This weekend is Seeds Retreat - that is, all the communities connected with Urban Seed getting together to hang out. I'm running a session on 'Single people, coupled people and community'. I put a few thoughts on paper to do with my own stories of singleness in intentional Christian community. This won't be the crux of my session but it helps me to understand my experiences when I write them down!
Single and living in community
I’ve never really identified as a Single Person before. I’ve had long periods of singleness, yes – but a primary identity as a Single (that dreaded noun!)? No. I’ve been Woman, Christian, Activist, Writer – but never Single Person.
We identify with what we perceive to be special, significant attributes; things that make us different from other people. I never identified as single because for most of my life, singleness has been the norm. Growing up, my parents had lots of single friends. My own friends had always mainly been single. Throughout life, singleness held a status no more unique than that of being coupled.
Things changed when I became a resident at Urban Seed. I stopped seeing my friends from uni so much, and spent more time with the Urban Seed community. My experience of Urban Seed has been that singleness is not the norm. I am the only single person in the residential community. The majority of staff members are part of established couples. While there are quite a few single women who work at Urban Seed or who are part of the City mob, and while most Credo punters are single, it often seems that the dominant culture is situated in the realm of coupledom.
I first thought I might be a Single Person when I went to the Anabaptist conference at the start of this year. Before I went, a small hope flickered at the back of my mind that I might meet somebody interesting. When I got there, all I could see were wedding bands. I was put in a cabin with the other Single Women – a mixture of the transient Singles, like myself, and more permanent Celibates. There were a few Single Men – about three, I think. One of them slipped me his number. I suppose we all had the same thing in mind. I’d never felt so Single in my life.
A few months prior, Dave announced at ressie dinner that him and Gemma had become an item. I burst into tears. Great lumps of grief emerged from some place inside of me. I hadn’t even realised they were even there. Part of it was sheer loneliness – the announcement of a new Couple held the mirror to my own state of being Alone. I was caught in that ravine that many a new ressie has found themselves in – the gap between a partial departure from old friends and support networks, and the arrival in a new community which absorbs most of your time but with which deep intimacy has not yet had time to develop. I was at a point where a boyfriend might have gone some way to fulfil my need for intimacy.
Part of my grief was also tied to the fear of becoming more lonely as a result of this new coupling. Prior to Dave and Gemma getting together, half of the residential community was single. Our team was well-balanced and I just fitted in with the mix.
Now, five-sixths of the residential community was in a romantic relationship with somebody else. Where did that leave me? When everybody around you is sharing most intimately with one other significant person, how is it possible to have any deep relationships within a new community? I began to feel a bit silly – like a lonely old aunt who bakes and is generally very sweet, but is relegated to the position of amusing minor character. I presented my various romantic exploits as entertaining titbits – stories of adventure and desperation told with smiles and laughs and received as such…but failed to get across the very deep needs and desires at their heart.
I am thankful to say that my fears were not realised as drastically as I thought they might. I think that others in my residential community have understood my situation, and have been intentional about including me in their lives in a deep, meaningful way. Gemma and Dave conduct their relationship in a holistic way that refuses to shut out others in their community. I’ve never felt like a third wheel around them. The others seem sensitive to my stark singleness in a coupled community – on ressie retreat, for example, my consent was sought before partners external to the residential community were invited along. My answer was fully respected.
I have faired well, but have also come to understand the potential vulnerability of the single person living in Christian community whose makeup and culture is dominated by couples – or perhaps even more potent, families. When churches and communities are segregated along relational lines, it’s often single people who get left out. Couples inviting other couples round for dinner; parents with young children going on family holidays with other parents with young children…we always need to ask the question: who is being excluded here?
It’s not so bad if there’s a group of single people who can all hang out together. It’s harder when you’re the only one. But there’s more at stake here than feelings of exclusion. Actually, married people need single people. Single people need married people. Unmarried couples need married couples. We all need each other, because we all have unique things to offer.
“[R]elationships require more than having honest heart-to-hearts with one another,” writes Lauren Winner in her book Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. “Relationships require that married people must invite single people into their lives, and vice versa. This means not just inviting your friends over for dinner; it means going grocery shopping together and taking vacations together. It might even mean […] married couples or families with kids living with unmarried folks.” Supporting single people is more than making sure their social needs are met (which is more than a little patronising) – it’s about recognising that, like couples, they are integral parts of the community. It’s about singles and couples and families doing life together.
I refuse to take on the identity of Single Person. I’m just Me. I’m excited that I’m able to do life with people of all relationship statuses. I feel blessed that I’ve been able to offer my gifts and energy to enrich my community, and that people care about my romantic plight but don’t seem to take pity on me. I appreciate what the couples in my community offer. As I say, I have faired well. I wonder how many others can say the same thing?