Singleness and the Church

A New Theology of the Single Life

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Jana Marguerite Bennett
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Singleness and the Church: A New Theology of the Single Life, Jana Marguerite Bennett offers an excellent start to a conversation about singleness that has long been missing in Christian churches. Bennett begins by arguing rightly that “the church’s own way of speaking about singleness is a reason why Christians forget single people in their midst” (2). She structures the book so that each chapter demonstrates a different stage of singleness, from never-been-married to widowed. She examines how secular society and the church engage with each stage of singleness, then chronicles a historical or contemporary figure in each stage to show how they, in their singleness, offered a gift back to the church. Singleness and the Church is a beginning point for both academics and those in ministry to begin to think about the complexities of singleness, and how churches can both treat them better and also learn from the single people in their congregations.

Bennett launches her discussion of different stages of singleness with her chapter, “Choice: Never Married and Paul,” focusing on all singles who have never married through the lens of choice. Bennett rightly highlights the “theological concerns with choice” (27) particularly when it comes to how American Christians describe relationships. She disputes the common conception that single people have unlimited freedom and choice, which is based in consumerism and not the gospel. She instead reasons that all Christians should be directed to “the choice that makes us most free to follow Christ” (54), from the letters of the unmarried Apostle Paul. Bennett’s discussion of choice is fundamental for later chapters.

In the chapter on uncommitted relationships, Bennett examines those singles in any relationship not headed towards marriage alongside hookup culture and sex-trafficking. Grouping all of these very different singles into one category is unproductive for her argument. However, Bennett successfully demonstrates how the Christian response to uncommitted relationships has been just as problematic as the secular culture’s response has been. The following chapter, “Committed: Perfection and John Wesley,” sets up a contrast between uncommitted singles (those not headed towards marriage) and those in committed relationships (which she defines as those engaged, betrothed, or otherwise heading towards covenantal commitment). By defining these groups by marriageability, marriage is still the focus rather than singleness. However, a later chapter, “How Christians Contribute to the Casual Sexual Revolution” is one of the strongest sections in the text, showing how the Christian perspective on cohabitation is the opposite of the secular argument, with both sides anxious over marriage and divorce. Bennett uses thrice-engaged John Wesley to show how his focus on Christian perfection redirects away from the idolization of marriage as the search for “The One” towards God as “The One.”

In her chapter on same-sex attracted singles, Bennett attempts to avoid the current debate between celibacy-only and pro-LGBTQ marriage by recommending twelfth-century English Cistercian monk Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship. She asserts that much of the discussion around LGBTQ issues in the church has focused around marriage, with little discussion of same-sex attracted single Christians. Aelred’s spiritual friendship, based in the Gospel of John, is an important addition to the conversation, but spiritual friendship is unlikely to be a panacea for those advocating for full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians into the church. It is admirable, however, for Bennett to search out the gifts that seldom discussed singles, like LGBTQ singles and those in uncommitted relationships, have to offer back to the church.

Bennett’s final three chapters focus on singles who are often neglected in discussions of singleness: widows, divorced singles, and single parents. Bennett argues that widowhood proclaims the good news of Christ conquering death against what she deems “a culture of death” (135). In chapter 7, Bennett reveals how divorce teaches us about grace through the false dichotomy between real life (people in pain and grief overdivorce) and idealized circumstances (Christ’s work in Scripture). She demonstrates through Stanley Hauerwas’s story that God is still present despite a divorce. On single parenting, Bennett provides an analysis of the rarely positive interaction between single parents and the church. Drawing on her earlier argument against consumerist choice, Bennett underscores the incongruity between how single parents are encouraged to get jobs to be self-sufficient while two-parent families are enjoined to have a stay-at-home parent (ideally a mother) at home with their children. Single mother and Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day exemplifies that neither single parents nor any Christian is self-sufficient. All must rely on each other in community and on God.

Overall, Singleness and the Church constructs a strong argument that the church’s idolization of the family is hurting single people in all stages of life. As she attests, there is little written about singleness, but hopefully feminist theologians will take up her call to engage with the topic of singleness. Later work on singleness could wrestle with those viewpoints that are more liberal on sexuality (especially in the same-sex attracted and uncommitted chapters) since Bennett has little engagement with them. As she correctly contends, mainline Christians have largely ignored sexuality and, in doing so, also ignored singleness. This is unfortunate, because mainline churches, and other liturgical-leaning churches, have the opportunity through liturgies beyond the scope of marriage and holy orders (e.g., the Order of Widows, Spiritual Friendship, liturgies of betrothal, and potential liturgies of divorce) to fully include singles into the lives of churches. Perhaps one day the church will be a place where singles in all stages of life will be celebrated, both literally and liturgically. Singleness and the Church is an important beginning step towards that goal.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephanie Townes is an Independent Scholar and servces at the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jana Marguerite Bennett is associate professor of theological ethics at the University of Dayton. She is also the author of Water is Thicker than Blood: An Augustinian Theology of Marriage and Singleness (Oxford University Press) and blogs for Catholic Moral Theology.


Jana Bennett

Thanks for taking the time to review my book! 

I have a couple points to add to this discussion. First, I think you're right to raise the question of whether the non-committed/committed relationships chapters work. It may well be that each of the kinds of relationships I name - like hook ups, or casual sexual encounters, or dating, or engagement, or cohabitation, needs its own chapter. It may well be that my decision about grouping doesn't work. I do want to develop that decision here a bit, however.

I actually don't see myself trying to delineate those along the lines of marriage specifically, but along the lines of lifetime commitment, of which marriage is a key example. As I say in the uncommitted relationships chapter, uncommitted relationships "intentionally aim at being uncommitted, are frequently short-term, and tend to focus on sexual activity as an important aspect (though not the only aspect)." (p. 56) On the other hand, my discussion of committed relationships is not solely about marriage, though that is likely to be a key question for many. Rather, I see myself as trying to give some room for those who want to protest or reject marriage, but who yet are different from the uncommitted relationships of chapter 3.  As I say in chapter 4 on committed relationships, "what ties together dating, serious cohabitation, and engagements are the ways that they ask similar questions of marriage relationships, or at least of the concept of lifetime commitments that are so much a part of our social understanding of marriage." (84) It seemed to me that bringing together relationships involving commitments was helpful, since I do think people make distinctions between casual cohabitation and more committed cohabitation - or between casual dating and dating directed toward a long term goal - and those distinctions are important, and reflect different kinds of questions from each of the people involved, as well as from Christian communities. But again, this distinction could be wrong. I think it's worth thinking through this question for anyone engaged in future work.

The second point I want to raise is about Aelred and LGBT. I think you're right that spiritual friendship is unlikely to be a panacea if one is concerned about marriage inclusion - but that also emphasizes the difficulty of speaking about LGBTQ singles. Even if one comes from a Christian tradition that supports full inclusion of LGBTQ in relation to marriage, I still think there's a question that remains, which is about how to respect a person's single life, especially when so much of the language surrounding LGBTQ rights has been about marriage. So in that sense, the Aelred chapter isn't meant to be a panacea but directed toward other kinds of concerns and questions that shape single life in particular, and that recognize the lives of some (not uncontroversial!) gays and lesbians who see some kind of gift in single life that they want to share with the church. 

I'd love to see feminist scholars, liturgical scholars, and others raise exactly the kinds of questions you mention in the final paragraph. Again, many thanks.

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