Single Christian women are more likely to leave the Church than any other group. If leaders don’t respond to women’s concerns about sexism, misogyny and their role in church life soon, it will be too late to stem the tide, says Dr Katie Gaddini
I’ve been researching women in Christianity since 2013. What started as an investigation into female sexuality and purity culture quickly morphed to a larger, more encompassing study on what it means to be a single woman in the Church today. Single women are the group most likely to disaffiliate from Christianity in the UK, which led me to ask: why?
It’s like I am in ‘third place’ in the Church hierarchy, behind the married people and the kids
The answer, it turns out, is complex. Over the years, I’ve met many different types of single Christian women: some live in urban centres, such as London, and others in small towns. They range in age from 22-50, and come from an array of Christian denominations, including Pentecostal and Church of England. At last count, the women in my study comprise nine different nationalities. Despite all of this, similarities cut across the many of their differences. In my book, The Struggle to Stay: Why single evangelical women are leaving the Church (Columbia University Press), I focus on four main types of single Christian women. It’s worth saying that there are single, Christian women who are happy in the Church and hold very few grievances. But they are a minority. Most fall into one of profiles below:
A stalwart and devoted churchgoer. This single Christian woman persists in her commitment to the Church and her desire to make it a more equitable place for women. Although she harbours frustrations and disappointments with the way single women are treated, she desires to change the institution from the inside. She may aspire to a leadership role, though not always; more so, she just wants to be accepted as she is, to be valued on her own terms, without a husband by her side. She has a close-knit group of other single female friends who sustain her, and who she considers her “community.” She desires marriage and motherhood, though may be disillusioned with dating in the Church, especially the lack of options, given the imbalanced ratio of women to men.
The Drifter comes late to Sunday services and leaves early. She lingers at the back of the church sanctuary and knows very few people. Some Sundays she skips church altogether, lacking the gumption to show up. This type of single Christian women often feels invisible and out of place in church anyway, especially at services full of married couples and children, so her outward behaviour begins to match her inward feelings. You’re more likely to find The Drifter among women of colour and working class women, whose intersecting identities of marginalisation increase the exclusion they feel in the Christian community.
No longer attending church, The Doubter remains on the outside of church life, though she still believes many of the core tenets of Christianity. Her relationship with God remains strong, and she is adamant about separating the Church, as a body of fallible believers, from Jesus. She doesn’t doubt the Bible itself, she doubts the way the Bible has been interpreted by pastors and fellow Christians. She may struggle with a pastor’s complementarian theology, or her church’s view on LGTBQ issues. Alternatively, experiences of sexual misconduct in the Church may precipitate doubts, causing her to distrust it as an institution, even as she holds tight to her Christian beliefs. She’s got one foot in and one foot out, and she may remain in this place for a long time.
This is a single Christian woman you are unlikely to meet at church, because she does not attend anymore. In fact, she doesn’t even call herself a Christian, or believe the tenets of Christianity. Single women reach this point when they’ve finally snapped, meaning their wounds and grievances with the Church have reached a breaking point. A snap is a word that invokes action; it’s also a word that connotes irrevocability, meaning you don’t come back from it. Although it may seem like one single event or encounter causes The Apostate woman to abandon her faith, it’s actually the accrual of years of feeling that she doesn’t belong, she doesn’t fit, she is de-valued. In the words of one thirty-something woman I met: “It’s like I am in ‘third place’ in the Church hierarchy, far behind the married people and the kids.”
Women, and single women in particular, have kept Christian churches in the UK afloat for decades. And it’s no secret that, in the UK and US, women far outnumber men in terms of church attendance. However, the finding that single women are disaffiliating from Christianity raises many concerns. Who will ensure the continuation of Church life if women are leaving?
Maybe it’s finally time that leaders started listening to the concerns of single Christian women, addressing systemic misogyny, classism and racism, and valuing women as equal members of the body of Christ.