This morning author J.K. Rowling of “Harry Potter” fame published a post on the website for Gingerbread, a UK charity she heads which seeks to provide support and assistance to single parents and their children. In it, she describes her own experience as a single mother when she and her first husband divorced, and she went to work in the office of a local Church of Scotland kirk. The following passage in her piece caught my eye:
I remember the woman who visited the church one day when I was working there who kept referring to me, in my hearing, as The Unmarried Mother. I was half annoyed, half amused: unmarried mother? Ought I to be allowed in a church at all? Did she see me in terms of some Victorian painting: The Fallen Woman, Filing, perhaps?
Now there needs to be a balance here, which I will attempt, however inadequately, to draw from these words.
Whoever the woman was that openly referred to Ms. Rowling in this fashion and in her hearing was both ill-mannered and behaving in a decidedly un-Christian fashion. It is as if Ms. Rowling was some sort of dangerously infectious hospital patient, who had to be clearly distinguished from those around her to prevent her condition from catching. To not have the courtesy to learn Ms. Rowling’s name, or barring that to simply refer to Ms. Rowling by her role, i.e. office assistant or what have you, was not only tactless but uncharitable.
The way in which we treat those people with whom we come into contact has consequences. If I turn someone off to my political views by sinking to a level of uncivility which I find appalling in others, then I do nothing for my cause. Similarly, if I find there are too many broken families in society, I can hardly go around pointing the finger at something which has already happened, saying, “Tsk, tsk,” and expect that will actually change anything by itself.
In this case Ms. Rowling is, by all accounts, a practicing Christian who struggles with certain aspects of Christianity, such as a perceived smugness among certain Christians. This perception sometimes comes from examples such as the one given in the above passage. Other times it stems from a problem with the catch-all idea of “organized religion”, a problem which personally I have never understood. Who would want to be a member of a disorganized religion?
Admittedly, those who attend religious services regularly, and are actively involved with life in their religious community can sometimes come to think they are cock of the walk. The response from some of these, no doubt, would be that we do not want to encourage divorce and single parenthood, and that is of course correct. To those who claim that such things are universally beneficial, I would ask you to hold up a mirror to our present-day society and ask yourself whether we are really doing so well, after 40 years of social engineering experimentation spearheaded by those who deplore traditional Judeo-Christian values. When the family becomes an easily shifting structure which can readily be defined or re-defined to suit one’s mood or personal preferences, we all suffer.
That being said, single parents who find themselves in situations like Ms. Rowling’s after a divorce have a hard enough time as it is, without being made to feel as though they must be shunned by the community at large. This is a woman who turned to her local church for support, as well as for employment. It would only make sense that she expected to find some level of compassion in such an environment, and while we do not have enough information here to reach an informed conclusion, it appears that at least sometimes it was decidedly lacking. Of course in turn the balanced response to this would have to be, yes, there are awful people who go to church every day, but you need to adjust your expectations.
Churches, you see, are correctional institutions built for repeat offenders. If you were expecting to find heavenly perfection inside an earthly building, inevitably you were going to be disappointed. The fact that this woman irritated you and made you feel badly about yourself and your circumstances, which she was wrong to do, does not take away from the fact that, presumably, many other people at that same church showed you love and compassion and fellowship in your time of need, otherwise you would have gone elsewhere. Nor does it take away from the fact that, while you may have had no choice but to separate from your husband, that decision ought to be an exception, and a rare one, rather than something which takes place in over half of all marriages.
What cannot be lost here however is that people suffer deeply when a marriage falls apart and there are children left in its wake, or when an unplanned pregnancy occurs. Those in the midst of such maelstroms need our support, not our derision. Yet at the same time, even if no one wants to hear it, we also have to make a distinction between supporting those who suddenly find themselves in this situation, and actively encouraging people to place themselves in the same situation. If the media or a celebrity or someone else has told us that it is perfectly acceptable to divorce when “the love has gone”, or it is morally equivalent to traditional parenthood to actually seek to have a child out of wedlock, then we are listening to the wrong people, who are more often than not trying to justify their own behavior or sell us something.
This means we have to walk a very fine line between compassionate service toward one and a compassionate telling of the truth to another, and it is not easy to do so. Nor, frankly, am I any better-informed about how to do this well than I suspect many of you are. Each one of us, myself included, often wobbles off the straight and narrow beam and falls into the muck and mire of not living up to what is right.
Remembering that all of us are imperfect, we cannot shirk our responsibility for correction when needed. Automatically treating a single parent as some sort of Hester Prynne, to be shunned and talked about in a condescending way, does nothing to help the individuals involved, whether the single parent, their child, or anyone else. At the same time to say nothing, when we see someone entering into divorce and single parenthood, concerned primarily with their own transitory feelings and little else, is to lose an opportunity to have a discussion about what the responsibilities of both marriage and parenthood really are.
Detail of ‘The Scarlet Letter” by Hugues Merle (1861)
The Walters, Baltimore