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All by ourselves

Some time next year the single-occupancy home is expected to become the most common in Britain. So why, asks CATHERINE VON RUHLAND, do single people still find it so hard to find an unconditional welcome in churches.


About three years ago, I chose to leave standard-issue evangelicalism behind once and for all because I had simply grown out of what was expected of me as a single person. Although mine was a theological parting of the ways, there had been practices - coincidentally all related to my being an unmarried individual - that had also irritated me in the years that I had worshipped at my local church.

An annual harvest lunch segregated single people at a separate table to everyone else. The people I complained to at the time each justified it as if it was an acceptable practice. Additionally, I had never once been invited to share a meal - even beans on toast - with any family in the parish. Yet lone GAP year church volunteers from afar were suitably fed and watered by those very same families, which meant they had the space and time to offer hospitality. Young mothers were welcomed with open arms to the women's fellowship groups while it took me the best part of three years to even discover there was one for women of my own age. I'd had to invite myself.

The practices of that particular church were fairly routine among my experiences as a single woman in the church. Just as I've never met a single Christian who wouldn't prefer to be happily married given the choice, I've yet to meet one who hasn't a tale to tell about the poor way they've been treated by fellow believers because of their solo status. Equally, I am not surprised when I hear of yet another - invariably a thirtysomething female - who's left the church for that very same reason. 

Fortunately I also belonged to a smaller, more inclusive church where I felt valued for myself regardless of my marital status and sexuality. But sadly, I've single friends who ended up turning their backs on God altogether.

The fair treatment of singletons could remain a peripheral and oft-neglected issue in any family-centred fellowship were it not for a significant shift in the make-up of British society as a whole. Twice as many people, 12 per cent of the population, now live alone in private households as in 1971, and by next year, the single-person home is forecast to be the most common type of household at 40 per cent of the total.1 A British Church which predominantly caters for married couples and families over single members has therefore little to offer the wider community .

The care of the widow has been a recognised duty since Bible times. With 'orphans in their distress' it stands alongside 'keeping oneself unstained by the world' as an indication of righteousness.2 Certainly, when I lost my father earlier this year, my mother was immediately inundated with invites from 'the widows network' of fellow elderly women at her church and among her neighbours. Whether elderly widowers - or indeed the younger so bereaved - fare so well is debatable.

Yet interestingly, although on average people are living longer, the largest increase of one-person households has been among those who are below state pension age3. If coupledom is one of our culture's prescribed aspirations - we're obsessed with romance rather than sex - it is a lifestyle being attacked from both ends.  

People are marrying later in life. In 2006, the average age for a first marriage for men was 31.8 years, and for women 29.7.4 These are statistics youth leaders would do well to ponder when they're next encouraging teenagers to 'wait until marriage'. Of course, many couples choose to cohabit before they tie the knot. Within the last year, two of my friends have each married for the first time in their mid-forties which rather skews the figures. Each of their relationships had already lasted for the best part of 20 years. 

Older women are less likely to find a partner their own age or older. There are 103.9 female per 100 male births5, but by their early 30s, the difference is more pronounced, Between the ages of 35-64, 51 per cent of the population are female and 49% are male. Aged 65 and over, 61 per cent of the elderly are women.6 While 35 per cent of men and 61 per cent of women out of the population live alone, interestingly between the ages of 16 and 44, 17 per cent of men as opposed to 10 per cent of women do7, presumably because many single women have children living with them.

The widening of educational opportunities and a corresponding broadening of career paths especially for women over the last 40-50 years has affected their relationships. Provided they enjoyed their job and earned a good enough salary to finance their own home, they no longer had to marry.

However, the abrupt ending to the economic boom that fuelled the good careers and busy working life that bolstered singletons' self-esteem by financing their quality lifestyles and new experiences8 might now take the gloss off such independent lifestyles. However, the grass is no more green among newly financially-strapped married professionals. It is striking how much of an impact economic fortune makes on singleness figures.

From a peak at over 180,000 divorces in Britain in 1998, figures have been steadily declining in tandem with the numbers choosing to get married. In 2007, divorces fell for the third consecutive year to a rate of 11.9 per 100 married - and the lowest figures since 19819. Yet by January of this
year, lawyers were warning of a hike in the number of break-ups. Two million predominantly professional and middle-management couples are expected to be seeking legal advice due to the fatal combination of Christmas stresses and a financial recession.

'Couples who papered over the cracks with open chequebooks are now seeing those cracks as full fault lines,' said Sandra Davis, family partner at law firm Mishcon de Reya.10 Be aware the value of your divorce settlement can go down as well as up.


Yet even when couples are not splitting up, an increasing number are choosing to live apart. Sometimes their wealth allows them to, though it is notable that famous couples 'living apart together' such as Margaret Drabble and Michael Holroyd, and Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton, are all creatives who perhaps value time to work alone as well as time to spend with each other. The flipside is that there are couples who would actually prefer to live together but are prevented from doing so because the value of each of their properties they bought as singletons are together not enough to buy a home for both of them. A 2008 Shelter report estimated that 1.1 million women and 800,000 men with regular partners were living in separate homes,11 a phenomenon that adds to the number of single households and is contributing to the housing shortage.

Let us not forget, too, the numerous unmarried individuals who remain in the parental home or live in shared accommodation, and those, especially during the student years and after, who flip between the two until they can afford to rent or buy their own space. Because what is especially evident from the statistics and recent household trends is that singleness is not a single issue. There are a range of reasons why individuals are on their own and ways in which they live, which is why any church response to such major cultural change and the people at the heart of it must be considered and adaptable.

Society at large needs to learn how to deal with this new reality. For a start, politicians of all persuasions will have to stop referring to 'hardworking families' as if every other type of household is not only of less value but consists only of utter shirkers! The Conservatives' plan to reintroduce a marriage tax allowance should they gain power is remarkably out of step with how adult Britons actually live their lives. It is not only those in cohabiting couples whose lifestyles they would be openly discriminating against via such a policy. 

Any party in power would do well to take heed of a 2005 survey of 1,050 single people aged between 16 and 65 to coincide with that year's National Singles Week, which found that 93 per cent of those questioned felt that the Government could do more to recognise the importance of the growing single population and change tax policies that penalised them.12 An NHS, too, which depends on patients being supported at home by partners and family members is not going to be able to rely on such a cheap resource for very much longer.

Over the course of their lives single people spend around an extra £266,000 on living costs compared to those in couples.13 The weekly household expenditure of one adult with no children is £351.90 compared with £550.60 spent by any pair of adults without dependents.14 For the single occupant, the cost of housing, fuel etc must be met by the one income.

Away from home, singletons contend with such everyday irritations as finding no value in buy-one-get-one-free offers in their local supermarket - and in fact, by definition paying a premium price for their food should they only want the one item. Staying in hotels they face the blatant discrim­ination of being charged a single room supplement for not necessarily even a particularly nice room (I prefer to pay a little more for a spacier twin room). Yet as the buying power of the single population becomes fully recognised, then presumably companies will adapt their products and advertising accordingly to attract their business.

If the church is similarly to respond to this major change in British society, a phenomenon that is, incidentally, occurring throughout the developed world, then it needs to be humble enough to recognise its past failures on this matter. I have not found any statistics detailing the numbers of single people, especially women, who leave any fellowship due to their marital status but in my experience it is not an unusual occurrence. (Christian singleness is a predominantly female occurrence, which suggests that the British church is failing the men of this nation as much as the lone women in its ranks.)

A vicar did once tell me that after the First World War, the church in this country did Britain's women a great disservice. Mothers, wives, sisters had lost their men-folk, but most significantly there was an entire generation of young women who, having been brought up to believe that marriage was their birthright, had to face the reality that only one in ten had any chance of finding a spouse. 'For many of the bereaved the established Church fell short in answering the questions posed by the deaths of such a multitude.'15 Finding no solace, they simply turned their backs and walked away. The British Church today risks repeating such a mistake if it is unprepared or unwilling to address the 21st Century needs and concerns faced by this new mass of single women and men.

British evangelical Christianity has to its credit at least historically attempted to address the issue of singleness among its members. Back in the 1980s, the Evangelical Alliance surveyed their numbers and also published a Bible study programme on the subject, albeit patronisingly entitled 'Singularly Significant' (gee, thanks!) . Yet any evangelical promotion of singleness as 'a gift' was contradicted by a notable lack of singletons being given prominent church roles. For example, never before had there been so many graduate Christian women yet, at events such as Spring Harvest, a woman's selection as a speaker was largely dependent on her husband's leadership position.

Those singletons I've encountered who fled that brand of faith noticeably remark on the breath-of-fresh-air sense of independence and freedom they now feel. Ironically, the very act of being identified as 'single' by their churches in a bid to respond to their needs had left them alienated. By definition, this posited them as somehow apart from the married 'norm' - which is neither true on either a human, nor spiritual level. As Paul wrote: 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you all one in Christ Jesus.'16

We can see by the make-up of our society as a whole and its fluid relationships that the Church's traditional binary distinction that labels individuals as either 'married' or 'single' no longer holds sway. Arguably this is a positive development; human beings are not digital in design, but rather analogue creations.  Each of us is similar but different.
The movement among some Christians to incorporate gay relationships notably misses this point. When Bishop Gene Robinson declared in this magazine that 'Nobody is saying that anything goes. What we are saying is that faithful, monogamous, lifelong, intentional relationships don't always have to be with the opposite sex'17 it gave the impression that he and his ilk had blindly missed a - God-given? - ground-breaking opportunity to grapple with what relationship and human sexuality really mean. Apart from being on philosophical, and sexual, let alone theological, thin ice, such a standpoint sidelines anybody - gay, straight, bi or none of the above - who does not have a long-term partner.

Never mind wondering at what point one's committed relationship officially becomes 'for life' (I know a couple who met in a nightclub, had a one-night stand and over 15 years later remain together with two young children), this supposedly more inclusive development also serves to devalue any other relationship, sexual or otherwise, that people might have.


While widespread societal change throughout the 20th century transformed and relaxed British Christian attitudes to women's rights, divorce and, latterly, homosexuality, the single Christian has been allowed no such laxity.  Never mind the Swinging Sixties, the sexual revolution was set in motion by two world wars shaking up young lives and opportunities against a backdrop of potential death, yet singletons are generally treated by church leaders as if any such cultural shifts simply passed them by.

I was genuinely surprised that the Anglican Church's Windsor Report of 2004 reiterated an earlier Lambeth Conference resolution upholding 'faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union,' believing 'that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage.'18  Not in a good number of the CofE churches I've worshipped in…

Because, as long as celibacy is regarded as the only option for those not in couples, then there is no space for them to be truly open and honest about their lives and experiences and, what's more, how they might have been blessed via such encounters. I certainly was. My decision to opt out of virginity brought an immediate release from long-term mental anguish, but also a continuing blessing through the friendship it brought the two of us.

For years, I had recognised the discrepancy between married Christians including ministers somewhat callously advising me merely to 'accept' my unhappy single status - and my understanding of who Jesus was. I was certainly not experiencing the 'life in all its fullness'19 that he promised those who followed him. I knew too that the hairs on my head were numbered',20 which meant that God knew and cared and continues to care about mine and every one of our unmet needs and desires. He shares our pain and tears along with our joys.

I grew wary too of church leaders who spoke of 'people who struggle with singleness' or 'struggle with homosexuality'. Again, it wasn't what Jesus was saying. Rather, he declares: 'Come to me all who are heavily laden and I will give thee rest.'21 It was at the point when I stopped struggling and asked 'Is this really what you want of me?' that he showed me that it's not about where we put our 'bits', but rather what's in our hearts that matters. I was never more sure of Christ's love for me and mine for him.

Jesus teaches us that the greatest commandment is 'to love the Lord God with all your heart, mind, spirit and strength and love your neighbour as yourself.'22 That is the bottom line of our faith - and the heart of our response to a growing population of people housed one by one.

Focusing on so-called 'family values' - at least how we in the West regard family life - isn't an especially Christian calling. On the contrary, Jesus spoke of how following him would lead to family breakdown. 'Brother will deliver brother to death, and the father his child. Children will rise up against their parents, and have them put to death.'23

A Christian society's basic unit is not 'the family' then, but rather the loving, sharing community that places equal value on the individuals therein. Single Christians are routinely advised to look to Jesus as the single role model, but his is more a model for community living, and it is far more close-knit than the churches that most of us attend. Jesus is both surrounded by friends yet has time to himself. Even the Son of God needs regular human companionship and intimacy but it is notably balanced with him finding space alone to think and pray.

Although Paul misses the mark in his assumption that the unmarried don't care about the things of the world24 - as if we don't have to worry about keeping the fridge stocked - single Christians do have a relative freedom that those with families do not, and they are beholden only to God. If singleness has any meaning as 'a gift', then it is at a very profound level that should not be referred to glibly and should probably remain unsaid. I distrust those who claim it of their own singleness since, if it were so, they wouldn't have to say it.

For those of us living the very predicament of being on our own yet trusting that we are ultimately not alone, our value is not so much in the practical actions we might carry out on behalf of the Kingdom (and let's be honest, marriage has rarely prevented Christian men from gallivanting off round the world to follow their supposed calling). But instead our place is to convey that God loves each one of us for our intrinsic worth, and that his grace is enough for us to simply be.


1 Office for National Statistics. 'Proportion of people living alone doubled since 1971'. Press release. 15th April 2009.
2 James 1: 27.
3 Office for National Statistics. Social Trends. No 39. Pelgrave Macmillan, 2009. p15.
4 Office for National Statistics. Social Trends. p19.
5 Office for National Statistics. As above. p2.
6 Office for National Statistics. As above. p12.
7 Office for National Statistics. As above. p17.
8 living-is-the-new-way-to-find-happiness. August 3 2005.
9 Batty, David. 'Divorce rate at its lowest for 26 years'. the Guardian. . 29 August 2008.
10 Verkaik , Robert. 'Divorce rate to hit new peak'. the Independent. 2 January 2009.
11 Sherman, Jill. 'The middle-aged, middle-class couples living "apart together" who add to housing shortage'. the Times. 19th November 2008.
12 Shaikh, Thair. 'Single living is the new way to find happiness'. 3rd August 2005.
13  as above. August 3 2005.
14 Office for National Statistics. As above. p85.
15 Nicholson, Virginia. Singled Out. Viking, 2007, p.18.
16 Galatians 3:28.
17 'Pink and Purple'. Third Way. March 2009.
19 John 10:10.
20 Matthew 10:30.
21 Matthew 11:28.
22 Matthew 22:37-40.
23 Matthew 10:21.
24 I Corinthians 7:32-34.