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Families need society’s support    

19 May 2023

. . . and this includes promoting strong marriages, write Janet Walker and Paul Butler


IT WAS our immense privilege to be asked to co-chair the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households (News, 26 April). Working with our wonderful fellow Commissioners, we were asked to address two big questions: first, how can we best support every individual and every family to flourish in our complex and ever-changing society? Second, what kind of society do we want to live in?

This is at a time when many families and households in England are facing huge challenges. These include: the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic; the pernicious relationship between deprivation, ill-health, and poverty; racial discrimination; loneliness; isolation; and the stress and anxiety associated with the current cost-of-living crisis.

Everything that we have seen and heard during the past two years has re-emphasised the importance of, and the need for, loving relationships in our daily lives. Everyone, regardless of age, gender, marital status, and family structure, and with or without faith, talked about the importance of family. Family is the unifying factor across geographical, ethnic, and socio-economic boundaries, whether we live alone, in a family group, with friends, or with others in a shared household.

Moreover, everyone talked about love, and told the Commission that the Church of England and government must not be afraid to talk about love. Why? Because loving relationships are crucial to our health and well-being. Loving relationships enable us to live in community with one another; they increase our capacity to care for one another; and they enrich our lives and help us to enrich the lives of others. Put simply, our overarching message is that families matter, loving relationships matter, and love matters.

So, the Commission’s vision for a reimagined society, relevant to people of all faiths and none, puts loving relationships and families at the centre of everything that we do, as a Church and as a society.

THIS requires an understanding that families come in all shapes and sizes. There is no ideal family form; families and relationships change over time, and children often experience a variety of family structures as they grow up. But this is not to say that “anything goes” in family life. To be regarded as “family”, whatever the shape and size, there must always be a recognisable set of qualities present that enable children and adults to flourish.

It is in a family that we should have our basic physiological needs met, feel safe, and be protected from harm. Here we should receive stable and consistent care, and be forgiven when we make mistakes. Above all, family is where we should be able to give and receive love. With this in mind, the Commission’s journey took us to the heart of human relationships as we considered the part played by marriage — and especially Christian marriage — in society today.

While fewer couples marry, and fewer still marry in a religious ceremony, we learned that marriage remains a valued goal. Marriage encourages the unconditional love that individuals and families need to flourish, and it represents an important rite of passage through public statements of long-term commitment. The Commission concluded that the Church and other faith groups have a significant part to play in promoting and supporting marriage.

All the evidence tells us that family relationships need to be loving, strong, and enduring, if every child is to have the best start in life, live in a happy home, and be supported to thrive. Sadly, far too many relationships break down, irrespective of marital status. The rupturing of the parental relationship can be devastating for children, as well as for the couple themselves.

THE Commission, therefore, prompts the Church of England and other faith communities to be alert to the needs of couples whose relationships are in trouble, and the needs of parents who are finding parenting challenging.

Rather than put sensitive, personal concerns such as relationship difficulties, mental-health issues, and domestic abuse in the “Too hard to handle” box, we must be willing to talk openly about the challenges that most of us face, at one time or another. Every family and every relationship has its ups and downs. The challenge for the Church, the Government, and wider society is to offer appropriate support that acts as a buffer against the stresses of daily life, in a kind, non-judgemental way, destigmatises help-seeking, and enhances the protective factors that enable everyone to thrive.

This requires a shift in thinking to recognise the enormous impact of the quality of couple and family relationships on the well-being of adults and children. The Commission calls on the Church and faith communities to lead the way in offering preparation for marriage and other long-term committed relationships; providing relationship support at key life transitions, such as having a baby, ill-health, and death; and in minimising the detrimental and damaging effects of parental separation and divorce. There is a positive association between strong, loving relationships and mental and physical health, and healthy child development. Loving relationships hold the key for all children and young people to thrive, and especially those who come into the care system.

We believe that the Church can be transformative in mitigating societal challenges and contributing to a kinder, fairer, and more forgiving society. Our report highlights the part that we must all play to drive the changes that can address the persistent inequalities, and help everyone who is in need by placing love, hope, and faith at the heart of our society and our mission.

Our report demonstrates that love, which is the greatest gift of all, can enable us all to flourish. Love matters.

Professor Janet Walker and the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, are co-chairs of the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households.

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