In March 2021, the Archbishops commissioned a project to look at issues around family and households; this was the third of four Commissioners arising from Justin Welby’s 2018 book Reimagining Britain (which I reviewed here), the previous ones covering housing and care respectively, alongside the ongoing commission on racial justice.
Before I read the report myself, I decided to think about what issues I would like to see tackled which are hallmarks of our contemporary cultural approach to family and household life. For me, the issues cluster into three or four groups, though they are inter-related and each has an impact on the others.
1. The loss of confidence in lifelong, committed relationships.
The most obvious sign of this is the decline in marriage as the normative pattern of couple relationship, and the rise of cohabitation as either prior to marriage or an alternative to it. But the consequences of this change are well documented, and include the impact of divorce, parental relationship breakdown and fragmented, unstable family structures on children—their education, mental health, physical wellbeing and earnings potential. Research on all these can be found at one of the Coalition for Marriage resource pages here.
At the other end of the age spectrum, the breakup of relationships has led to an increase in older people living alone, raising issues around loneliness, care support, and the pressure on housing as the number of single-person household has grown. Astonishingly, fully one third of all households in the UK now comprise a single person. This must surely be a major factor contributing to the ‘epidemic of loneliness’ in the UK today.
2. The loss of value in parenting and child-rearing
There is something very strange in our majority cultural narrative about having children: they are mostly a problem. Almost all the reports appear to focus on the cost of having children, how demanding and inconvenient they are, and how they bring the ‘parenting penalty’ to careers and earnings, especially for women who continue to play the major role in parenting. This is, in part, a result of thinking of all of life in economic terms, but it also comes from detaching sexual relationships from reproduction and child-rearing more broadly.
These changes in values are reflected in a dramatic drop in the ‘fertility rate’, measured as the number of children born to women of child-bearing age. The current fertility rate in the UK has plummeted to 1.53; in order to remain stable, a society needs a fertility rate of 2.2. This is affecting all Western countries, and the UK is not in the worst position—Italy’s fertility rate has fallen to 1.24, and it is provoking national debate.
This demographic issue has massive implications on all aspects of national life, so it is remarkable that so little is said about it. It has been conjectured that Germany’s demographic crisis was a major factor behind Angela Merkel’s decision to admit so many migrants to the country—without these, who is going to pay for and look after Germany’s older population?
Demographic imbalance may well represent the greatest threat to the long-term stability of Britain, and indeed the rest of the world. Put simply, our age pyramid no longer looks like a pyramid…
We look at stagnant growth and we blame government mismanagement. We look at recruitment problems in the care sector and we blame the work-shy young. We look at lengthening hospital waiting lists and we blame chronic under-investment. We look at inter-ethnic conflict and we blame a failure of assimilation efforts. Very few people piece all of these political problems together and recognise that they are in fact the same problem. Put bluntly, there are not enough babies being born and the sticking plaster of mass migration is not going to hold for much longer. This is the most urgent political problem of our times and almost no one is talking about it.
3. The sexualisation of relationships
In some ways, this is the most obvious feature of the contemporary approach to relationships. Sex is primarily viewed as a leisure activity, even a right, which has only tangential connections to committed relationship. The sexualisation of our culture is evident in the all-pervasive presence of pornography, accessible even to children on smartphones. Sex as an end in itself, detached from lifelong commitment and child-bearing, also leads to a view of marriage and committed relationship as detached from parenting.
4. Increased cost of housing
The commodification of housing, the failure to build new houses, the growth of single-person households, and the massive growth of the population through migration, have created the perfect storm of inaffordability. Families with children now need to have both parents working, and contract out much childcare, if they are to be able to afford housing costs.
5. The ambivalent view of singleness
It feels to me that our culture has a deeply ambivalent view of singleness. On the one hand, those who are single are portrayed as being free to enjoy a life of choice and leisure, without the commitments either of another person who might limit their freedoms, or the burden and responsibility of parenting. On the other hand, those who are single seem to be defined largely by what they don’t have, and have to watch others enjoy what they long for.
This was not something I had been aware of, but noticed it in my reading for writing this article. In the last ten years there has been a shocking rise in the number of violent offences committed against children—and this cannot really be explained simply by increased awareness and reporting. As a society, we are becoming more violent against one of the most vulnerable groups, and it is hard to believe that this is unconnected with the general breakdown in relationships, both between couples and across families more generally.
Putting all these facts together, it would be no exaggeration to say we are facing a crisis of marriage and family life in our culture.
What might the gospel say to this situation?
The biblical narrative offers an egalitarian vision of humanity made male and female in the image of God, given the task of exercising God’s delegated dominion over the world, primarily through men and women being joined together in marriage and having a fruitful relationship which includes the birth and raising of children. Alongside this, the fruitfulness of kingdom life means that, for some, celibate singleness is a parallel calling. Annabel Clarke of Engage puts it well:
The Bible values singleness and marriage. Single people are equally valuable and competent as married people. At the same time, God’s design from the start has been for marriage to reflect his covenant relationship with the church, to be foundational to society, and to be personal experienced by most people.
The exposition of marriage by a group of 14 bishops earlier this year bases its discussion on Church of England doctrine:
The BCP goes on describe the goods of Christian marriage in Anglican teaching as threefold:
- First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
- Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.
- Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
Common Worship re-orders (and re-words) these into a) companionship, b) the gift of sex, and c) the bearing of children.
The discipline of lifelong marriage as the context for sexual intimacy limits male desire, provides women with security, and offers children stability and protection. Forms and patterns of relationship on their own cannot do this, so biblical teaching about marriage also fills this form with qualities, in particular the role of men being to give themselves up in love to those they are committed to, rejecting all abuse of power (see Eph 5).
And the use of the primary kinship metaphor to describe the people of God as ‘brothers and sisters’ undermines the idea that the ‘nuclear family’ is the norm. Households based around marriage and child-rearing in scripture are open social structures which includes others in community, and this includes care for those who are single, elderly, or vulnerable in other ways.
This brief sketch cannot answer all the contemporary questions around families in such a short space, but provides the basis for an answer to the issues above. So the question then arises: is this how the Families Commission report proceeds?
The simple answer appears to be ‘no’. Martin Davie has offered a more detailed analysis of the report here, and some summary criticisms. Here I want to make three main observations.
First, the report (and many of the supporting papers) take a thoroughgoing sociological approach, rather than a theological one. There are extensive comments on what people think, and contemporary attitudes and realities. These are mostly summarised in the main report (the shorter one is much more broad-brush), but the details can be found in the briefing papers here. These all appear to have been compiled by one person, who also seems to have written the final report, which is surprising given the membership of the Commission.
But this approach is deeply problematic. On the one hand, it purports to be ‘objective’, in that it deals with facts about society and social attitudes. On the other hand, this is a deception: decisions are made about which facts to explore, and which to pass over. The presentation of the facts is not at all objective, but reflects the agenda of whoever has made the decisions on which facts to include—but without offering a rationale for these decisions. So, in this case, the compelling evidence that a commitment to marriage as the best context for sexual intimacy and as the best context to raise children is completely passed over—but no explanation is offered for why this is not considered important.
Secondly, and related to that, theology appears to be largely absent. The Church’s own doctrine of marriage gets very little coverage, and does not form the basis for a critique of contemporary cultural norms. What theology there is, is mostly relegated to a page of supporting papers—and some of these are just terrible. Adrian Thatcher’s opens by mocking the Catholic Catechism, then trashing the Church’s own doctrine of marriage on the grounds that domestic abuse still happens in committed ‘traditional’ marriages, as if that is a knock-down argument. And where is the contribution from Elaine Storkey, who was a member of the Commission? Her paper appears nowhere.
It is no wonder that Harry Benson, of the Marriage Foundation, complains that, in this report, the Church has ‘given up on marriage’:
In fairness to the authors, marriage gets a good run, in sharp contrast to almost all government policy papers on the family. But it’s how its portrayed that I take exception.
Marriage is damned with faint praise. Yes, most people aspire to it. Yes, most families are married. But marriage was glorified by the Victorians, according to the report, and has now been replaced by other popular structures that are now commonplace and normalised. There are as many bad marriages as good cohabitations. And family change has always been with us. There was even a cohabiting couple in the Bible. So we should acknowledge that the way families structure their lives is equally valid and equally good.
This is just wrong. Marriage has always been linked to childbirth. In my PhD research, I found plenty of sources showing that cohabiting was virtually unknown in England at least between 1580 and 1960…
Alas the report, or at least this key section on families, has nothing to say on the social function of marriage or why states and societies throughout history have regulated marriage in one form or another. The social function of marriage is to bond men to the mothers of their future children. The psychology behind this is deeply compelling. To be fair, the report mentions this in passing because it’s our quote that makes it to page 44. But it is then brushed aside with a switch to the importance of commitment.
Thirdly, the headline from the report is that ‘we must value families in all their diversity.’ But this is not a conclusion from research; this appears to be an a priori assumption that the report adopts from the beginning. And what is shocking is that this assumption is one that potentially causes children harm. Not to make an evaluation of different patterns of relationship and their different impact is to make a decision: to ignore the evidence of the impact, for example, of divorce, or the breakdown of a relationship, or the impact of prior cohabitation on later marriage stability, and so on. Given that there is very clear evidence that stable parental relationships do children good, and overall unstable parental relationships disadvantage them, the Commission and its report have decided to take a position of studied indifference to the welfare of children in these different situations.
The absurdity of this approach is revealed early on, in this remarkable comment on p 14 of the Summary Report:
Having talked to many young people and adults, we concluded that neither the importance of family and marriage nor the values that surround them are in decline. Most young people told us that they expect to be married at some time in their life, but it might be some way into the future after they have established a career and pursued other interests. There is a clear distinctiveness about marriage. It represents an important rite of passage and publicly recognises statements of life-long commitment between the partners. In the last ten years this rite of passage has been extended to include the legal recognition of committed, loving relationships between partners of the same sex.
The idea that ‘neither the importance of family and marriages nor the values that surround them are in decline’ flies in the face of all the evidence, all around us! You only have to read news headlines or watch a programme or film to see how radically attitudes have changed over the last 30 years or so. And the following sentences themselves contradict this claim! Marriage is now subjugated to career; it is optional rather than the norm; and it is detached from historic patterns, and disconnected from procreation. The idea that the introduction of gay marriage—which was not even on the agenda a generation ago—shows there is ‘no change in attitudes’, is breathtaking.
There could not be a better illustration of the incoherence of the report’s approach.
Why has such a great opportunity to speak into culture, and boldly to encourage Government to support marriage through its policies, been squandered? I think there are two reasons.
First, the report arises from a lack of coherence in theology at the heart of the Church of England, in this case in relation to marriage and sexuality, but it applies in other areas too. Many both within and outside the C of E believe that being a ‘broad church’ is a strength, but this report shows the reality. Because the contributors do not share coherent theologies of marriage, and do not appear to see the Church’s own doctrine as of central theological importance, the Commission has been unable to offer a theological critique of culture and a theological contribution to questions of policy. Just as certain impurities in a metal give it fatal weakness so that things made with this lose structural strength, the fault lines of our theological views have fatally weakened our ability to speak into culture.
Secondly, the whole conversation seems marked by a lack of courage. We appear to have lost our nerve and no longer have the confidence to say ‘There is a better way, and this is it’. As Martin Davie notes:
The Bible and the Christian tradition see marriage between two people of the opposite sex as the God given setting for the procreation and upbringing of children, but the report suggests that all types of family arrangement can have equal value. The question is why? Why were the report’s authors unwilling to say that marriage is the gold standard for family life, given by God and empirically producing the best outcome for children? In addition, why were they unwilling to say, as the Bible and the Christian tradition have always said, that sexual activity is something that should only take place within marriage?
I suspect there are multiple factors that contribute to this loss of courage, including an anxiety about potentially losing the assumed privileges of establishment. But if anxiety about our status causes us to lose our courage, of what value is that status in the first place?
Just in the last week, the Church Times reported a survey which showed plummeting belief in God in the UK:
People in the UK are less likely to believe in God than the people of almost any other country in the world, a new study suggests…
In 1981, three-quarters of the surveyed UK adults said that they believed in God, compared with just under half (49 per cent) in 2022. Just five countries had a lower percentage of belief in God: China (17 per cent), Sweden (35 per cent), Japan (39 per cent), South Korea (41 per cent), and Norway (46 per cent).
It is striking that two of those five countries (Sweden and Norway) have churches which have also taken this ‘don’t rock the boat’ approach, particularly in relation to marriage and sexuality. What Britain needs more than anything is a Church that will offer a courageous account of a better way to live.
In my review of Reimagining Britain, I ended with this observation:
There are more, detailed questions I could ask about the final sections of the book—but I think I have already asked enough of those. The book overall left me with a bigger question: what is the nature of the hope that we have to offer, and what should be our strategy in thinking about the future of society?
Do we focus on what is realistic, looking for some of the positives in the situation that we are faced with, and attempting to build on those? Do we avoid some of the starker, more difficult challenges and assumptions that our culture makes? Do we first of all deal with the problems, with the symptoms that we find in our world, and do we work hard to avoid causing any unnecessary offence by challenging the starting places, trying to find practical partners in a project to improve the world? That appears to be the approach taken by this book—and I can see both its appeal and its practical application. This is a strategy informed by pastoral realism.
Or do we do something quite different? Do we look at some of the fundamental assumptions made by our culture about what the world is like, how things happen, and what it means to be human—and seek to offer a radically different vision of all of this? Do we seek to place the radically new and challenging perspective of Christian faith up against the starkly contrasting assumptions and values of contemporary Western culture—and see what emerges from this challenge that we can act on? Are we prepared to address not just the symptoms (something that the church has consistently done in its practical action) but also prepared to diagnose the causes?
Whether this is just a function of my temperament, or whether from theological conviction, I would always opt for the second.
I am more convinced than ever that this second option is what we need—and this report singularly fails to offer it.