Opinion: On Not Defining Family Too Tightly

Art from the back cover of Love Matters. | Church of England

By Douglas LeBlanc

In the days after the Church of England’s General Synod voted to authorize prayers for blessing same-sex couples, the Archbishop of Canterbury stressed that he and General Synod resisted pressures to extend the rites of marriage to these couples.

That fact alone could have made Love Matters: Report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Families & Households an engaging document, an opportunity to learn more of how the archbishops of Canterbury and York understand marriage. What is it, exactly, that Archbishop Justin Welby and General Synod have protected from celebrity gay activists like Peter Tatchell and Sandi Toksvig?

The aims of the report are noble. “Our flourishing as a society depends on the flourishing of our families and households, the base unit of our communities,” the two archbishops write in a joint foreword. “We can only solve the most intractable policy challenges of our times by ensuring that families and households are at the heart of our collective thinking and actions.”

The commission offers helpful background on the genesis of its report:

In reimagining the future, Archbishop Justin looked at the basic building blocks of our society and pointed to the family as the nucleus in every community: “A happy family life, lived out amid difficulty and challenge, is among the deepest satisfactions of human existence, and when it is prevalent in society it lays the foundations for hope and national character.”

He nevertheless recognised that family life in England in the twenty-first century is fluid and diverse, and that families today reflect the fundamental changes that have occurred in the way adults have managed their personal relationships in the period since the Second World War. Cautioning against idolising families, Archbishop Justin acknowledged that family life, while being the greatest source of contentment and hope, can also be the main location of despair and the cause of unhappiness and trauma. He therefore questioned how families should be understood in modern society, and the values that will support and sustain them.

What readers will find in Love Matters rarely rises above statistics, focus-group remarks, what the authors repeatedly refer to as “the Call for Evidence,” and dull consensus. As its anodyne title implies, this 238-page study is more at ease with truisms than anything so vigorous as Christianity’s historic teachings on marriage. 

As the subtitle indicates, it is the work of a 12-member commission. The commission members — including  two bishops, a priest, and five academicians — never directly explicate a biblical theology of marriage, even as an ideal.

Instead, the report quickly becomes stuck in semantics: “We were aware that the terms ‘family’ and ‘household’ are frequently used interchangeably. The Commission decided early on that to attempt to define ‘family’ too tightly is unhelpful.”

For the working definition, the commission turns to this 110-word wonder by the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics:

A family is defined as a married, civil partnered or cohabiting couple with or without children, or a lone parent, with at least one child, who live at the same address. Dependent children are those aged under 16 living with at least one parent, or aged between 16 and 18 in full-time education. Non-dependent children are those living with their parent(s) and are either: aged 19 years or over and have no spouse, partner or child living in the household; or aged 16 to 18 years and are not in full-time education and have no spouse, partner or child living in the household. Non-dependent children are sometimes called adult children.

With a definition so broad and labyrinthine, does any grouping under one roof not count as a family? The Office for National Statistics has covered that angle too: “A household is one person living alone, or a group of people, not necessarily related, living at the same address who share cooking facilities and share a living room, sitting room, or dining area.”

Questions inevitably rise: Why this insistence on shared cooking facilities or common areas? Wouldn’t the occasional soul-baring conversation in a hallway count?

Throughout its report, the commission describes changing definitions of marriage and seems to accept them as irresistible forces:

[Commission member Dr. Sarah C.] Williams also points to the linguistic shift from “spouse” to the more inclusive language of “partner” and suggests that the ideology of partnership is not the same as a covenantal understanding of marriage. Partners form a mutual contract, to stay together for as long as it is mutually advantageous for both parties to do so.

What could this mean for still more traditional language? We may never know, as the paper uses husband only three times, always when quoting someone else, and wife appears twice. On this point, the commission is to the linguistic left of many individuals in same-sex marriages.

Similarly, the commission cannot even write about a child’s parents without flattening its language into pablum: “Human beings are made to be social and relational. From the very outset of our lives we are dependent on the relationship between mother and child in the womb; then between mother and the [newborn] child. There is a relationship to be developed and a bond to be built between the child and the father or the other parent or carer.”

These rhetorical choices might make sense if the commission had been unclear about its audience, but on that much it was clear: “Our recommendations are offered primarily to the Church of England and to the Government, although we hope that other churches, faith communities, and organisations in the public and private sectors, particularly those working with children and families, might find them relevant and thought-provoking.”

The abiding problem is grounded in the commission’s understanding of another word: Church. “Our story calls the Church of England to be transformative and to take a leading role in creating a new narrative and shaping a new vision for everyone in our society, irrespective of whether they have a faith or not,” the commissioners write. “The Church of England is called to be the church for all people in all places.”

Being released on April 24, mere days after GAFCON IV met in Kigali, Rwanda, Love Matters provides the latest example of why the Anglican Communion is in deep conflict about the meaning of marriage.


Online Archives