I have always loved Jane Austen novels. There’s wit, there are biting societal observations but, most of all, there’s romance. A young couple meets, there’s definitely an attraction and we read on to watch them fall in love and get married and have lots of babies. And the characters we love to hate are the meddlesome ones; the fussy, generally middle-aged side characters who get involved and get the posh people to throw a ball so they can marry off the young people two by two. The funny thing is, though, that sounds a lot like church life.
There’s a strange phenomenon in church that lies at the heart of every Jane Austen novel; we like to interrogate people about their love life. If you grow up in a church, I can assure you that when you hit your late teens you’ll find that no one really ever asks you about anything other than your relationship status. If you’re a guy you may get a few extra questions thrown in about the football or what you do for a living, but even the boys can’t escape the ever-present drudgery that is church relationship small talk.
It starts off when you’re single. Are you dating anyone? Well what about *insert name of any member of the opposite sex at church who is roughly your age*? Have you ever thought about *insert name of another member of the opposite sex at church who is also your age*? I think you two would really hit it off. Never mind that this person doesn’t know much about you or this member of the opposite sex other than the fact that you’re both single and in your 20s, you guys are destined to be together – and they will remind you of that fact every Sunday morning from here to eternity.
You’d think getting yourself a partner would put an end to it, but all it does is maybe give you six to 12 months’ reprieve. Then it’s: Do you think you guys will get engaged anytime soon? Followed by: When’s the wedding? How’s the planning going? Let me ask you about this and only this for the duration of your engagement, and occasionally make some weird jokes about your future plans to have sex. Round it off with: So, when do you think you’ll have kids? and then you basically have to procreate so that they’ll leave you alone; then it’s your kid’s turn to field their questions.
Of course I exaggerate a little, but at church there’s definitely a culture in which we love to pry into other people’s relationships – and I definitely do it too. I’m constantly trying to set up my single friends, or offload my “sage wisdom” about relationships onto anyone in a couple. I start it off with a Man, I bet you guys are sick of being asked about your wedding plans, right? And then I proceed to ask about their wedding plans. It all comes from a loving place, and when you don’t know someone in the church congregation that well it can be hard to think of something else to ask – wanting to be loved is a pretty universal experience, right? But the problem is that your questions, as benign as they may seem, have power – especially when you’re the ninth person at church to ask that day.
Imagine being single in a church environment, especially as time goes on, and having every well-meaning member of the congregation try to set you up. What does that do to your emotional wellbeing? Apparently you’re meant to be in a couple, and won’t be happy until you’re in one. Never mind that lots of people choose to be single, or live perfectly contented lives without being tied down, everyone at church is asking you when you’ll find a nice man – so you must need one, right? And everyone is telling you to date that one guy at church who’s single, so maybe you do like him after all and should see what’s there even though you don’t really want to? Suddenly, no single humans can interact at church, lest they suffer the scrutiny of prying eyes, and they start to believe they’ll only have value in this church family when they have start a family of their own.
So then you end up with someone, but your love life is still the only thing you’re asked about – the only thing people value you for. Forget about your career or your friends or your personal gifts; you need to tie that fella down so you can be a wife and have babies. At the very least it offends my feminist sensibilities, but at the other end of the scale it could be really dangerous to ask these questions when you don’t know a couple very well. Maybe one of you really wants to get married but the other doesn’t, and constant questions about it is only putting your partner off more. Maybe you’re engaged but worried about the wedding going well or having sex for the first time, and people making sex jokes or going on about wedding plans just stirs up that anxiety more. Maybe you both really want kids but you can’t have them, and don’t really fancy discussing that heart-breaking fact over tea after the service.
Please let me reiterate that I do this too. In fact, asking someone a personal relationship question, and then finding out they’ve just broken up or done something else to equally make me feel like I’m putting my foot in it, is known amongst my friends as “doing a Chloe”. I get it. But whether or not we have the purest intentions at heart, we have to slow down on the relationship interrogations. We have to start seeing single people in churches as real people and not just characters in a Jane Austen novel for us to throw together and force down the aisle. These people could be future leaders or have something special to offer, but you’re never going to notice it if you only ask about their love life.
Written by Chloe Satchell-Cobbett, Deputy Editor, Liberti