by Allison Fenton
from Modern Believing Vol 60:2 - April 2019

This special edition brings together voices from different theological disciplines to begin to break the silence on childlessness. In a recent editorial of this journal, Jane Shaw and Linda Woodhead wrote that, ‘All theology is autobiographical because it is inescapably shaped and limited by authorial standpoint.’[1] In planning this volume we, too, have been aware of this positionality: our contributors bring their own stories into the theology they write. They draw on experiences of childlessness which are their own or which have been shared with them in their research.

There are many different narratives which hold in tension when we talk about childlessness: these are narratives which affect both men and women, straight and queer, differently. Women who can’t conceive, women who have had abortions, women who can conceive but are unable to carry a child to term, women who have experienced still birth, women whose child has died, women who just haven’t met the man they want to father their child or who have made a decision not to have children. In exploring child-less-ness, we are not defining the stories. And of course, as Daniel Nuzum reminds us here, the pain of childlessness is also experienced by men whose loss may be even less acknowledged.

Within the traditional theology of childbearing, children are portrayed as a ‘gift’ or ‘blessing’. Daniel Nuzum writes about a traditional, biblical understanding of pregnancy as being God’s blessing (and the corresponding spiritual desolation when that does not come to fruition). Meg Warner explores the biblical perspectives on the blessings of fertility in her chapter. Dawn Llewellyn challenges what may be considered as a selfish rejection of motherhood, and might be perceived as a rejection of God and therefore of God’s blessing. This combined experience leads us to suggest that using ‘gift/blessing’ with reference to children is problematical until we can conceive of God’s blessings to men and women as not being confined to childbearing or as being given to the whole church as the Body of Christ rather than to individuals.[2]  Child-bearing, as Meg Warner observes, is unlikely to be the sole determiner of blessedness. Once we have begun to reconsider the theological perception of children as blessing (and therefore of some parents being denied this blessing) then there is space for a reconsideration of what both child-bearing and child-less-ness mean for individuals, for society and, importantly for the church as the Body of Christ.

If this sense of the gift of children being either rejected or taken away is indeed as prevalent as our contributors suggest then the resulting silence is no surprise. If we perceive our God to be all powerful, all loving and benevolent then infertility, pregnancy loss, and stillbirth require us to reconsider our relationships with God. This theodicy requires us to re-think:  such a difficult task that we tend to avoid it. The stories are too hard to tell and too hard to hear, they are, in Daniel Nuzum’s words, ‘unspeakable’. In the resulting silence we find the pain of the stories untold and the absence of the stories of God (not because they don’t exist but because we haven’t heard them).

Karen O’Donnell in this volume further explores some of the reasons for this silence surrounding the complicated issues of reproductive loss. She writes, ‘For a long time, such reflection was not particularly necessary, and now that it is, it seems as if it is too complex a subject to engage with’. The messy, bloody, complex reality of women’s lives and bodies has tended not to have been the subject of theological discussion.

Dawn Llewellyn also writes about a silencing of the women in her research. Women in Christian circles who choose not to have children, ‘are silenced by the “taboo” and “hiddenness” caused by the expectation to have children.’  The implication that such women represent the ‘selfish other’ mutes their voices.

Part of the task of theology, and distinctly our task in this volume, is to attend to the untold stories of those whose voices have been ‘other’ and so not heard. Nelle Morton observed the silencing of both women and men, and her phrase, ‘hear them into speech’, has been much referenced in Feminist Theology.[3]  Referring to Morton, Mary Grey writes that, ‘what is needed is a hearing engaged in by the whole body that evokes speech – a new speech – a new creation.’ Morton believes that reclaiming the experience of women is itself redemptive, describing God as the ‘hearing one’. [4]

As we reclaim the experience of women here we must heed Karen’s warning that, ‘there is no theological value in reproductive loss.’ We do not seek to find value in suffering but to break the shell of silence in which it becomes trapped. The contributors of this volume are offering a new speech bearing witness to the stories of women and the stories of God.

All of the contributors acknowledge the yearning that many women have to become a mother. For many, unchosen childlessness consumes them. This yearning was portrayed searingly in Simon Stone’s recent adaptation of the Frances Lorca play ‘Yerma’ for the Young Vic. The play narrates the story of a young woman’s descent into despair as she faces her own barren-ness (her very name means ’Barren’). Yerma’s yearning for a child becomes increasingly incoherent and self-consuming. The young woman portrayed in the initial scenes as sassy and successful, ends up railing against the Virgin Mary and God: ‘I mean she’s the role model isn’t she? ….God is all-capable, clicks his fingers, bang, baby. That’s the conception we all aspire to’. [5]

In her words, we hear the echoes of the parents Daniel Nuzum refers to who find themselves in ‘a barren and bewildering landscape’. He quotes one woman from the research: ‘Why is God doing this? Why would you do this to anyone?’

It is not surprising that Yerma’s fury is directed at God through Mary.  Mary is both an icon of motherhood and a source of comfort to women who have experienced the loss of a child. Mary – the Pieta – holding the bleeding body of her dead son represents the holding of such grief and brings this pain into heart of God. Mary, the Theotokos, mediates for us: the one who ‘intercedes on the part of humanity in the salvific redemption accomplished by Jesus.’ [6]

Yet, in this volume, Meg Warner presents for us some other biblical women whose blessedness is bestowed not through child-bearing but by other acts of righteousness. She observes that for these women (including Mary) special righteousness resided not in the actual conception of a child but in their willingness to risk everything in order to provide a child for Israel.

In his Introduction to Practical Theology, Pete Ward argues that theology ‘takes place in relation to the ongoing life of the Christian community’.[7] So our chatter here isn’t just for or about ourselves, but might speak into the practices of the Church. Our reflections are important because through them we are beginning to unpick the veil of silence on experiences of childlessness, we are making space for muted voices to be heard;[8] bringing the chatter of women into important conversations[9]. Our work here speaks into the ongoing life of the Christian Community.

In our post-script we offer prayers which the Church might use in acknowledging childlessness. This is not necessarily to enable the mourning of a child who has died – there are lots of such liturgies available.[10] These, rather are intended as theologically informed acknowledgement of yearning or loss or choice and stepping into a new kind of vocation with God and in God. Both Karen and Daniel refer to the paucity of resources and the reluctance of the minister to offer such prayers. We hope, then, that we as ministers and theologians will be both offering a witness to and speaking into the practices of the church so that those who minister with women will open the silences, allow the pain of unfulfilled desires or unexpected choices to be named and bring them into the Body of Christ.


[1] Jane Shaw and Linda Woodhead, “Editorial,” Modern Believing 59/3 (July 2018), p. 201.

[2] Gerard Loughlin, “Sex after Natural Law,” in Studies in Christian Ethics 16/1 (2003), pp. 14–28 (p. 26).

[3] Nelle Morton, “Beloved Image,” in The Journey is Home (Boston: Beacon, 1985), pp. 127-8.

[4] Mary Grey, Redeeming the Dream: Redemption and Christian Tradition (London: SPCK, 1989), p. 1.

[5] Simon Stone (Federica Garcia Lorca) Yerma (London: Oberon Books, 2017), p. 61.

[6] Karen O’Donnell, Broken Bodies: The Eucharist, Mary and the Body in Trauma Theology (London: SCM, 2018), p. 93.

[7] Pete Ward, Introducing Practical Theology: Mission, Ministry and the Life of the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), p.11.

[8] ‘Muted’ voices is a term introduced by Charlotte Hardman and adapted by Edwin Ardner: “The ‘Problem’ Revisited,” in Perceiving Women, ed. by Shirley Ardener, (London: Malaby Press, 1975), pp. 20-24.

[9] ‘The chatter of mothers, sharing the work of raising the world is not in the texts, is banished from the canon, is another discourse hidden from the acts of cultural memory. It is not found in important conversation’. Brenda Clews, “The Notebook of the Maternal Body,” Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering 3/1, (2001), p.22.

[10] Among others, we’d recommend: Tess Ward, Alternative Pastoral Prayers: Liturgies and Blessings for Health and Healing, Beginnings and Endings (Norfolk, Canterbury Press, 2011); and Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, Human Rites: Worship Resources for an Age of Change (London, Mowbray, 1995).