David Holloway takes a further look at the BSR report ‘Something to Celebrate’

The distinguished sociologist Brigitte Berger claims that there is a “war over the family”. The family, indeed, has been under attack for some time. David Cooper, an associate of R.D. Laing, the psychiatrist, wrote in 1974

“The bourgeois nuclear family… is the principal mediating device that the capitalist ruling class used to condition the individual, through primary socialisation, to fit into some role complex that suits the system.”

This, of course, is a Marxist analysis. In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels wrote about “the bourgeois clap trap about the family and education, about the hallowed relation of parent and child” Then Engels, in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, wrote:

“With the transformation of the means of production into collective property, the monogamous family ceases to be the economic unity of society. The private household changes to a social industry. The care and education of children becomes a public matter. Society cares equally well for all children, legal or illegal.”

Alternative arrangements

The implication is clear – one day there will be no need for the traditional family. Not surprisingly in 1920 Soviet Russia tried to organise its social life according to Marxist theory and attempted to dissolve family ties. It was a disaster. Professor P.A. Sorokin, the Harvard sociologist describes the Russian attitude of the 1920s as follows:

“The revolution leaders deliberately attempted to destroy marriage and the family. The legal distinction between marriage and casual sexual intercourse was abolished. Bigamy and polygamy were permissible under the new provisions. Abortion was facilitated in the State institutions. Premarital relationships were praised; extra-marital relationships were considered normal… Within a few years millions of lives, especially of young girls, were wrecked. The hatred and conflicts… rapidly mounted and so did psychoneuroses. Work in the nationalised factories slackened. The government was forced to reverse its policy.”

All this needs to be kept in mind in contemporary discussions on the family. The family, in the West, has been a main carrier of values for centuries. So if you want to eliminate those values, in addition to eroding the values why not erode their carrier as well? The Russian dissident Igor Sahfarevich, in his book The Socialist Phenomenon, explains that “the Socialist project of homogenising society demands that the family be vitiated or destroyed. This can be accomplished in good measure by profaning conjugal love and breaking monogamy’s link between sex and loyalty. Hence, in their missionary phases Socialist movements often stress sexual ‘liberation’.”

Feminist and Gay `families’

Extreme feminist liberation and Gay liberation have ridden on the back of this Marxist analysis. Kate Millet in her Sexual Politics concludes: “the enormous social change involved in a sexual revolution is basically a matter of altered consciousness, the exposure and elimination of social and psychological realities underlining political and cultural structures.”

So in 1979, the year of the Church of England’s report Homosexual Relationships the Gay Liberation Front’s manifesto said: “We must aim at the abolition of the family”. And, of course, the buttress of the family was Christianity. “Christianity, whose archaic and irrational teachings support the family and marriage as the only permitted condition for sex.” These, of course, are the words of extremists. Many would want to claim a loyalty to the Christian tradition while rejecting the Christian traditional family. But the debate today over sexuality and the family is over deeper issues than many of the presenting problems.

Pastoral concerns

In any discussion on the family, sexuality, and marriage it is vital to distinguish pastoral matters from questions about the right order of society. There will be many people today – as there were in New Testament times – who have experienced the pain and the disorder of sin in their sexual lives, their marriages or their families. That will be personally true for some reading this article. Probably for the rest there will be some near relative or close friend for whom it is true. There are, therefore, pastoral needs that have to be met: and the greatest pastoral need of all is to point men and women to Jesus Christ and the Cross where he bore our sins. We all need to know that he offers forgiveness for all sin – sexual, marital and familial included. As Jesus said to the adulteress: “neither do I condemn you.”

However, Jesus then went on and said to the woman: “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). Jesus never for a moment conceded that her life style was anything other than disordered. He would not tolerate the hypocrisy of “the teachers of the law and the Pharisees.” But Jesus was so clear about God’s standards for right living.

A creation ordinance

Jesus knew that in dealing with sex, marriage and the family we are talking about a “creation ordinance”. In Mark 10:6, talking about marriage, he referred to “the beginning of creation”, that is to say, sex and marriage has to do with something in “nature” or the way God has made the world. Domestic arrangements may vary from culture to culture. Sometimes few, sometimes many of a kinship group live in proximity or relative proximity.

But whatever the arrangements, there is always a “nucleus” of a father and mother and their children – and this relationship of the father and mother should be permanent. And becoming “one flesh” through sexual intercourse was only to take place after there was a “leaving of father and mother” and a “uniting” of the husband and wife. This ruled out all premarital, extramarital and homosexual sex.

Of course this “nuclear family” must never be idolised – in the sense of taking the place of God. Some close family ties, Jesus knew, had to be sacrificed for his kingdom. But it was a sacrifice. It was not giving up something that was marginal or unimportant; it was giving up ties that were deeply significant and precious. And because these ties are so important Paul says in I Timothy 5:8 that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever…”

Nuclear families and sexual restraint

Today there is a particular attack on the “nuclear family”. However, there is no way the “nuclear family” can be denied. George Murdock in his book Social Structures analysed two hundred and fifty societies and found that the nuclear family was the universal and the basic social grouping. That is not to say that those societies followed a Christian sexual ethic. Of the two hundred and fifty societies, sixty-five allowed general promiscuity to the unmarried and twenty others gave qualified assent to premarital promiscuity. But marriage and pre-marriage patterns have huge significance. Another anthropologist, J.D. Unwin in his monumental work Sex and Culture, tells us that his researches led to two general conclusions. “First, the cultural condition of any society in any geographical environment is conditioned by its past and present methods of regulating the relations between the sexes. And, secondly, no society can display productive social energy unless a new generation inherits a social system under which sexual opportunity is reduced to a minimum.”

So the tradition of the Western Christian sexual ethic and family pattern received remarkable support from this research. “The greatest energy,” said Unwin, “has been displayed only by those societies which have reduced their sexual opportunity to a minimum by the adoption of absolute monogamy.” As Professor V.A. Demant puts it: “part of the mastery over nature in man’s own life has been a mastery over the sexual impulse, to a degree in European Christendom not known elsewhere. But it has been known or practised to some degree throughout mankind’s civilised history. All cultural development has meant a limitation of sexual drives. B. Malinowski, in his Sex and Repression in Savage Society shoes that even an elementary culture demands some limit on sexual adventure.”

The Anglican Report

None of this information appears in the report on the family from the Board for Social Responsibility of the General Synod that has just been published. Called Something to Celebrate its sub-title is “Valuing Families in Church and Society.” Its conclusion is that the Christian understanding of the traditional family is over-rated. Families have now changed. The two-parent family with children has given way to a “richly creative” diversity that includes one-parent families, cohabitation and even gay relationships. Cohabitation is now, according to the report acceptable. “Christians [are] both to hold fast to the centrality of marriage and at the same time to accept that cohabitation is, for many people, a step along the way towards that fuller and more complete commitment.” We must take a “both-and” approach.

The report, of course, contains much that is good and interesting. But as Colin Hart, the director of the Christian Institute says: “the report is like a cup of coffee. It is no good saying that most of your cup contains good coffee if it also contains three teaspoonfuls of strychnine when even one will kill you!” And the report is only part of a trend among Christians. A short essay in the last Encounter with God SU notes claimed that “the traditional family is far from either following and Old Testament model for family life or echoing the values of the kingdom of God.” Of course there is much in traditional family life that is fallen and much in this essay was good. But that this side of heaven the ideal of a communitarian “kingdom of God” can allow us to marginalise the “traditional family” as the SU writer implies, is a dangerous folly. It was proposed at the time of the Reformation by radical reformers, and it has been proposed since by millennial cults. It ends up with David Koresh and Waco.

The “real” war

Two years ago I was asked to contribute at a national consultation. Senior people involved in government, social work and the church were present. In something I was asked to write I made, what I thought was an innocent and irrefutable observation. I said:

“Marriage best secures a stable and enduring relationship with two parents. Society still recognises healthy heterosexual monogamous marriage as the ideal and proper environment for child care and nurture.”

The reaction was unbelievable. It was as though I had uttered an obscenity. A considerable number of those present were verbally quite violent. What I had known for a long time then went from the head to the heart – there is a “war over the family”.


My short paper was on reducing teenage pregnancies. The context, I claimed, was the erosion of marriage, with the antecedent erosion of sexual morality and the consequential erosion of the traditional family. I thought all admitted that this had reached crisis proportions. Now 31 per cent of births in England and Wales are outside marriage. Since 1976 one parent families with dependent children had nearly doubled as a proportion of all families with dependent children – now there are one million lone mothers. Now for every two marriages in the United Kingdom there is one divorce.

And now nearly one in five unmarried men and women are cohabiting – but such couples are 50 per cent more likely to have divorced after five years of marriage, and 60 per cent more likely after eight years of marriage than those who have not cohabited. My conclusion was that “unacceptable strains and stresses from these developments are inevitably leading to malfunctioning family units, and an ethic of sexual freedom is leading to problem pregnancies despite careful contraceptive advice.”


I had not calculated with the prejudice and bigotry of many liberal church people, social workers, lawyers, administrators and other professionals involved in this debate. I was in fact very angry. I understood, then, the sub-title of Norman Dennis’ study Rising Crime and the Dismembered Family. It was “How Conformist Intellectuals have Campaigned Against Common Sense”

I was angry because these new patterns of “having families” are causing untold misery. The marriage (medical) research body One plus One has shown that many victims of family stress and marital breakdown have measurable negative health outcomes. Such people try, for example, to overcome their pain through overeating, promiscuity, overwork and increased smoking or drinking. While one per cent of women from intact families drink heavily, the figure for those from broken homes was seven per cent; and psychiatric illness was found to be twice as common amongst women with divorced parents.

The results showed that no longer could it be said that a divorce where there was marriage conflict would better serve the interests of the children. As the more recent Exeter Tripp Report has confirmed, a bad marriage is better than a good divorce so often for the children. That is because divorce can lead to psychological and physical problems. In fact divorce has a greater impact on a child than the death of a parent. “Perhaps the fact that the absent parent is `out there somewhere’ and yet not `here with me’ represents a particularly complex sense of loss for children.” Half the children surveyed were “worried, self-deprecating, underachieving and showed evidence of the after-effects of a considerable trauma.”

Hard facts

The hard facts are these. With regard to adults the effects of divorce include: headaches, crying, muscular tension, hypertension, chest pain and a lowered capacity to think. Divorcees and their children consume more alcohol and tobacco than married people. Men between 35 and 45 are twice as likely as married men to die early. Women are three times as likely to attempt suicide and men twice as likely to die from heart disease as their married counterparts. Men in Edinburgh and Oxford are five times as likely to kill themselves. And cancer rates are significantly higher among the divorced.

With regard to children of broken families the hard facts are these: they are four times as likely to suffer stomach ulcers or colitis by the age of 26. Nearly thirty per cent of young people whose parents divorced before they were five showed delinquent behaviour before they were 21, compared with only 14 per cent of young people with intact families. And there was a great concern about betrayal, abandonment and not being loved.

A.W. Halsey

In the light of all this the ethical socialist. A.H. Halsey, the Professor of Social and Administrative Studies at Oxford and former Reith Lecturer has written the following:

“No one can deny that divorce, separation, birth outside marriage and one-parent families as well as cohabitation and extra-marital sexual intercourse have increase rapidly. Many applaud these freedoms. But what should be universally acknowledged is that the children of parents who do not follow the traditional norm (i.e. taking on personal, active and long-term responsibility for the social upbringing of the children they generate) are thereby disadvantaged in many major aspects of their chances of living a successful life. 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 have suffered.”

Halsey, of course, is aware in all of this we are dealing with averages. He is not maintaining that traditionally reared children will all be healthy, intelligent and good; nor that children from parentally deprived homes will all turn out to be sickly, stupid and criminal. But on average what he claims will be the case. “It must be insisted that no contrary evidence is available to contradict the average differences postulated by the stated thesis.” For the Christian this means that the pastoral needs are even more than we thought. The gospel offers strength, help and hope in suffering. But the facts have first to be faced. It is truly irresponsible to think, as the report does, of this new morality and new forms of living in terms of human flourishing.

“Right”, “Left” and conclusions

It is also irresponsible for the report to stigmatise supporters of the traditional family by implying they are part of the New Right. It says:

“The new Right sees the family – mother, father and children, with a periphery of other members – as the key institution of civil society: `The family is the matrix within which the citizen is well formed or misshapen. No institution is so important yet so easily overlooked.’

The New Right emphasises the family’s role in socialising its members, especially through teaching and enforcing responsibility. Mutual responsibility helps to maintain the family, helps individuals to grow and contributes to social stability.”

As if those on the right have a monopoly of concern for the family! On the contrary both the Right and the Left are to blame for today’s problems. The Wilson years were the first to legislate for permissiveness. The Thatcher and Major years have paid lip-service to the traditional family while at the same time overseeing its disintegration. The Blair alternative looks no better.

No! The concern for the traditional family is a result of the Reformation: Luther’s attack on celibacy as a preferred state, Calvin’s doctrine of “callings” including the calling to be married, and the Puritan ideal of the family as the base unit of the Church. Richard Baxter famously said in 1656: “Family is the seminary of the Church and State, and if children be not well principled there, all miscarrieth.” The only real long term hope, therefore, for the family and then social renewal is through national evangelism. Jesus Christ is the only way. With him as Saviour and Lord there can be a new beginning. Without him there will surely be further disintegration.

David Holloway, a former member of the Board for Social Responsibility of the General Synod (1976-85) is vicar of Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne. This article appeared in the August edition of the Jesmond Parish Church Newsletter