Something to Celebrate: Valuing Families in Church and Society was published just over a month ago. As a member of the Working Party that produced it I have had many conversations about it since then. More positive ones with people who have actually read the report before commenting on it and more negative ones with people who have relied on the press coverage for their information!
The danger is that discussion becomes purely domestic to the church whereas I believe the report offers us a powerful opportunity for mission and evangelism. Why?
First, the report calls us to look with honesty at what is happening in society. `At last,’ one of my neighbours said to me, `here’s a report which faces up to some of the struggles in my family at the moment and helps me to see a way through’. But by drawing on the best information available to us it’s not just going along with current trends; it’s also a strong challenge to the individualism and self-centredness which characterizes much of society today.
Second, the report encourages people to see what is good about their family relationships but also to see where God’s grace is particularly needed. It argues that the Ten Commandments are as important now as they ever were. Despite all the press coverage, it is in many ways a deeply traditional report, drawing on the rich biblical traditions of teaching about family life. We have been criticized by some for not saying enough about marriage. But here the report is quite clear:
A central place in the Christian understanding of the family has to be given also to the institution of marriage. It is seen as a relationship undertaken in a context of wider communal support and obligation. It is based on the mutual promise of the partners to lifelong fidelity to each other, expressing itself in a love which is unconditional: in sickness and in health, for better or worse. It is a relationship which involves, not just a sharing of interests but a sharing of selves, body and soul, as part of the common life of a community. [p86]
Later on, at the end of a five page discussion of cohabitation, we say:
The Christian practice of lifelong, monogamous marriage lies at the heart of the Church’s understanding of how the love of God is made manifest in the sexual companionship of a man and a woman. The increasing popularity of cohabitation, among Christians and non-Christians, is no reason to modify this belief. On the contrary, it is an opportunity and a challenge to the Church to articulate its doctrine of marriage in ways so compelling, and to engage in a practice of marriage so life-enhancing, that the institution of marriage regains is centrality. [p118]
Again we are clear about the boundaries of relationships. `We do not believe that casual, promiscuous, adulterous sexual relationships have any place in promoting human well-being…’ It is not a case that anything goes. Rather the report seeks to encourage and uphold people in the difficult and fulfilling task of strengthening their marriages growing in love, trust, faithfulness, duty and self-sacrifice. We want families to thrive so that couples will find happiness in their relationships, and so that children will be brought up knowing that they are securely loved by their parents.
Third, I believe the report opens up a missionary opportunity because it is hopeful about what Christians can achieve together in God’s name. In all the discussions about cohabitation some important aspects of the report have got lost. The thousands of letters and submissions which we received while writing the report showed us just how much is being done up and down the country in parishes and dioceses. Often it’s unsung work which doesn’t make the headlines – parent and toddler groups, contact centres where divorced or separated parents can meet their children, drop in centres for young people, for unemployed adults. All this makes a huge difference to families’ lives.
We recognize that any account of the Church’s work with families has to begin with the most fundamental strand of all – prayer. Many people, when asked how the Church helps them most in their family life, say quite simply that the rhythm of worship and the offering of private and corporate prayer are their main source of strength. They recognize themselves and their own joys and struggles at a profound level in the biblical narrative. The experience of God…supports and challenges them and overflows with their life in families. [p162]
Finally, the report is a missionary opportunity because it is part of continuing Christian conversation about families. We make recommendations to the Church and to the nation and the report is full of practical ideas. But we also point out that this is not the final word on family life. I would like for example to see more thinking about the role of men in families. We draw on Roy McLoughry’s pioneering work about men and say how hopeful it is that fathers are getting more involved in the care of their children.
I would like too to see more energy going into making our churches – buildings, people, worship – more `family friendly’. As the Scripture Union said in its evidence to us, `Churches need to develop their own policy for family work…and be sensitive to the needs of the local community, looking for what God is already doing and co-operating with that.’
I found it a privilege to be a member of a group of prayerful, deeply committed Christians from many backgrounds and parts of the country. I hope you will read the report for yourself and continue the reflection on an issue of such importance to us all.
Canon George Nairn-Briggs was a member of the Board for Social Responsibility Working Party on the Family and is the Bishop of Wakefield’s Adviser on Social Responsibility
Something To Celebrate is published by Church House Publishing at œ7.95.