traditional family breakdown
Marriage and Family

The traditional family is dying — where is the Church of England?

The scale of family breakdown in the UK is staggering. It isn’t only staggering, it’s shameful and distressing. The magnitude of the decline of the traditional family has been laid bare in a report by Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England. The first part of her ‘Independent Family Review‘ reveals that 23% of UK families (that’s almost two million) are headed by a lone parent, of whom 90% are single women; and a staggering (truly staggering) 44% of people born in 2000-01 (that’s almost 300,000) did not live with both their parents throughout their childhood. Among Black Caribbean families, that figure rises to 57%, and we wonder (if we are permitted to) why so many black boys have behavioural problems at school or are more inclined to be stopped and searched by the police.

This is important, because all the studies and peer-reviewed research and empirical evidence establishes that children who are nurtured by a loving mother and father tend to do rather better in life than those who were not. It isn’t, of course, that there is no hope for children raised by lone parents, many of whom do a sterling job against the odds, but those who get on well with either parent in a traditional family tend to be more rounded people, more able themselves to make commitments, and more successful in their careers. And that ‘traditional family’ is a mother and a father – a female and a male – in a faithful, committed, permanent and legally sanctioned relationship, which is central to the stability and health of human society. It is a creation ordinance, a gift of God in creation and a means of His grace. The Church of England still teaches that it “continues to provide the best context for the raising of children”.

Rachel de Souza talks about the ‘protective’ dimension of the family:

I have heard about the power that family holds. A power that provides a shield from life’s challenges – a protective effect against adversity. Families recognise it and those who work with them acknowledge it. And importantly, for the first time, this Review proves and quantifies exactly what the protective effect of family is.

The research shows it’s more about the quality of family relationships than the composition or relative position of the family in society. It’s about strong and lasting relationships, relying on each other, and spending time together. And believing you could rely on family in time of crisis is associated with significantly higher overall well-being. Family can insulate us from the harshness of difficult times and so looking into the short term, and long term, we must protect it and support it in whatever ways we can.

Of course there are family struggles and breakdowns; and of course some families work better than others, but that’s when families themselves need protecting and supporting back to strong and positive relationship. This may occasionally be impossible, especially in cases of chronic physical or emotional abuse, but that’s when both Church and State must be at their most supportive, especially for the children, with whose care there should be gaps or deficiencies (especially in the provision of education and mental health services).

traditional family church of englandThe problem the Church of England has is that no matter what it preaches about the virtues of the traditional family, it is widely perceived as being antithetical to it. There is no doubting the “reality of divorce, cohabitation and gay marriage in the 21st century”, but preaching the reality and exhorting accommodation is no substitute for exhorting the sanctity of Christian marriage and the virtues of the traditional family home. The Church doesn’t exist just to pick up the pieces, but to show that the original shattering is not only often wrong, but a sin; and that Christ isn’t always concerned with the preferential assimilation of contemporary culture, but with opposing it.

When it comes to the traditional family, you’d think the Established Church and a Conservative government would be united in their support for it. But as Cristina Odone asks in the Daily Mail: “Family matters. So why have successive governments repeatedly shunned those of us who have sought to put family at the heart of the Westminster agenda?”

It’s a good question, isn’t it?

And why does the Church of England shun those for whom ‘family’ means a mother and a father – a wife and a husband – in a lifelong union for the rearing of children? Why has talking about the virtues of the traditional family become almost cultic, if not extreme? Why (again) is it left to Christian Concern to say what the Bishops should be preaching to the nation and speaking to government power?

If we are to tackle the issue of family breakdown, the government must first look at the cause of the symptoms rather than simply changing laws to remedy the symptoms themselves. If the government is really keen to deal with poverty, mental illness, teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse, etc., then it must look to family breakdown and start upholding a biblical family model.

Second, incentives to separate must be done away with. If family breakdown is to be lessened, the ease of breakdown and separation needs to change. ‘No-fault’ divorce laws must not be introduced and incentives to stay married, with support from counsellors, if necessary, should be brought in.

Finally, upholding freedom of speech and expression must be encouraged. People must be free to speak out in support of a biblical view of marriage. Not only will this encourage open debate and study into the benefits of two-parent families, their views also happen to be correct – children do indeed do best with a mother and a father.

None of this means, of course, that only two sexually-complementary biological parents can provide a nurturing home for children: loving adults can foster and adopt; there are superb step-parents and grandparents, and single parents often do become both mother and father to their children. But it can be one hell of a struggle, and that struggle can profoundly affect the children mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. What does ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’ mean to the child who has absolutely no sense of what ‘father’ does, because he has always been absent, never played with Lego, never kicked a football, never read a story at bedtime, never helped with homework, and never meted out punishment in love?

Dame Rachel de Souza has called on the next Prime Minister to prioritise putting families “at the heart” of policy-making. And she has made it clear that the traditional family unit is optimal for children’s life chances. Why does it take an independent Children’s Commissioner to remind a Conservative government that reducing family breakdown and building stronger families should be a priority? And why is she preaching the very sermon which all those Bishops should have preaching for decades?