Caring for women with eating disorders – Aspects of the church as part of the problem and part of the solution

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ special interest group on spirituality has confirmed that religious and spiritual beliefs can be curative in the recovery from various mental health difficulties including eating disorders (Dein et al., 2010). Few studies in the United Kingdom, however. have explored whether and how church communities could contribute to this therapeutic process. This interdisciplinary thesis aims to provide recommendations to assist with the improvement of church-based pastoral care of women experiencing eating disorders, primarily anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, using insights from feminist theology and other relevant sources.

The critical analysis in this thesis has been derived predominantly from feminist theology. However, a theological reflection on the praxis of pastoral care cannot pursue its deliberations in isolation and, consequently. this thesis has used interdisciplinary insight from a variety of perspectives, including social science, psychology, psychoanalysis, philosophy and psychiatry. These insights have facilitated a multidirectional theological reflection on the aetiological, sociocultural and environmental stressors which contribute to eating disorders and have aided the formation of a response from the analysis. As the context of this thesis is in the post-conflict province of Northern Ireland, an exploration of characteristics of religious fundamentalism has been essential to help understand the implicit perceptions which inevitably influence the praxis of pastoral care. With a foundation in practical theology, using the pastoral cycle, this thesis invites the reader into a reflective conversation on how church communities might more effectively care for these women who have often felt disempowered, marginalised and fragmented as a consequence of traumatic experiences.

Unique perspectives have been derived from a thematic analysis of semi-structured interviews with women who have experienced eating disorders, carers of women who iii have experienced eating disorders and those claiming insight into both the subject of mental health and the church community. Synthesising the core and subsidiary themes with existing literature has contributed to discussions which have shaped the recommendations. Significantly, many fundamentalist traits mirror the characteristics of women experiencing eating disorders. Therefore, it has been crucial to consider how these traits may deepen distress for the sufferer in pastoral encounters and provide an alternative theological perspective which has potential to help counteract these deleterious effects. Furthermore, the paucity of relevant, theologically-based pastoral care literature on eating disorders has verified the need for additional future research to commence a theologically-based process which could aid in recovery.

Although church communities demonstrate negative factors which are not conducive to recovery, some communities which are receptive to change, could have a distinctive opportunity to offer much-needed stability and safety to women experiencing eating disorders and to their carers. The abandonment of over-intellectualisation in favour of an embodied practice, opens up possibilities for the entire church community to be engaged in compassionate interpersonal relationships to help reduce crippling feelings of shame. More specifically, empowering the one who is suffering to engage with their vulnerability and realise their creative capacity, can open doors to reducing fear through experiencing transcendence and awe within and beyond the immediacy of the pastoral encounter. Through collaboration with systemic, specialist care, those experiencing eating disorders and their carers might discover a unique liberation in the acceptance of their suffering through embodied, present hope in the church community and participate in the relational resurrection of Christ.
Date of Award2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorAndrew Gibson (Supervisor) & Anne Campbell (Supervisor)

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