by Karen O'Donnell
from Modern Believing Vol 60:2 - April 2019

This issue of Modern Believing is one very close to my heart. In fact, I have both contributed to it and co-edited it alongside Dr Allison Fenton and it is an issue that was lined up many months before the Managing Editor’s role at Modern Believing was advertised. The theme of this issue is “Theology and Childlessness” and addresses a range of perspectives on the topic—including Dawn Llewellyn’s work on voluntary childlessness, Daniel Nuzum’s reflection on stillbirth, Meg Warner’s biblical exploration of fruitfulness and blessing in the Hebrew Bible, and my own work exploring the theology around reproductive loss.

Whilst the work in this issue does not necessarily point to one conclusion, the common thread in these essays is that most of these experiences are rarely talked about openly and that when they are not, assumptions are made, unhelpful things are said, and people are hurt. One in seven couples have difficulty conceiving; somewhere between 20 and 50% of all pregnancies end in a reproductive loss; nearly four in every thousand babies in the UK is stillborn; and more women than ever are choosing not to have children. Whilst none of these experiences are in the majority, they are far from uncommon. Many people we know will go through something like this during their lives. Many of the people in our churches will be struggling with infertility, experience a stillbirth, or choose not to have children. In a Christian culture that focuses so strongly on the family and the blessings of children, our theology can often be woefully inadequate to respond to these experiences—if we have any theological response to offer at all.

Our last issue was focused on Black Queer Theology and in my editorial I challenged readers who assumed that such a topic would have nothing to say to them, to consider why they felt they had nothing to learn from such essays. Perhaps, I argued, it was because our theology has, for so long, been heteronormative and white-centric. I raise a similar question with this issue. What could you—the reader who has never struggled with infertility, or lost a child, who happily chose to raise a family—learn from this issue on “Theology and Childlessness”? Once again, there is a question of theological norms. Theology has, for centuries, been a male-dominated domain (and in many respects it still is). There is no room for the messiness of infertility, miscarriage, and stillbirth in such theologies—after all, these are women’s experiences, women’s stories. Similarly, the expectation to have children rests more strongly on women than on men, the so-called ‘biological clock’ ever ticking away and the sense that a women’s highest calling and fulfillment (especially a Christian woman) is to be found in motherhood. Maybe for some women it is. But there are other stories to be told. These narratives bring women’s experiences out into the open and expose some of the destructive ways in which theology has been used against women. So once again, there is the opportunity to see past traditional modes of ‘doing’ theology into something deeper, richer, and more nuanced. The essays in this issue explore some of the messiness and unpredictability of bodies—both female and male—that are rarely acknowledged in theology and liturgy.

I particularly commend to you Fenton’s liturgical resources that follow the essays. Drawing on the Anglican tradition, as well as other contributors, Fenton has begun to construct some of the liturgical resources that are needed to address some of the experiences our contributors have written about in this issue. Many more such resources are needed, in all kinds of Christian traditions. Alongside these resources, a theological re-construction is required as we re-think what it means to be family, parent, and person in the light of these essays.