‘Fluid’ families good, ‘nuclear’ families bad?

Jun 5, 2018 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

In December 2013, at a point in history mid-way between Parliamentary approval for same sex marriage and the enactment of a new law changing marriage’s definition, a senior judge was disciplined for expressing conservative views on marriage and family.

Sir Paul Coleridge had started the Marriage Foundation, not from conviction about biblical Christian ethics, but because as a High Court judge in the Family Division, he was increasingly appalled by the scale of family breakdown in Britain, and the resulting waste of human and financial resources, let alone the nastiness and misery flooding the nation. He resigned from the Bench and devoted himself full time to the organization which publishes research on the benefits of stable marriage as the basis for family life and healthy communities, and which warns policymakers of the dangers of the current trajectory.

Meanwhile, the current President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, has made no secret of his contempt for the ideal of the stable, nuclear family, but has not faced any censure from the establishment. In a recent speech the judge celebrated the “infinite variety” of forms of the family, including single parents, temporary cohabitation, same sex and polyamorous arrangements, and said this is “a reality which we should welcome and applaud.”

A number of commentators have, in different ways, pointed out the ideologically-driven arrogance of Munby, the stubborn refusal of his ilk to believe and act on the clear statistical evidence of the benefits for children and society of stable marriages, and the culpable celebration of short term adult ‘freedom’ over the values of commitment and responsibility. But what does the Church of England think?

Archbishop Justin Welby has made several high profile speeches in recent months which touch on the issue of family life. He thinks we should accept the reality of the fluid family, rather than trying to promote one model. To the Mother’s Union he said:

“By family I also mean something close to household, and include where appropriate extended families, because the shape and nature of family life has varied enormously through history and continues to vary in different social contexts today.”

As he goes on to describe the different family structures, he sees their value not in their shape, but in whether they are oppressive or liberating. He says nothing of Scriptural passages, the basis of the Anglican marriage service, which celebrate faithful heterosexual monogamy as a God-given union from which children are born and nurtured, forming a family which is the primary building block of society. The Mother’s Union should focus on comforting the hurting, recognizing the complexity of family structures, rather than to promote one model of family which may be “idealized” and “a myth”.

He returned to this theme in a speech to leaders of Orthodox churches in Moscow in November 2017, and again when launching his book ‘Reimagining Britain’:

“I am not talking about a romantic ideal of the perfect family, or some nostalgic approach to what family life was like in the past, because it wasn’t…I am talking about benefits to remaining in relationship with each other even among the changing patterns of what it is to be a household…”

While Archbishop Welby is not ‘celebrating’ the proliferation of same-sex, lone parent, cohabiting, divorced-and-remarried family arrangements as Lord Chief Justice Munby is doing, he is certainly not criticising this trend or seeing it as a problem in itself, and he is specifically rejecting Sir Paul Coleridge’s solution of focussing on stable man-woman marriage as a key to social well-being.

For some years this attitude has been widespread in C of E leadership. In 2013, on the eve of the Parliamentary vote on same sex marriage, I heard one Bishop tell a packed gathering of the Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship that his main concern was not the redefinition of marriage or the breakdown of the family, but the conservative church’s focus on the nuclear family and ‘exclusion’ of other groupings. In a Radio 4 Thought for the Day just before Christmas last year, a senior clergyman attacked the use of the nativity to promote “the idol of the nuclear family”.

Across the theological spectrum, Anglicans seem unwilling to support marriage and family, and are even embarrassed by the issue. What is going on? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Some more reformed evangelicals are nervous about openly supporting pro-life and pro-family causes because they are suspicious that it’s ‘a bit Catholic’. There’s no doubt that Roman Catholics have been prominent in opposing abortion and promoting the mum, dad and kids view of the family. For Protestants to steer clear of the issue because of fear of association with Catholics is not biblical, but tribal, and self-defeating, like saying we’re not going to campaign for trains to run on time because that’s ‘a bit German’.
  1. Others might argue along similar lines, that concern for family breakdown is an issue of social action, therefore not a ‘gospel priority’. “Our job is to bring individuals to Christ, and once they start coming to church, then they can improve their family life as part of their discipleship.” If churches are doing this locally, that’s great, but we can’t abdicate our responsibility for concern for the wider world. For example, the local Primary School which some of our church children attend, may have an increasing number of kids from broken homes, and the school may be starting to use materials from lobby groups teaching dangerous ideologies of sex and gender. To say that this is “none of our business” is the theology of pietism and missiology of the ghetto – it is certainly not Anglican.
  1. I’ve often heard the argument from those in large evangelical churches that they are full of young families; cohabitation isn’t a thing and the young women don’t have abortions, so the church sees no threat to family life. Well it’s wonderful to be safe in a middle class Christian bubble, but from this privileged position we are surely called to be concerned, and pray for, the majority in our own nation who are without Christ and without the home securities that we take for granted. And even what appear to be the strongest Christian marriages can deteriorate from internal and external causes.
  1. At the other end of the theological spectrum, there will be those keen to be involved in social action – perhaps running a foodbank or soup kitchen from their church, and supporting development projects in Africa to alleviate poverty. For them, concern for marriages and families in society is seen as a right-wing, middle class issue, which takes attention away from the need for more government spending on benefits, education, mental health etc. This may come from a naïve belief that our message about Christ will seem more attractive to the world when outsiders see how progressive we are. But it also shows how much many of us have imbibed a ‘cultural-Marxist’ worldview, seeing the State as providing the solution to all problems, and the family as reflecting the free choices of adults at best, and an ‘oppressive bourgeois structure’ at worst.
  1. “We don’t want to upset single people/lone parents/divorced/LGBT”. But in response: Supposing a middle aged Christian couple have two children: a single daughter in her late twenties, and an unbelieving and rebellious son who lives with his girlfriend. Should the parents never winsomely commend good marriage, for fear of antagonising their children? Both need care, gospel ministry and community support in different ways; the model of their parents’ marriage and the theology behind it can only be positive and transformative, not negative.

When I was working in South Africa at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, some church leaders would say that the church’s role should be restricted to showing compassionate care for victims, and lobbying government for free medicines. It would be wrong to address the causes of AIDS, especially sexual promiscuity and broken family life, they said, because this would ‘stigmatise’ sufferers.

Praise God for the sacrificial care provided by Christians during that time, and for the drugs which eventually became available.  But in the meantime church leaders often didn’t clearly articulate a positive vision for chastity and faithful family life, because they didn’t want to upset people. Hundreds of thousands died – how many could have been saved? In Britain today, how much social and spiritual carnage could be averted by promoting and celebrating marriage, family and the sanctity of life, but it’s not happening because of fear of causing offence? Authentic Christian mission is never a choice between telling the truth and being compassionate: both are necessary. Lives are literally at stake.

Promoting the nuclear family, that is to say, the family, is a gospel issue because it reflects God’s ordering of the universe, reveals human sin and selfishness, and points to redemption and growth. It’s also a social action issue, as strong families are the best protection for children and bulwark against poverty. The world doesn’t like this message, because rebellious adults don’t want their choices questioned or restricted. Will the church continue to keep quiet?

Read also: How can the top family judge not believe in the family? By Kathy Gyngell, The Conservative Woman

Hungary see abortion numbers plunge with rise of pro-family policies, by Lisa Bourne, LifeSite

Three simple ways Mrs May can make a wedding pay, by Harry Benson, The Conservative Woman

Why family life is the true key to equality, by Belinda Brown, The Conservative Woman [the author is right to speak of the social benefits of the nuclear family, but wrong to suggest that Jesus was mistaken in calling for us to put God before family!]




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