IN THE Lady chapel of Liverpool Cathedral, last November, Canon Kate Wharton, Vicar of Roby in the diocese of Liverpool, took vows in front of God and 100 friends and family members. She had written them a few days earlier, from scratch.
“I vow to live a life of chastity and celibacy, to remain single, and without children, to dedicate myself fully to this life, and to embrace its sorrows and its joys, to seek to live always in a way which is generous and open and loving and kind and gracious.”
These were not the sort of vows that, when she was growing up, she had envisaged taking: as a young woman, she had her entire wedding planned, and, into her thirties, she assumed that she would get married, and have children.
“That was what I wanted; and, even though I was talking and writing about singleness, it was not as if I thought ‘Therefore, I will be single,’” she says. Even as she sensed God telling her in her mid-thirties that it was not temporary, she remained unsure whether “he was asking me to stay single, or telling me”.
Today, she feels confident that this is her calling — a “future that I now joyfully choose and embrace”, as she put it in her vows.
“I felt he [God] had given me a choice: if you want to get married and have kids, you can; that can happen,” she says. “But, actually, my best for you, the thing I am really calling you to, is to stay single, so you can speak and teach about this.”
CANON Wharton was 30 when she was first asked if she would talk on singleness at a New Wine convention. After initially refusing (“I’d never heard a talk on singleness that didn’t leave everyone feeling considerably worse”), she went on to deliver two seminars: “Living a God-obsessed life in a sex-obsessed world”, and “Living a God-obsessed life in a marriage-obsessed Church”, after a dream in which she was certain that God had spoken to her. She went on to deliver talks all over the country, and internationally.
Her blog, “Single-minded”, was launched in 2013, and her book of the same name soon followed. Single Christian friends who participated in her research told her that a lack of physical touch, organising holidays, loneliness, and childlessness were important issues, and her writing has explored all this with sensitivity.
In a post for Mothering Sunday, she wrote of her love for, and rapport with, children, (“I love cooing over tiny babies, and munching and scrunching their chubby little cheeks”), and of the pain — occasionally physical — of not having her own. But she has also blogged on the “fantastic bits” of the single life, and has deployed plenty of humour, even if it has not always been detected (a list of “Ten things single people wish married people wouldn’t say” prompted some to accuse her of bitterness, despite several posts referring to her love of weddings).
While others who have written about singleness have married (Simone Lia, the author of Please God, Find Me a Husband, did so in 2016), the conclusion of “Single-minded” was different. Sensing God’s call to singleness, Canon Wharton briefly explored a religious order, but found that it “just didn’t fit”.
It was the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, who reassured her that she had other options. “He told me: ‘It’s fine to do something differently, and we can work with whatever you feel called to do.’” In 2015, she made initial vows in an informal gathering of a handful of her closest friends, and then she spent two years discerning whether to make these lifelong.
It was friends who confirmed her sense that a public ceremony marking her decision was the right thing to do. Initially, she worried that it might be “a bit indulgent. I didn’t want this to look like a wedding . . . or for people to think ‘Oh, poor Kate, she can’t have a wedding; so she’s having this party.’” She also did not want to make other single people feel that their singleness was not validated: “This isn’t the only way to be single.”
IT WAS, she says, the happiest day of her life. She decided on “BeLOVED” as the name for the ceremony, having been drawn repeatedly to the Song of Songs. A passage from the book (“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”) was one of three readings read during the service. The same verse is inscribed inside the ring that she started wearing on her wedding finger in 2015, prompting questions from strangers, and a few “strange looks” when she explains its source. Some have told her, “I wish someone would say that about me.” She regards it “as almost a command — ‘Know yourself loved.’”
The sermon was given by the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, who explored all the uses of “beloved” in the New Testament; and prayers were said by her three godchildren. In her own opening words, she was as truthful as in her writing, recalling how someone had once suggested that “it must be great to know you’re called to singleness, so that it isn’t painful any more.”
“I think I can be utterly certain that this is the way I’m meant to live, and still sometimes burst into tears at random moments, because it flipping well hurts, and I’m lonely and sad,” she explained. Today, she reflects that “often, it will happen around babies and children . . . but even if in the moment it feels sad, it still feels right.”
Friends, including non-Christian ones, have been “great”. Some have asked, “Are you sure?”, particularly married friends who find it “difficult to understand how I could be happy living this life”. She is used to this question, having worked in deprived areas. Both are callings, she emphasises.
It was while studying at Leeds University that she first felt a calling to the priesthood — “it was so clear, completely out of nowhere” — and she was ordained, aged 27, in the diocese of Liverpool, where she has served ever since, currently as the Vicar of St Bartholomew’s, Roby. She is also Assistant National Leader for New Wine: an organisation referred to repeatedly in a recent Ministry Division study as a source of support and development by women leading large churches, who are still something of a rarity in the C of E.
Although it was not the right choice for her, she affirms the importance of the religious life. “It’s easy in today’s society to dismiss that way of life. The dedication, the commitment, the obedience, the prayerfulness of that is a huge challenge to me in the frenetic way I live my life. . . We need that today more than ever: that sense of people giving themselves to that life.”
CANON Wharton readily acknowledges that her experience of singleness is not everybody’s, and that it can be a source of anxiety and pain, for women who long to have a family, among others. “It is hugely difficult, and the Church has got to get better at this,” she says. “Wherever I do talks, I always hear people say ‘I am hanging on to Church by my fingertips, as it’s just so difficult to be there.’” She traces the “obsession” with marriage to the Church’s conviction that it must take a stand against society’s attitudes to sex.
While she supports its championing of marriage, she feels that “it’s done that so much, and so loudly, and so well, that it’s made it seem like that’s only way to live.” Having single leaders is important, she says, as is consideration of the language used in the pulpit: “The word ‘family’ is brilliant if we mean that everyone is welcome, but far too often . . . it means the nuclear unit.”
Being single has enabled her to talk about “difficult stuff”. While research suggests that, as they enter their thirties, Christian women become more open to dating non-Christians (Features, 30 September, 2016), she cautions against it, advising women to “look within the family of those who believe”.
Honesty is key to the pursuit of holiness, she thinks: “Part of the whole problem in the Church is that we are not honest. We have women in their forties who are feeling hugely frustrated sexually, and we are too embarrassed to talk about it, and the male married pastor is thinking ‘I can’t do it.’”
When she surveyed single Christian friends, “lack of physical touch” emerged as the biggest issue. In one blog, she observed that “several days can go by when, really, I’ve barely touched another human being.” The Church can respond, she thinks, but with great caution. “Society thinks that the only way a man and woman can have a relationship is through sex. In the Church, we know how to do healthy touch, and how to love in a pure way. That is incredibly difficult to hold in tension with the fact that we have to be careful.”
THREE months after the ceremony, the question “What if you change your mind?” is not, she points out, one that married couples are asked. Her vows, however, are not binding: “There is nothing to stop me, next week or in five or 25 years, saying ‘Now I feel God is calling me in a different way,’ or ‘I have met somebody.’ But I am certain as I can be that that will not happen. I feel absolutely that these were life vows for the rest of my life.”
She did not intend to start a movement, she emphasises, but, after initially intending to keep the service private, she has received requests for the material used (it can be found on her blog). Her hope is that “single people are encouraged in their singleness, and maybe challenged in how they are living, and open to what God might be saying”, but also that married people, and church leaders, are prompted to think about how they are supporting single people.
The expectations that we hold for children are part of this picture, she thinks: do we convey the message that marriage is the best destination? “Isn’t what you want that they have a godly life, and that they follow him, even if that means they are single?” Her best friend, who has an 11-year-old daughter, told her recently that she was “really glad that she has this example in her life: a model of a different way of following Jesus and living a wholehearted life”.