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.