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Archbishops’ Commission gives strong backing to families, broadly defined

26 April 2023

Lambeth Palace

Key messages as illustrated in the report

Key messages as illustrated in the report

STRONG, safe, and loving family relationships — whether people are single, paired, in groups, or separated in some way — are the bedrock of a fair and kind society, an ambitious new report commissioned by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York has said.

The report, Love Matters, was published on Wednesday by the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households. It calls on all institutions, with a particular focus on the Church of England and Government, to prioritise family life in all decision-making, and for every person to support and commit to permanent, good quality relationships, whatever form they take.

“It’s a bigger pack of cards than I remember”

The commission was announced in March 2021 (News, 19 March 2021) with the aim of improving how the Church supports families and households. It was initially expected to report in November 2022, building on the final report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing, Church and Community (News, 26 February 2021).

Love Matters is based on theological work, a social history of family and households, and research on “stable and loving relationships” in a post-pandemic society. This was carried out by the 12 commission members and additional advisers using “deep” personal experience, alongside extensive conversation with communities, interfaith leaders, parents and teachers, and children and young people at events, round tables, and through surveys and contemporary literature.

The result is a 236-page report with five key messages directed at individuals, religious communities, and the Government. These are:

  • value families in all their diversity;
  • support loving and caring relationships life-long;
  • honour singleness and single-person households;
  • empower and protect children and young people with value and agency; and
  • build a kinder, fairer, and more forgiving society by removing discrimination, division, and deep inequality, such as of race and wealth.

These are accompanied by four key priorities for action:

  • to “maximise the protective effect” of family;
  • ensure all loving relationships are valued;
  • give every child equally the best start in life; and
  • address social discrimination.

These points are expanded across ten chapters in the report. In the first, an open and diverse definition of family is proposed, including a call to “honour and celebrate” singleness. The report warns, however, that “families and households are not to be idolised in and of themselves.” Supportive and loving families can be so only if they are in turn supported through daily challenges and change — both intimately and on a national and international scale.

The pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, humanitarian disasters, and climate change are given as examples of challenges that need “bold remedies”. This might be to understand and address what creates uncertainty, disadvantage, and inequality in crises, and to prioritise family wellbeing in the solutions.

The second chapter explores the “intensely personal” experiences of what family and households mean beyond biology or occupancy, comparing these to more academic definitions as given by the Office of National Statistics, among others.

One participant says: “[Family is] those whom you trust and have close relationships with, not necessarily blood relatives and not requiring children to be a complete family.” Another says: “I have a church family, which I am connected to through my church. Family is not just about those who live in the same household. As a single person who lives on their own that [ONS] definition is problematic.”

Lambeth PalaceKey priorities as illustrated in the report

The report agrees that most single people living alone through choice or circumstance are still part of a family, as are many homeless people, though it acknowledges that “the lack of stability in living arrangements” is limiting to stable relationships.

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, who co-chaired the commission, said on Wednesday that there was “no one best shape” for family “except that loving long-term relationships are absolutely key for us all to flourish. Families matter. Relationships matter. Love matters.”

Love is first among the diverse interpretations in the report of what family means — not romantic or superficial love, but a deeper understanding that leads to strong and trusting relationships in the long-term. For some, faith was instrumental to this, though families who have different faiths and beliefs should work to understand and value each other’s beliefs, the report says.

Historical and “traditional” views of family, including the place of marriage, is also explored, including in a detailed theological context.

“A decrease in the number who choose to marry, together with an increase in separation and divorce, have led to concerns that the values associated with family life are under threat and in decline. While there have been significant social changes over recent decades, the idea that family life is in decline is not unique to our times.

“The challenge continues as to how to embrace these changes without colliding with or demeaning beliefs and cultural norms which favour more traditional approaches to family life.”

Despite this, married or civil-partnered couples remain the most common legal partnership, and cohabitation, commonly a prelude to this, has also increased. Many reasons for cohabitation are given but in the case of children, “what matters is stability,” the report says.

 

IN THEIR foreword, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York describe families as “the base unit of our communities” without which “the most intractable policy challenges of our society” cannot be solved. This requires both individuals and institutions in all corners to put familial love — not limited to emotion but “a deep, sacrificial, enduring commitment” — at the centre of everything. And the Church must lead by example, they write.

As in the Archbishops’ two previous reports — on housing and social care (News, 24 January) — the intended readers of Love Matters, including the Government, are asked to “reimagine” what a kinder, fairer, and more forgiving society looks like, even if that vision is distant for some.

To achieve this, the report contains more than 50 specific recommendations to individuals, the Church, and the Government. More than 30 of these are for the Church, including for clergy, parishes, and deaneries to offer “high-quality marriage preparation and other forms of committed adult relationships” and foster a culture of long-term support through church services and pastoral support.

The Church is also asked to raise awareness of the needs of new parents, including adoptive parents, “in a non-judgemental way”; to provide support to parents and carers to “combat adverse childhood experiences”; and to find “genuine permanent solutions” for children in the care system. Other practical recommendations to the Church include offering a digital campaign to celebrate families; high-quality parenting courses; and affordable activities for young people and families.

On the ground, churchpeople are called to “reaffirm the value and dignity of every human being” and allow open conversations about “sensitive and difficult issues” such as domestic abuse, separation and divorce, mental health, and relationships.

The Government is urged to reflect the diversity of families and households in policy and decision-making; signpost couples to marriage preparation courses; invest in relationship support, especially at life transitions; and “when necessary, enable them to separate well” in partnership with charities and faith organisations.

A whole chapter — titled “when love is not enough” — is dedicated to managing conflict and “peacebuilding” in relationships. Throughout the report, case studies are given for various family initiatives, support groups, or examples of good relationships, such as valued singleness, to help families fulfil the vision of the report.

Examples include the Anselm Community at Lambeth Palace; Daniel’s Den, a London-based parent-toddler group; the Independent Domestic Abuse Services; and the Parents Promise, which encourages parents to “make a promise” to be child-focused even if their relationship breaks down.

More ambitiously, the Government is also asked to develop a clear cross-party strategy to end child poverty; portray adoption more positively; offer accommodation for children and young people leaving custodial sentences; and better protect children from online harm.

Another chapter in the report explores modern challenges for parents and carers on teaching children about positive relationships, listening, physical and mental health, bullying, youth violence and gang culture, and sex education, including combatting the “increasingly normalised” consumption of pornography.

One report participant describes how they discovered hard-core porn online, aged 13, which had led to years of addiction. “The further I went, the more degrading and perverted the sexual acts became. . . But I honestly didn’t care . . . as long as I could receive the satisfaction I was after.”

Again, dozens of community and youth groups are flagged in the report — from the Naked Truth Project to Messy Church and Scouts — as examples of support and positive space for children and young people to develop.

In further recommendations, the Church is asked to champion young people and work with the Government and communities to support children who are being excluded from school or getting into trouble, as well as understand what draws children into the criminal system.

The Government is asked to ensure that Relationships and Sex Education at school is “delivered well, consistently, and its effectiveness monitored” — including that children learn about “relating well to each other as early as possible”.

The final chapters of the report explore in more detail the current social challenges in the UK, touching on the Archbishops’ previous reports: food poverty, a lack of affordable or quality housing, increased ageing and the stretched care system, and loneliness and isolation post-pandemic.

The ambition of the Government’s levelling up is welcomed, though “we note that there is no mention of faith communities, and it is difficult to see how the ambition can be realised without them,” the report says.

It concludes with a message of hope: a call for resilience, small acts of kindness, the power of community, and a reminder of the existence of church, faith, and other support groups.

Archbishop Welby said on Wednesday that the report “encourages us to prioritise the hopes, needs and aspirations of families — in all their diversity. We must do so as institutions and as individuals. . . As this report demonstrates, there is much to celebrate but there is a great deal still to do if we are to ensure the flourishing of every family and household.”

The co-chair of the commission, Professor Janet Walker OBE, described the report as a “celebration” of “our multi-cultural society and the shared values across different faiths. It demonstrates the force for good when faith communities work together in partnership with local and national agencies and Government.”

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