The Christian practice of lifelong, monogamous marriage,” said the BSR’s report Something to Celebrate, “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 increase in the 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 its centrality” (118).

Very good. The working party also did not shirk from using strong language in condemning `immorality’, `idolatry’ and `pervasive evil’ in society. So what is the problem? The problem is that throughout the report language is re-defined.

Immorality, for example, is the “political and socioeconomic order” which separates public facts from private values (95). Idolatry is the “idolatry of the family” (89). A “pervasive evil in society” is `homophobia’ which the working party resolutely attacks (118) while predictably failing to distinguish rational fear of homosexualism, legitimate `homofear’, from any irrational phobia. And in this context by condemning heterosexual and homosexual adultery and promiscuity (119), the report embraces the notion of a faithful monogamous homosexual partnership akin to marriage. What matters is the quality of the relationship.

The word `family’ itself is re-defined. The report drives a clear wedge between marriage and the family. “It is people’s own understanding of the term family that is important, rather than a definition imposed from outside” (106). In other words if people think they are in a family they are. This leads to a relativistic separation of marriage from the family. The report says “Families exist where marriage may not (or cannot); and we should not treat them as if they were the same thing” (9).

Of course it is acceptable to continue to apply the term `family’ to a family with children where the husband or wife has died. But we need to be careful. There is a magician’s trick going on. While the audience concentrates on the right hand the left hand performs the trick. Saying families may exist where marriage cannot, allows for a homosexual couple to be defined as a family. This is the result of such an `elastic’ definition of the word `family’ (9).

Thus virtually all human relationships are celebrated provided they are of a `high quality’. It is no longer a matter for objective or moral judgement. Lone parent households are not seen as a tragedy but as part of a rich diversity. The fact that 32% of children are born outside marriage has more to do with the personal preference of the parents than any moral considerations. Having re-defined the family, of course, the report can assert that the family is not deteriorating (209) only changing (204).

“Marriage is only one key to what families are about” (72). There is “a myriad of other ways in which God’s blessing is bestowed through the expression of life in families” (72).

Yes, the report does acknowledge that changing family patterns cause pain and hurt. Nevertheless the real problem appears to be the inflexibility of some people to accept such changes.

The report asserts that no form of the family is “God-given” (6); and reflecting on the family “requires us to put aside some of our desire for certainty” (7). Patriarchy is strongly attacked throughout the report. The Bible, the report says, “presupposes a social order quite at odds with what we have today.” The Bible’s view of society “resulted in arrangements which are no longer morally acceptable” (75). The working party says that Christian thinking has moved away from patriarchy towards an egalitarian model. Biblical imagery has unintentionally been interpreted in ways which have had a “pernicious” effect on domestic relations (91). The danger is of being “led astray by powerful hidden persuaders which present quite unrealistic, sentimentalised images of the family, suitable only for marketing washing powder” (74).

After reading the report it is easy to feel that the nuclear family is portrayed as being on the one hand an unattainable ideal and on the other a source of introversion – a selfish withdrawal from the community.

“Christians are able to resist the captivity of the family and stand against patterns of marriage and family life which are unjust and in need of transformation” (89). Too often “the Church has been censorious and judgmental in matters of personal ethics” (115). Indeed “although the family is a God-given context for human nurture and blessing, it may also be life-destroying” (75).

What then is the approach adopted by the report? It is a `both and’ approach.

Marriage is affirmed, but there are some forms of “cohabitation which are marriages already in all but name” (116). `Both and’ is an extremely useful theological device for ignoring the plain teaching of the Bible. On plain moral issues you cannot say one thing and the opposite at the same time. Either the Christian way is for sex to be restricted to heterosexual monogamous marriage or it is not. True, the report claims that “simply accepting the world as it is not the Christian way”. But this is precisely what the report does do.

Alternative families and the claims of the report

(a) The illegitimacy rate.

There can be no doubt that the proportion of children born outside marriage has reached alarming proportions In 1952 the rate was 5%. In 1971 it was 8%. Today it is 32%. The working party makes the extraordinary claim that in the early 1800s levels of premarital sexual activity were “not markedly lower than at the present day” (22). From 1840 when the illegitimacy rate was around 6% births began to be registered by the state. Before that time, Church of England parish records were used. In 1980 a major study by Laslett and others was published compiling the illegitimacy figures using the ecclesiastical records. These records put illegitimacy in 1800 at around 5%. It must be remembered that in 1800 contraception effectively did not exist and abortion was illegal. Currently 20% of unborn babies are aborted. Despite both of these factors we still have an illegitimacy rate of 32%.

(b) “Cohabitation can be marriage in all but name.”

32% of children are born outside marriage, but we know from Government statistics cited in the report that half of these children appear to be born to cohabiting couples. What the report does not say is that large numbers of cohabiting couples choose to get married once they become parents. According to David Utting, a social scientist often quoted by the working party, only 3% of children at any one time live with two unmarried parents. The children of cohabitees must be at risk because of the harm to children resulting from broken families. The report admits that couples who cohabit before marriage are 50% more likely to get a divorce within 5 years of marrying than those who did not cohabit before marriage. The report sensibly says: “those who enter cohabitation with a commitment to marriage, in order to test out the partnership and their compatibility before marriage, may be deluding themselves” (114). The report points out that cohabiting relationships last two years on average before separation or marriage. One third of couples cohabit for less than a year and only 16 % live with their partner for more than 5 years (34).

So the figures found in the report itself cast doubt on the view that cohabitation can be marriage in all but name. A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation states that cohabitees are four times more likely to split up than married couples [Utting D Family and Parenthood, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1995, p 17].

The working party argues that the Church must change its position in order to ease the embarrassment felt by cohabiting couples coming to Church. The report quotes from Le Tissier (117) who argues that rejecting cohabitees will limit the effectiveness of evangelism. So the gospel message needs to be changed because it is too demanding!

Surely Janet Daley of The Times was quite right to criticize this aspect of the report. She pointed out that the Churches which are growing are precisely those which do give a moral lead.

(c) Children and alternative families.

In order to assert that families are not deteriorating but only changing the working party should at least prove that the new structures created by cohabitation and divorce are not harmful to children.

A.H. Halsey, the ethical socialist and Professor of Social Studies at Oxford, has summarized research into children of broken homes, or children born outside of marriage:

“On the evidence available, such children tend to die earlier, to have more illness, to do less well at school, to exist at a lower level of nutrition, comfort and conviviality, to suffer more unemployment, to be more prone to deviance and crime, and finally to repeat the cycle of unstable parenting from which they themselves suffered.” [See the foreword in Dennis and Erdos, Families without Fatherhood, IEA, 1993].

The Newcastle University Reader in Social Science, Norman Dennis, has set out research which shows the difference marriage can make to children’s health and educational attainment. So, is the working party correct to say that the family is just changing, not disintegrating? Dennis says an emphatic no!

“The case that the family was not deteriorating only changing, so far as children were concerned not only flew in the face of common experience. It also flew in the face of every empirical study that had ever been published” [Families without Fatherhood page 28].

On the question of the damage which divorce inflicts on children Something to Celebrate concedes this: children growing up in lone-parent families fare less well physically, psychologically, economically and socially than children who live with both parents. Nevertheless the working party states that these findings should not be taken at face value for two reasons. First, because there are different types of lone-parent household (some being due to a death of a parent; others due to divorce or separation); and secondly because the research refers only to averages.

True, the working party is correct to point out (46) that generalizations cannot be made about lone parents without considering different categories. But the research has been done so that we can make up our minds. The research is even cited (44 & 45). The study by Martin Richards shows that divorce is much worse for children than the death of a parent. This has been confirmed by other studies including The Exeter Study which is also cited (45). This study is mentioned only in passing yet it clearly shows that the damage to children as a result of conflict in a marriage is very minor compared to that caused by divorce. Children cope better with parents fighting than with a parent leaving. This study found that the worst situation of all for children was when a step family created after divorce itself broke up.

The second reason why the report claims that the poor outcomes for children from alternative families should not be taken at face value is that research only refers to averages (46). The working party says that averages mean a range of outcomes; therefore some children in lone parent and alternative families will do better than some children in married families. Of course that is true. But generally they do worse. To say that men weigh more than women does not mean that all men are heavier than women, but generally they are. And social policy has to be concerned with what is generally the case, while helping those who suffer. The question then is this: does divorce and do alternative family structures generally cause poorer outcomes for children.? The answer is emphatically, “yes they do.”

(d) Children and child abuse

The report rightly considers the question of child abuse (48, 184). Of course no one knows the true level of abused children. Abusers do not seek to make themselves known to the Police.

Child abuse takes place in many different kinds of households. But using evidence from prosecutions and from the NSPCC, Robert Whelan has convincingly shown that as far as child abuse is concerned a married family is the safest place to be [Whelan, R Broken Homes and Battered Children, Family Education Trust, 1984]. According to the cases that have reached the Courts, a child is 20 times more at risk if the natural parents cohabit rather than marry and 33 times more at risk if the natural mother lives with a boyfriend.

(e) Lesbian and Gay relationships

The report states that “many gay and lesbian partnerships and family groups are built on the desire for commitment and interdependence. Many are able to create relationships of high quality, capable of expressing love, joy, peace, faithfulness, endurance, self-sacrifice and service to the outside world beyond their relationship” (120).

The glowing terms which the Report applies to homosexual unions contrast with the negativism which the report associates with the nuclear family. The report draws on the list of the `fruit of the spirit’ in Galatians 5:22 and applies it to homosexual relationships. Leaving aside moral considerations (and what St Paul would have said), it is simply wrong to claim that homosexual unions are stable and enduring.

The Working Party needs to consider the research carried out in the SIGMA study which was published in 1991. The researchers were sympathetic to gay rights. The study showed that 44% of men were in a [homosexual] monogamous relationship. But the average length of this relationship was 21 months. And the majority of men in the study had casual partners, the average being 7 per year. Of the men who had casual partners, 27% met a partner in a public lavatory and 26% in a `cruising ground’ such as a public park. Researchers stated that there is a widespread expectation among homosexual men that relationships will not be monogamous.

Something to Celebrate gives estimates (118) of the proportion of the population who are homosexual as 1,2,4, 6, or 10%. The 10% figure is based on the work by Kinsey. This has now been completely discredited and no serious research claims to support it. In fact robust scientific studies are putting the percentage of the exclusively homosexual population at around 1%. According to the massive study funded by the Wellcome Foundation, only 0.4% of men are exclusively homosexual, but 70% of all men think that homosexuality is always or mostly wrong.

Something to Celebrate completely understates the position when it says that “Lesbian or gay parents are viewed by some as incapable or providing a suitable environment for bringing up children.”

British Social Attitudes found that 86% of the public thought that lesbians should not be allowed to adopt children. The corresponding figure which opposed adoption by gay men was 93%. BSA describe these figures as near unanimity. Other BSA statistics are quoted in many places in the working party report but not these. Something to Celebrate also quotes what it refers to as “limited research” which shows that children raised by homosexuals are not disadvantaged (120).

In fact the Golombok studies referred to are extremely limited and highly controversial. The 1983 study was based on children in the custody of their natural mothers after divorce living in a lesbian relationship. The mean age of the children was only 9.3 years which is far too young to show any long term effects. Any psycho-sexual or psycho-social difficulties may not be apparent until early adult life.

The more recent study by Golombok was reported in the British press. That found that 2 out of 25 children in a lesbian household became lesbians – whereas none of the children from families in the heterosexual control group became lesbians. 2 out of 25 (i.e. 8% adopting a gay lifestyle) is in fact a considerably higher proportion than is found in the general population. But this is far too small a group to have much significance either way.

These then are some of the claims of the report. The working party considered many key research reports. However, there are some serious omissions.

Although the book Farewell to the Family by Patricia Morgan is cited in the reading list it does not appear to have been considered in the text. This is understandable since the book was only published in early 1995. What is extraordinary is that the report has ignored the ethical socialist school. Works by Jon Davies, George Erdos and Norman Dennis have not been considered at all. This is very surprising in the case of Erdos and Dennis since their work has been quoted by senior politicians on the left and the right of the political spectrum. The working party is wide open to the charge that they have lacked even-handedness as they have considered social policy research.

Finally, what can be said about the research work carried out by the working party itself in their questionnaire?

The working party’s own research.

The working party was “keen to canvass views about families from within the Church of England” (5). It devised a 6 part questionnaire and distributed 5,000 copies amongst the dioceses. Demand was so great that more had to be printed. In total 25,000 were distributed. But how many came back? Only 1,000! This 4% response being such a tiny fraction of those sent out makes it statistically irrelevant. The report admits that the Working Party never set out to make a representative survey; nevertheless it states that the responses formed “an important background to our thinking.” And the whole exercise was “very valuable” so much so that the working party recommends it as a model for future working parties!


There are those who want to accept the report because, they say, it contains helpful material and parts of it are good. The answer to that is simple: the conclusions that are in error are very seriously in error. Or put another way, the report is like a cup of coffee. It is no good, however, saying that most of your cup contains good coffee if it also contains three teaspoonfuls of strychnine when even one will kill you.

Colin Hart is Director of the Christian Institute, based in Newcastle upon Tyne.