A Pastoral Theology of Childlessness
A Pastoral Theology of Childlessness
SCM Press, 2021, 182pp., pbk, £19.99
We all know couples who do not have their own children. We may be childless ourselves. Sometimes we know those who have tried and hoped for some years to become parents, but it has not happened, and the modern methods of addressing infertility, such as IVF, have not worked. Sometimes couples do not want children, and so their childlessness is not a burden but a choice. Sometimes we do not know how much they either welcome or regret the fact of not being parents. But for those couples who have hoped, believed, longed, and prayed, that they would have the gift and joy of bringing a new child into the world, there can be a desperate sense of loss, despair and grief, when their hopes have failed. This state, with its variety of other emotional stages and responses, is the main subject of Emma Nash’s book. She writes for and about the bereaved childless, and especially the women who cannot be mothers, because she not only understands: she is one of them. This is narrative theology which is constantly pastoral, rather than a classroom style of pastoral theology. Her faith has been shaped both by a strong Baptist background and the spiritual awareness with which she has confronted her experience of infertility and all the fruitless efforts to overcome it. From its very first pages this book has many strengths in being a personal narrative, combined with biblical stories and theological exploration. Personal, because she and her husband engaged in the struggle, and because she writes extensively but without self-pity about her own loss, anger and disappointment. She is also open about her evolving Christian faith, which reaches the view (though this is not fully explored), that God is not all-powerful and therefore does not or cannot answer many of our prayers. At the same time this can deepen into a belief that a loving God is one who suffers with us and comes alongside us in the darkness of our struggles or despair. However, in this book, Emma Nash is more of a pastor than a theologian. She is a journal keeper who observes her experience acutely and honestly, and then develops her narrative of sorrow and disappointment into more practical acceptance and advice. I was reminded at first of Heather Walton’s bombshell article (when it first appeared in 1999): ‘Passion and pain: conceiving theology out of infertility’. That was a short, sharp feminist expression of anger and grief. It is referenced by Emma Nash along with a full range of written and online materials listed in the bibliography, which amplifies the selection of books and practical resources set out in the final chapter of her book. Nash explores her frustration in a considered way and is determined to offer help and support, in particular for women who seek help or need to start moving through the feelings of grief and the reality of loss. Her six chapters are titled Alone, In Pain, Powerless, Barren, Guilty, and So What Now. These refer to different aspects of her own story as well as to theological themes linked closely to childlessness. But they do invite wider reflection on the unjust suffering and loss experienced by so many people, which this book does not pretend or attempt to explore. I confess that I should value a more explicit acknowledgement of those other related areas to which pastoral theology must attend. Because Nash is so honest and insightful in recounting her experience, I want to know more about the kind of theodicy she would offer, for people of faith going through many other kinds of loss, and for us all.