THE INVISIBLE IMAGE
The Ageing Single Woman in the Church
by Brigid O'Carroll
There have been many sad moments in my life as a woman: times when I am sad
on my own behalf and times when I am sad on behalf of others. Such a moment
happened in Beijing in September, 1995, when the UN Women's Conference and
Women's Forum were held there.
For the first time, the Vatican delegation to the official Conference had
female representation. Surrounding me on my floor of the Hua Du Hotel, were
women - including quite a variety of nuns - who were members of Women and
the Australian Church.
Some were attending a briefing held by the Vatican delegation. I tagged
along. Women were packed into the large room in which the briefing was held
until there was standing room only. A monsignor chaired the session.
Questions came from the floor. A woman of middle years asked a question
about single women. The monsignor's response dealt with women in religious
life, nuns. Clearly, for him, 'single women' equals 'nuns'.
I am single. Widowed. How often I remember the woman who organised a
highly successful Junior Church in our Baptist congregation in the
Australian outback. I can remember how she used to discuss with a few of us
how she felt she was treated (read ignored) in the church. I was
sympathetic but I was in a family situation - husband, three children. How
could I know what life and relationships in our congregation were like for a
single school teacher of middle years? What was theoretical to me then is
my own experience now.
Is your church a family church, a family friendly church? This is
wonderful. To have ministry directed specifically to families is a
wonderful goal and strategy. But be careful. Almost certainly there are
single people among you. It is so easy to overlook them, or look past them.
They may have children. They may never have married and never had children.
They may be young and lonely or ageing and lonely and chances are the word
forgotten could be fitted in there somewhere. Particularly if the single is
female. Definitely, if the female is single, female, and ageing.
The Single Ageing Female
The single ageing female is more likely than not to have experienced
gendered ageism - even in the family friendly church. She is, too
frequently, invisible. The image of God, but invisible.
Why is this? Do we accord no status to women without a man? Are some women
too afraid to allow a single woman into situations where they will become
friendly with their husbands too? I have been fortunate in this respect to
the extent where I get cuddles from my Christian male friends (but not from
non-Christian males). They understand my need for touch and their wives
You may be thinking I know women in this category but they don't make these
complaints. This may be so - there were/are docile slaves but this does not
endorse slavery. In fact, the most effective form of repression is the one
where victims limit their own behaviour and the dominant forces achieve
their desired result with no effort.
Consider the role of women in your church. How likely is it in your church
for a woman to head a planning and strategy committee? How likely is it
that a woman is the treasurer in your church? How likely is it that she
will be influential in the Sunday School committee, the crèche, and seeing
that church dinners go smoothly? This even before we mention controversial
questions like ordination and eldership and authority over men.
I emphasise these roles because the male, even though single, has all these
things open to him. In most cases, women whether married or single, would
not have the first two roles open to them.
You might say that things are not like that in your church, that your senior
pastors are a husband and wife team. Have you considered the role of the
wife were her husband to predecease her? Would the female spouse continue
to run the church or would the elders be putting out feelers for another
husband and wife team? Would the situation be different if the male spouse
survived and the female spouse died (bear in mind that statistically men
remarry quickly - women don't)? Importantly, how would the women in the
church feel about all of this?
The Image of God
In Genesis 1:27 we read 'So God created humankind in his image, in the
image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.'
Feminists talk about equality. Christians who don't like the feminist
viewpoint talk about complementarity. Men have talked about the weaker sex.
Women have talked about male dominance. I suggest we look at this most
Do you see any suggestions of equality there? Do you see reference to two
equal halves of a whole? Do you see any fraction whatsoever - like the male
part of the image is larger than the female image? Do you see any reference
to complementarity? Any reference to this piece of the jigsaw fitting in
that part of the jigsaw? Some thing lacking in one part of humanity that is
made up for in the other?
We are God's image. Is God fragmented or androgynous?
The answer is none of the above.
We are only beginning to learn what being imaged in God is about - but we
have lots of insights into what it is not.
It is no more about entrenching maleness in church authority, leadership,
ministry and ordination than it is about ensuring that such roles and
classification display Greek or Jewish qualities.
It is about wholeness - wholeness of the individual and wholeness of the
corporate, the Body of Christ.
As we understand more about our biology and our psychology we learn that
this is so. Females have a component of male hormones. Males have a
component of female hormones. Males manifest anima, females manifest
animus. These components are part of our wholeness, our humanity, our God
So it is with time. God is not time conscious. He lives beyond our concept
of time. Why then do we not have a transcendent attitude to time as it
manifests itself in the images of God, men and women? Why do we give
preference on the basis of age? In some societies, the young are sublimated
to respect for elders. In western societies, we increasingly see the old
set aside to focus on the young. We are diminished in our humanity when we
fail to touch or see the Spirit in the other.
Galatians 3:28: 'There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave
or free, there is
no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.'
How often have I heard this passage of scripture talked down. It does not
depict the present situation, some say. This is when Jesus comes back or
when we go to Heaven. It is as if Paul said, Not now but at some future
time there will be no longer Jew or Greek, there will be no longer slave or
free, there will no longer be male and female, for all of you will be one in
Christ Jesus. Do you see all that written in this passage? I don't.
It has only one time specific and that is no longer and that no longer was
written almost two millennia ago. Denial of this passage invites denial of
the entirety of Paul's teaching about the Body of Christ. What do you think
was part of the attraction of early Christianity? The patriarchy? Is this
what so many pagan and Jewish women were attracted to when they heard Paul
preach the gospel?
Finally, when we do make distinctions, when we do speak of complementarity,
or of some being more equal than others, when we speak of anything other
than individual or corporate wholeness how can we ever be one in Christ
Jesus? How can we ever know that unity that Jesus described in John
17:20-23, the unity which preceded Creation, redeemed us through
Incarnation, Death and Resurrection, and transforms us and fits us to return
to Him whose image we are?
Every differentiation we make sets back God's plan in and for us. Every
piece of partisanship unravels that Body which is knit together and lives
and moves and has its being in Him.
As ever it has been, the choice is for wholeness and relationship against
duality and fragmentation. I know where I stand - and I can do no other.
Topics for Discussion
1. Rosemary Radford Ruether says: 'God did not just speak once upon a time
to a privileged group of males in one part of the world, making us ever
after dependent on the codification of their experience.'
If Jesus had chosen six women and six men as apostles, what difference do
you think this would have made to the gospel message? What impact would
this have had on the church and the scriptures?
2. Discuss Jeremiah's description of the Lord creating a new thing on the
earth: a woman encompassing a man. (Jeremiah 31:22)
3. Are women in the Church in the 21st Century, whatever their age or
marital status, able to go beyond the roles of women in the New Testament?
Are there limitations on women to-day? If so, what are they?
4. How can women go beyond cultural and religious contexts towards
5. How does the Church acknowledge sexuality in the single and the ageing?
6. How does the Church acknowledge articulate, skilled and competent women
in its midst?
7. How can women in the Church co-operate in reflection on their experience
of being imaged in God and empowered and encouraged in Christ Jesus and have
this acknowledged within their local faith communities?
8. How can women become exemplars to ensure that within family, church,
community and nation there are no longer racial, economic, gender or social
9. How can women image the Divine within family, church, community, and
10. Discuss Robert Palmer's phrase First the God, then the song, and then