Fo­cus­ing on the fam­ily

The Church of England - - SUNDAY -

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)

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