Why are married people so threatened by the idea that singleness might be equal to marriage? Equally valuable. Equally good. Or even, (shock! horror!) better?
I was hopping mad after Morning Prayer on Zoom one morning recently. (Which makes a change from half asleep. It really isn’t my best time of day!).
We had a reading from 1 Corinthians 7 – the passage in which Paul dares to suggest that singleness might be preferable to marriage. I was the only singleton there. Immediately several coupled/married attendees leapt in with warnings about the dangers of taking verses out of context, cries that this should clearly not be taken literally (because, seriously, nobody could possibly mean this surely?!), and the need to be aware that Paul was writing in, and to, a particular context. Some of which is true of course, and should not be discounted. And yet…
For too long society has peddled the damaging myth that coupledom is best and singleness is inferior. How many books, films, plays, end with the hero(ine) happily single (apart, obviously, from Robert Munsch’s wonderful children’s book: The Paperbag Princess)? In both life and fiction singleness and single people find themselves stigmatised, pitied, made fun of, discriminated against, treated as inferior, seen as somehow lacking, and ‘less than’ their coupled counterparts.
For too long the Protestant church has compounded the damage, by suggesting that marriage is also God’s best. The phrase ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ (Genesis 2 v. 18) has been misinterpreted as meaning that marriage is God’s ideal, and that being married somehow makes people better qualified for ministry, more experienced, more competent, more emotionally mature, more stable, more fulfilled, more happy, more…well just about more everything that is regarded as desirable.
Here in Corinthians is Paul saying that this isn’t true. That the opposite might even be true. That singleness might actually have advantages. That single people might be in a position to be closer to God, and better equipped for ministry than married people. The tables, for once, are turned, and guess what? Married people don’t like it! Not one little bit.
It challenges their life choices. It challenges the prevailing narrative of marriage, or at least coupledom, as superior and preferable. I do not want to claim superiority but to demand equality, and a redressing of a balance which for far too long has been tipped against those who are single. Jesus himself says that there will be no marriage in heaven. Marriage is an earthly institution. In heaven we all get to be single. And that will be God’s best for all of us. It is time we started giving singleness and single people here on earth the value and status that they are given by God.
Usually at Morning Prayer I am half asleep in bed, in my pjs, unable even to look at the screen. I am a keen but passive attendee. But that morning I was not willing to sit (or rather, lie) back and let these ‘smug marrieds’ dismiss and gloss over the radical importance of what Paul is saying here, and the encouraging and liberating potential it has for those of us who are single. Paul is celebrating singleness, proclaiming the advantages it holds, and to deny this is to collude in the damaging ‘marriage is better’ myth, and miss something which has the power to transform life for many.
My Masters research looked at the issues faced by single women in the church. One of the biggest is the Protestant Church’s near idolisation of marriage, and its conscious and unconscious stigmatisation of singleness to the great detriment of its single members. There are, unbelievably, churches in the UK today who refuse to allow single adults in leadership positions, even leadership of small groups. (Bad luck Jesus and Paul: your supposedly second-best marital status disqualifies you from being regarded as wise/mature/experienced/reliable/stable/trustworthy enough to be in a position of leadership, teaching or authority over others!)
In churches which do not overtly discriminate, this stigmatisation is often unconsciously present in the kinds of events put on, courses offered, the lack of diversity in leadership roles, the liturgy and words used as a matter of course, the prayers voiced, celebrations held, types of services offered, the very obvious valuing and nurturing of young families over middle-aged singles, the implied assumption that everyone who matters has a partner (and children), and there is no need to cater for those who don’t (unless widowed in later life, in which case you are valued, or possibly pitied, for having now lost the one supposedly most important thing in life, and reverted to an ostensibly inferior and unenviable status).
I am now fortunate to be in a church where this is not (mostly!) the case. But my last church offered a 20s and 30s group (basically a marriage bureau), marriage preparation, the Marriage Course, parenting courses, and family fun days which very definitely did not include singles. I have nothing against most of these things in theory, (well, ok, maybe I’d question the need for a defacto marriage bureau, and the exclusive family fun days). However when a friend and I offered to put together and run a course supporting and equipping singles in the church (of which there were a significant number) and celebrating singleness, we were told that the church was not interested, and there was no demand for it. We knew there was.
On perhaps my third visit to my current church the vicar (now rector) referred to singles and singleness in his sermon in terms which were positive not negative. It felt extraordinary and transformative. I introduced myself, thanked him, and asked if the church offered anything to support single people in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Later that year they asked me to preach on singleness, and to write and run the course my previous church had rejected.
I have not taken a vow to remain single for ever. I am not anti marriage. I do however feel called to champion those who are single (by choice or by circumstance), to fight their corner, to celebrate singleness, to help singles to live lives that are both full and fulfilled, and to help everyone see singleness as a glorious challenge and opportunity, a pathway through life that can be as a good as, and equal to marriage, not a curse, or a sign of failure. And to challenge those who are tempted to put marriage on some kind of pedestal, and who suggest that God does likewise. If necessary I will do so half asleep, from my bed, and in my pyjamas.