picture of my whole life. Lent is a reminder that we journey for the whole of our lives, Easter is a reminder that one day, through death, we will arrive.


While I live I want to be thankful for those who journey with me, those who dance, drink, rejoice and mourn with me along the way. Our Grand Slam is already won, we just need to keep on playing until the final whistle.

Go Your Own Way

Over the years a common mantra I’ve heard is that single people or those without children (whether you see them as childfree or childless) are ‘selfish’.

Recently this came up again, and it set me to thinking about how we see ourselves and others. A judgement of ‘selfishness’ on others, after all, surely says something about the values and life-circumstances of the person making the judgement, as well as their personal perception of the individual they are judging. (Judging, such an attractive quality in all of us, is it making you feel uncomfortable reading that word repeatedly? It’s making me feel slightly anxious just typing it.)

What do we mean when we say that we or someone else are being selfish? Selfishness has the sense of putting our own interests well in front of other people’s interests. More specifically, it is doing this in circumstances where society or politeness might suggest a consideration of the other person is appropriate.

Sometimes we must put ourselves first. I think of the airline safety demonstrations where they counsel you to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping children or others. That wouldn’t be described as ‘selfish’ but practical, preserving yourself in order to better serve others.

There are times in our lives when saying ‘not today’ to a friend who we find emotionally exhausting might fall into this category: if we are drained and have nothing to offer them, we are no comfort. Far better to rest, recuperate and offer a listening ear in a boundaried situation of our own choosing.

Sometimes we should put others first. If we sit in the priority seat on the tube or bus, and then ignore the heavily pregnant lady who asks for our seat, then we are being selfish.

That being said, why are single people and those without children often judged (there’s that word again) as being selfish?

Perhaps they are seen as ‘carefree’ or having freedoms that the person judging do not have. But we all have freedoms that other people might not have access to. Dependant on our financial status, our health, our work commitments, our family set up, each of us has a combination of obligations and freedoms that will differ from those around us.

Those without children may be free to have a lie-in, but might be obligated to work the ‘school holiday’ weeks when the sun actually might shine in the UK. Single people may be free to have dinner in Soho with friends, but be obligated to adjust to the habits of new housemates on a regular basis.

Perhaps when a person without children is called ‘selfish’ just for existing what we are really saying is ‘my life is not like that, and I wish it was’. This is understandable. Mixed in with the happy and proactive ways in which we change our lives, there are the un-looked for consequences. When we chose to have children we might not have fully factored in the consequences of SAS-style sleep deprivation. When we took that new job we might not have considered the full impact of ‘any other duties the post requires’. Sometimes the unintended consequences of our choices cause us to be nostalgic for features of our past life.

When someone judges a person who is not a parent as selfish they might also be expressing a belief that productive members of society contribute by ‘growing up and having children’ and replicating society. Perhaps by not having children we are seen as stepping outside of the required duty, of shirking our societal responsibility, of not growing up and shouldering our burden.

Maybe sometimes there is a sense in which someone who is finding family responsibility heavy might feel almost indignant that a single or childfree person does not appear to bear the same burden.

Each one of us, by existing, by breathing, by being connected with friends is actively acting to shape our world. There is no distinction between those who shape the world by having children, and those who shape the world by not having children. Each path comes with responsibilities to others we are connected to: some connections are family bonds of DNA, others are family bonds of humanity and friendship. We are all family.

We are all selfish. We all demarcate in our head the boundaries and parameters of our concerns, whether that includes just ourselves, or others we have selected.

For a few people that boundary includes only themselves. This person is perhaps a hermit. They have decided to care for no one apart from themselves. They might be seen as selfish for themselves. (Someone with few connections who would like friends is not selfish, they are lonely.)

For many people, their boundary includes others, perhaps a partner, perhaps children, perhaps friends, perhaps a pet. Their self-interest extends to people they are connected to. If their care and compassion never  extends beyond this boundary, they are selfish in a unit. These people might need to be encouraged to think about their unit and someone else.

There are those who are concerned and compassionate about everyone they meet. They endlessly deny themselves and exhaust themselves in order to serve others. These people are tired. They have no boundaries, and perhaps have lost a sense of self.They need some cake and a workshop on healthy boundaries.

There has to be a balance. We need to care for others and care for ourselves.

Selfishness is a corruption of the beautiful idea that we are all made in the image of God and therefore are all precious. Caring for and valuing individuals is part of a reflection of God’s love and purpose. Caring for and valuing yourself is part of a reflection of God’s love and purpose.

We will all forget to value our own personhood and unique dignity. We will all forget to value other people’s personhood and dignity, and by doing so act selfishly.

We will all be selfish in a bad way at some point (and for me that point will probably be today, likely within the next 10 minutes).

When I am tempted to judge someone else as selfish, or tempted to forget my own value, this week I want meditate on these parts of God’s word:

Psalm 117 v 2: For great is His steadfast love towards us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever.

John 13v34:  [Jesus says] ” just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another”

We are valuable, and part of challenging our own selfishness is recognising our value and the value of all of those wonderful people we are connected with.



Pack up your troubles

I should be packing at this moment in time. In the time between now and leaving for my holiday I have things (work, dinner, brunch, rugby) scheduled in to every remaining hour slot. If I don’t pack tonight I risk going to Naples with one pair of knickers and two left shoes.

Yet I am reluctant to pack. I don’t know why, because I love journeys, and everything to do with journeys: the WHSmith stop to pick up a paper and an impulse-buy book; the small familiar steps of airport check-in, the delight of being on the move; the purpose-without-too-much purpose of a leisure trip. And still, I am not packing.

Packing is the bit of the trip that I am worst at. Perhaps because I have to choose, edit and refine. Once I’m there I’m delighted to have whatever clothes I have managed to coerce into a suitcase, and revel in wearing slightly odd combinations of colours. It’s the getting round to putting things into a suitcase that seems such a chore.

By its very nature, packing is selective. I only have so much space and so much weight, and so I must obey the rules and edit my choices. From the selection of clothes I own that fit me and that are comfortable, practically any combination will do. The time when I only owned one pair of jeans and 4 t-shirts were simpler packing-days. As life went on, I have more clothes, and more choices. I find choices hard, especially when there isn’t much to choose between them.

So I find packing hard because packing is a bit like life. The really clear decisions are easy: I do not need to take a snorkel to Naples in February. The choice between two equally good options reduces me to a lather of indecision. What if, when I arrive at my destination, I would have preferred my alternative option? Guidance from God for my life seems harder when I have two perfectly good options, or no reason to keep on doing or to stop doing something. Like the choice between the red shirt and the white shirt, which both fit me, life choices seem harder when the outcomes are either as good or as bad as each other.

Packing reminds me that I am not very good with seeking God for the mid-tones in life. I am good with the big decisions where it is ‘leap or not leap’, I can pray enthusiastically (for short times, punctuated with biscuit breaks) and listen for and hear Him in answer. I can testify to how He made things clear for me. Smaller or less clearly demarcated choices, the ‘step or not step’ type, I find much harder. As I ponder my packing, I wonder if it is because I do not ask Him, whether I do not involve Him in the everyday as much as I might. Have I started to keep God for special events?

This Lent I am using Malcolm Guite’s Lent poetry book. As I read it each morning I will try to use this as a prompt to bring God into my everyday choices. Truth be told, He is already there, but I am not bringing my attention to Him. I will try to ask Him about more of my choices, the packing as well as the holiday destination, if you like. And now I really am going to start packing. Right after I’ve had another cup of tea.

OK Computer

Christian dating. A phrase to strike fear into the hardiest of hearts. Like ‘normal’ dating but with restrictions. (Perhaps some people’s view of the Christian life in general?)

Perhaps you know of a vibrant single Christian community? If you answered ‘yes’ and you’re in the UK, I might guess that you are either a)at university, or b) in one of the large city churches that are ‘known’ as places to go to meet single people.

If you’re not in either of those two situations, and especially if you older than 30, you might perhaps have fewer opportunities (perhaps none) to meet single Christians. If for you, like me, the faith of a potential partner is a deal-breaker, then options for meeting someone seem limited. And so… Here comes the internet.

I have heard horror stories of internet dating alongside positive experiences. Elsewhere I will write about some of my personal experiences (at the very least, internet dating provides you with a wealth of stories with which to amuse and alarm your friends). Today I want to address (non-single) people’s reactions to the phenomenon, by taking a quick look at a few common reactions from Christians:

1) Internet dating is for losers: The Christians who say this to me tend to be those who have been in a relationship for a long time from a fairly young age, and who don’t know that I have gone internet-dating. In order to spare their embarrassment, I don’t correct them, and change the subject. In London, amongst my single friends who aren’t Christian, internet dating is a norm. With a busy working life and then church commitments, and with neither of those two locations containing other single Christians, it seems obvious that internet dating is practical. Behind the negative view of internet dating perhaps lurk ideas about people who are single being single because they have poor social skills. I might advance the radical view that people on the internet are people, and therefore likely to have a whole range of life experiences and personal skills, some polished, some more incipient.

2) Internet dating shows a lack of trust in God to provide for you: Where to start? By this rationale none of us should ever look for a job, save for a pension, go house-hunting or make any other active choices. Similar views are often (slightly sniffily) expressed about people who move churches in the hope of finding more single people. Behind this perhaps lies a view that dating or wanting a partner is shameful – after all, I wouldn’t expect a family to be criticised for moving church to find a Sunday School for their children. Dating is somehow seen as something that only the weak or naughty do. Actively seeking it is admitting ‘defeat’. I am not convinced that a blanket passivity shows any more trust.

3) You shouldn’t seek a partner. You should be content with your status: See above. Anyone who has applied for a job, used contraception, taken an exam, moved house, might be seen as wanting to change or protect their status. I’m fine with the challenge for each of us to be content with our lives, but being content is not the same as never being proactive or being closed to a different life. Most annoying is when this is said by someone who does have a partner. (In my experience it is always said by someone who does have a partner.)

4) You will only meet people with poor social skills: Tremendous. All single Christian people in their 30s on dating sites have no social skills. Thank you for your kind words.

Maybe to you this sounds like I’m vilifying all married people ever in the church. For the last 6 years I’ve heard variations of these things said to me repeatedly by Christian people I otherwise respect. I would love to not hear these things on a regular basis.

Perhaps you can think of generalisations or half-thought through things people say to you about your life situation, whether you are looking or a job, have children, are unwell, are retired or have been bereaved.

My point is that co-existing with others who are have different life circumstances is difficult. It should be a constant challenge to our held views which contain stereotypes and assumptions. More often, and I totally include myself in this, we fall back on platitudes or half-formed views that don’t fully connect with the lived experience of the other person.

More helpful than statements like the ones above would perhaps be honest open enquiry when the issue is raised by the person concerned – asking how the person in that situation feels about it, and what they think the theological and life issues are that are raised by it. Asking a single friend about how they feel about dating opportunities, or how their single experience feeds into their view of how God provides may start a conversation. It may be an uncomfortable conversation, but it might allow hidden fears to be spoken and shared. It would demonstrate that the questionner views dating as a normal part of life for some people.

This week I’m going to be thinking about how I can gain other people’s views of their circumstances and experiences, and how I can allow the answers challenge my own assumptions.


Only the lonely?

I wonder when the last time was that you went to the cinema or to a restaurant on your own? Perhaps you travel for work and spend a lot of time on your own, perhaps the thought of being alone is a treasured dream in a too-busy life. Being on your own is sometimes wonderful, but may sometimes be lonely.


A few weeks ago someone who was single said something to me that I’ve heard on and off for the last 10 years. They expressed the thought that although they often wished for holiday companions or conversely dreamed of not having to live with strangers, yet the one place that they actually felt lonely was in church, and specifically, in Sunday services.


In practical terms it makes sense.


Organised church is a weekly event, to which people go, and where you have to choose where to sit. This is prime ‘feeling alone’ territory (cf. weddings without seating plans, some cinemas and so on)


Churches, because of location or reputation, often attract a particular social demographic. You can see this in ‘young professional’ churches in city centres that people commute to, and then in the suburban family churches. There seems to be a pre-ordained movement from student/young people > single and working > family churches for individuals. Single people who are not in their 20s are a much smaller group, and, perhaps because of a view that their situation is transitory or unusual, there don’t seem to be specific churches for this group. Within local congregations there may be no other single people in their 30s.


Churches run groups that match their congregations – some churches have enormous Sunday schools, churches filled with the over-60’s may not. I don’t want a group ‘for me’, but hearing about all the activities that others can be included in can highlight my alone-ness, in the same way that All Age services that include the line about thanking God for the love between parents and children can hit you like a sucker-punch if you’re feeling vulnerable already.


Families in the church services are necessarily and rightly focussed on their children and their family needs. To a single person sometimes each family group feels like a cog which can interlock with the other family cogs, with single people perhaps feeling more like a peg or bit of grit in the system, with our different priorities and limited ability to talk about family-related life.


Then there is the theology and imagery – and here I have to admit this is in the forefront of my mind as I prepare a sermon about John 2 – the wedding at Cana (the luck of the sermon-rota draw). Hearing about being the bride of Christ and weddings brings up ideas of marriage and not-marriage a lot more than in secular society. In a weekly dance class or Zumba session I am unlikely to confront ideas and images of partnership in the same way, whereas it is a regular church fixture.


Any of these things, and others, may leave a person in church on their own feeling vulnerable and alone.


In the rest of life if I find a place or organisation uncomfortable, I choose to not go, or to find a different venue with a different format. I love dance classes, but make sure I only go to ones where ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ constantly swap partners. The ‘fixed-partner’ ones would mean being paired with a stranger for an hour, which might be great, but might not be, or, worse, would mean not being paired with anyone and practising steps on my own. Instead I choose the classes where rotation of partners between moves lets me feel most comfortable and involved. If these aren’t available, then I don’t go.


If I am not part of a featured demographic, it is harder to find a church environment that enables me to feel normal. Not going doesn’t seem a great option, although I do try to avoid All-Age services as a particular trigger for feeling different. For the single people I have spoken to about this, there is definitely an element of organised church services being the loneliest feature of church life, and the one that they would sometimes prefer to avoid. I wonder whether this is also congruent with the experiences of minority groups within the Christian population.


Homegroups, prayer meetings and other formats of church don’t seem to be quite the same. Perhaps those involve more relational aspects, where people are known and whole family units are less likely to be present.The reality might be that everyone feels a bit out of place in a church service at some point. I am mindful that for different people for a host of reasons, church services  may not be a comfortable place, and I don’t have any easy solutions to offer.

In homegroup this week we were looking at John 1, and it  was striking that Jesus made the offer to those who were looking for Him: ‘Come and see’. Jesus calls all of us to Him. I wonder how we could look again at our formal services to truly allow all people to ‘Come and see’ without feeling lonely or in any other way excluded.