The childless women of the bible: a hopeful metaphor for the church | Tina Hodgett [ANVIL vol 35 issue 3]

Introduction

By Tina Hodgett

Many of our churches today, particularly in rural areas, are largely made up of elderly people. These churches may well have witnessed faithfully throughout the twentieth century to the presence of God in the community, and individuals will have given prayer, time and effort to keep the church alive. They may have displayed spiritual resilience and resourcefulness to share the gospel afresh with the next generation, and yet large numbers of churches are struggling to maintain congregation numbers, let alone grow, and many have been forced to close or dramatically reduce the number of services.

It is true that some congregations may not have done these things, for a variety of reasons, but the result appears to be the same: ever-shrinking congregations of people seeking to pass on the baton to the next generation and finding few younger people with fresh faith and energy ready to take it and run with it. The result is a loss of hope for the future that drains people of faith and energy, and their spiritual leaders may struggle to address this situation in a way that brings comfort.

Ageing congregations

When we try to talk about the question of ageing congregations with the congregations themselves, people can hear accusations of failure, experience guilt or fear the loss of something important. Often they are bewildered at the current state of affairs in church and society, and sometimes angry with church authorities for their lack of support, leadership or vision. One way to approach this question with pastoral sensitivity is to locate a conversation in a place that is removed from this hard reality and try to explore it through use of metaphor. [1]

There are numerous metaphors for the church in the New Testament: the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:25–27), the vine (John 15:5), the flock (John 10:14–16), the royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9), the household of God (1 Tim. 3:15), the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12). In recent times, a popular metaphor has come from horticulture: church as a plant, like a seedling that will grow. [2] This leads to the question: what metaphors might be helpful for an imaginative, exploratory conversation about an ageing church today?

Which metaphor for the ageing church today?

Most of all, we need metaphors of hope. There is a significant pastoral need at every stage of life for messages of hope founded in the previous activity of God. New Testament writers drew metaphors of hope from Israel’s history. When encouraging the church to look for newness and rescue, they drew on the biblical stories of creation (2 Cor. 4:16), the exodus (Col. 1:13 and Heb. 2:14–15) and the return from exile (1 Pet. 5:10), using these primary events in Israel’s story to encourage believers to trust in God’s sovereign power to “make all things new”. There is, in addition to these three key distinctive events, a recurring theme woven throughout the whole of the biblical testimony to the way God brings about newness among his people: the theme of physical birth.

There are many birth stories in the Scriptures, and one of them – the birth of Jesus – is a foundational story for the Christian faith. I have found in speaking to church leaders and congregations that birth is a most powerful metaphor for new beginnings, which resonates with people of all ages, races, genders and denominations. The stories of childbirth in the Old Testament almost always presage a new phase in the story of God and his covenant with the Jewish people. The birth of a significant baby symbolises the start of something new in the life of the nation.

Babies as symbols

When we read of the miraculous births of Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Samson, Samuel, John and Jesus, we can miss seeing at the heart of each story the powerful symbolism of the baby. For not only is each baby an actual human person with distinct physical attributes and individual characteristics, as well as a divine calling and appointed task, but the baby is also a universally recognised symbol of many things, including:

  • new beginnings
  • hope for the future
  • continuity of the family line, traditions and inheritance
  • the enrichment of life through learning, play, celebration and extending the family circle joy
  • grace – an undeserved gift
  • unconditional love
  • the focus of attention, even worship
  • a focus of unity, bringing a family together

God clearly understands the symbolism of new birth: the Creator was born into the world as a baby, intending to make hope, joy and fresh starts a reality for the whole of humankind. Logically therefore he also knows that the experience of unwanted childlessness brings with it pain, loss and even despair – the emotions that ageing congregations may also feel to some degree when new life is absent from their church.

The pain of childlessness

There are many well-known cases in the Bible of women who had difficulty having a child. In some cases we are told they were barren, or more specifically that God had closed their womb. We know from some of these accounts (for example, Hannah, Rachel, Zechariah and Elizabeth) how painfully the absence of a child was felt by the parents. We know from people who want children how grey the absence of children can make their world. The breaking in of God’s grace for each of these couples mentioned above comes as a miracle – a sovereign act of power carried out against the scientific odds in God’s mysterious way and according to his unfathomable timing, and a sign – each child brings fresh hope first to the family, then to the people of Israel.

The childless woman of the bible as a symbol of hope

Part of my message to ageing Christian communities is this: these stories of hope in the Bible may offer a fresh and imaginative way to think about the church today. I am aware how difficult it can be for Christian parents to read these stories if they have tried to become pregnant and remained childless after prayer and medical interventions, and I do not take this subject lightly. Having wanted children myself, I share this pain but hope to use the insight it has given me to offer a pastoral response to churches that might see themselves as childless.

The idea of an ageing church being similar to these childless women in the Bible may seem a depressing one, but it surprisingly brings hope. People do not seem to mind their church being represented as a woman waiting beyond the age of menopause for a baby. In the birth stories listed above, which many of the congregations have known from childhood, a baby does eventually arrive, bringing all the usual delights and benefits of newness and possibility for the future, as well as the reassurance God has not abandoned them. I think they intuitively understand it does not matter if they see the child or not – it will come because God has promised it.

The strange story of Ruth

One of the many biblical birth stories is the strange account of Ruth. It offers an intriguing example of the parallels we could draw if we adopt the metaphor of the ageing church as childless woman. Ruth is a Moabite woman, an outsider in Hebrew society, who devotes herself to her mother-in-law, a Bethlehemite, in the absence of any menfolk to provide for them. Both women are childless: Naomi’s husband died after the family settled in Moab, and tragically so did both her sons, before either could have offspring by their Moabite wives, Ruth and Orpah. This story shows how God understands the psychological damage caused when a person or family cannot establish its line for posterity and works to counter it. We might infer from this that God understands our distress when our church is unable to reproduce.

All kinds of provision are made in Jewish law and custom to ensure that human beings are remembered after their death; through childbirth, family names, genealogies, land and marriage arrangements, individuals (men in particular) have opportunities to leave a memory of their existence in the world. One of the more complicated provisions in this respect concerns the concept of the kinsman–redeemer (Hebrew ga’al), which comes into play when a relative is in need. A person’s relative may deliver or rescue them (Gen. 48:16); redeem their property if they lose it from family ownership (Lev. 27:9–25) or marry their wife if they die without having a child (Ruth 1:1–10, Gen. 38:8, Matt. 22:23–33).

When Boaz, local Bethlehem landowner and distant relative of Naomi, decides to take on the role of kinsman–redeemer for her husband Elimelech, he does not marry Naomi, who is beyond childbearing years, but marries Ruth, Elimelech’s Gentile daughter-in-law, instead. Ruth, the outsider, gives birth to Obed, who is hailed – bizarrely to our western ears – as Naomi’s son (Ruth 4:17), despite the fact he is technically far from her on any family tree and biologically probably equally remote.

Playing in the metaphor: drawing the parallels

Established churches since the Reformation have tended to maintain their life through biological growth – an inherited faith passed from generation to generation until recently, when somehow it was no longer “caught” by the offspring of lifelong believers. In the story of Ruth, Naomi’s family’s line finished with the death of her husband and sons. Naomi named herself “bitter” (Hebrew mara, the name Naomi gave herself in the light of her situation), facing an empty future with no heritage to pass on and no name to be remembered by. The standard means of reproduction were no longer possible for her and she struggled to find hope.

Nevertheless, God intervened through an unforeseen route, providing via a compassionate outsider, who saw Naomi’s predicament clearly, and although she was under no obligation to provide for her mother-in-law, brought her resources to bear, joined them with those of Boaz, an imaginative and resourceful insider, to give birth to Obed – who would sustain the family line into the future.

Exploring the metaphor creatively, I wonder if Obed is a good example of the kind of “child” our ageing, sometimes “bitter” churches and congregations might look forward to receiving through God’s extraordinary grace and unexpected ways of working. Our new churches may not actually emerge from the life of our congregations at all, but through strange alliances between outsiders that arouse suspicion on the part of the community, or actions by resourceful and imaginative individuals who may not conform to local norms but see possibility in pitiful circumstances and act on their creative insight, or through behaviour that is scandalous (read the story!) and compassionate by turns. Might Ruth represent the community member who partners with the believer and visionary to bring about a different kind of Christian community founded in fresh DNA and cultural assumptions? A Christian community that is a symbiosis (a marriage?) of two cultures coming together in a way that enriches the genetic inheritance of both? A culturally appropriate form of church for a given context, or, in other words, a fresh expression?

Fresh expressions of church as the ageing church’s grandchildren

On a family tree, Obed would be likely to appear on a line with the grandchildren of Naomi’s and Elimelech’s siblings rather than on a line with their sons. Touring deanery synod meetings recently in deep rural countryside, I have been sharing the idea that any newborn churches to come will be more like grandchildren than children. It is a concept that immediately strikes home in spite of the natural conservatism of such communities and their love of tradition. Most of the people gathered are of grandparent age, and many have at least one grandchild. However, for sociological reasons, most of their grandchildren live in another part of the country.

Grandparents and grandchildren meet up for special occasions, or on holiday, and in the intervening periods they communicate on various media, with parents sending school or graduation photos for display on grandparents’ mantelpieces. Grandparents are acutely aware of the difference in culture between themselves and their grandchildren. The grandchildren are digital natives, whereas they are mainly digital immigrants, and would prefer to text or send a photo on Instagram rather than write a postcard or phone the landline. They see how their grandchildren dress and spend their leisure time, and are surprised by their values, hopes and expectations of the world.

They may find these differences bewildering, attractive or repugnant, but they accept them as given in the grandchildren’s lives. Most recognise the reality of generational differences and culture change in this context in a way they seem to struggle to in the context of church. Culture change in church appears much more threatening. What “church” is has become, in the minds of some, an unalterable norm: in these minds God, the church and the church’s culture are inextricably interconnected. To change the culture of church, its rituals, language, structure, architecture and pretty much everything else threatens their faith in God himself. In this situation, drawing a parallel between new forms of church and grandchildren opens windows in people’s minds.

Grandchildren share their humanity, their DNA, their family history, some of their gifts and interests and personality traits, and aspects of the family culture. Churchgoers are reminded through this metaphor that they love their grandchildren and gain fresh life and energy from them. They are a good thing. It always raises a laugh, though, when I say, “And you wouldn’t want them to live with you permanently. You’re glad to see them – and very happy when they leave.” This comment always elicits what comedians call “the laugh of truth” – the recognition that he or she has hit upon something the audience collectively recognise to be true. This comment always serves to reassure ageing, more traditional congregations that they do not have to personally embrace or even like fresh expressions of church. It is fine to say, “It is good they exist. I would like to visit every now and then and receive a news update occasionally, and to pray for them and be proud of them, but I do not want to move in with the family or have them come and live with me!” Establishing this distance removes unspoken fear they will be bundled into a way of being church they feel they may not be able to cope with after decades of worshipping in another culture.

A surprising hope

If we accept the image of the childless woman in Scripture as a metaphor for the church today, we can be assured that churches that seem devoid of new faith life have not been forgotten by God, abandoned, left to die. New life, when it comes, may turn the familiar approaches to church genesis inside out. The heir may come via a foreign (even an enemy) bloodline. New faith life may come via an outsider who appears to act more from compassion, loyalty and need than from commitment to the belief system. A renewed Christian community can emerge from the vision of an insider able to see the good things that come from outside. What shines through is the commitment of God to bring life where it is not. The story of Ruth ends in delighted praise to God, joy for Naomi at the long-awaited birth of a descendant, exuberant admiration for Ruth, a community celebration for the whole town who make up spontaneous prayers of abundant blessing, Boaz’s establishment as the great-grandfather of King David and Obed’s as his grandfather – and the crowning glory the place of the family, including Ruth, in the genealogy of Jesus. What a glorious picture of hope fulfilled (Ruth 4.13–22).

Tina Hodgett was a secondary teacher of Russian and German and may be a spy (but you will never know). Since 2008 she has been ordained and playfully engaged individuals, communities and congregations with the gospel as a pioneer curate in Nottingham and Team Pilgrim in Portishead. She is now helping to foster a pioneering rumpus (alongside many others) as evangelism and pioneer team leader in the Diocese of Bath and Wells.

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Notes

[1] In my first week at theological college, a conversation about the future of the Church of England compared the church as it was then to a supertanker: large, substantial, ocean-going, dependable, but hard to manoeuvre and likely to take a long time to assume a different course. Students spent the best part of the lecture exploring the topic through different types of shipping and weather conditions in a way that would probably not have happened using academic ecclesiology and data about church numbers, trends and management.
[2] George Lings records the development of church planting as a metaphor in the 1980s in George Lings, Reproducing Churches (Abingdon: BRF, 2017).

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