Focusing on the family
We would worr y less about what to call same-sex relationships if we were better able to persuade heterosexuals to stay married. The real tragedy of family life in the United Kingdom is not that we can’t work out the difference between civil partnerships and marriage but that the UK has the highest divorce rate in Europe and UNICEF (2007) ranked child wellbeing in Britain as the lowest of 21 industrialized countries. Children growing up in the UK, said the report, are the unhappiest in the industrialized world. Just 40 per cent of 11-13-year-olds find their peers “kind and helpful”. One in 10 UK children aged between five and 16 has a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder (Office of National Statistics).
This situation is a clarion call to the Church to join in the task of parenting the next generation. The evidence is clear that children should, wherever possible, be brought up by their biological parents, but parenting is not the exclusive responsibility of the child’s mother and father and one-third of children are not anyhow living with both parents. If church discussions about family were to focus on parenting rather than sexuality then disagreements between liberal, catholic and evangelical theologies would dissipate in the face of the primary social need for the well-being of our children and young people.
My own research work has established that the most significant community of which the young people are a part is their family. The research established that the (extended) family is as, or in some instances, more important than friends to Generation Y. The Church is uniquely placed to reflect this in its work and to build up communities of belonging across different generations. Child Protection issues notwithstanding, a primary resource that the Church can offer to young people is the opportunity for them to build simple, supportive and uncomplicated relationships with adults.
The mission statement of the Church includes within it a call to unite people across divisions but this is in contrast to our consumer-based society, which encourages social groupings around peers and interests. Churches are able to reconnect generations, creating models of transition between childhood and adulthood making relationships across the generations possible so that children and young people grow up in a context where they can learn from the life stories of others.
The commonness of divorce within the UK has put pressure on the traditional nuclear family unit but it has also created multiple different types of family configurations. The nuclear family unit was shaped during the Industrial Revolution where the family needed to form an economic unit with one partner (traditionally the male) earning a wage and one partner (traditionally the female) managing the home and family. The vision of this traditional family (with the roles of the mother and father so clearly separated) represents a middle class 18th century social structure rather than a Biblical vision of the family.
The Bible talks of households rather than families: ‘If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever,’ (1 Timothy 5:8). The contemporary idea of the nuclear family as an isolated unit is a long way from the model of the extended family (‘household’) represented in the pages of Scripture.
New models of parenting, built on the bones of a divorce, become contemporary models of household with other adults drawn in to help with the parenting. The breakdown of one set of relationships is not leading to the death of the family but to its reorganization (Drane & Fleming Drane (2004:32). The Church’s commitment to support the nuclear family structure does not mean that we should underestimate the value of the energy within a newly constituted step-family. There should be no contradiction in advocating marriage and honouring the best intentions of post-married people who chose to form new families. We in the churches need to recognize stepfamilies as a growing family form.
It is possible to create a new family, a fluid, extended family that echoes, but is quite different to the previous family group. Children can have wider networks, perhaps a range of different siblings, not just full siblings, but half-siblings and stepsiblings, and a range of grandparents, step-grandparents and aunties and uncles. Children can even gain from having four loving parents around them. It is crucial both missional-ly and socially that we work with these new families and integrate them into the community of the church.
The Rev Dr Bob Mayo is the Vi car of St Stephen and St Thomas Shepherds Bush with St Michael and St George White City (Follow Bob on twitter @RevBobMayo)