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General Synod digest: members welcome Love Matters report on family values

01 March 2024
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler

THE General Synod commended on Monday the final report from the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households, Love Matters, after a debate adjourned on Sunday evening.

Key messages from the Commission’s work were: valuing families in all their diversity; supporting relationships throughout life; honouring singleness and single-person households; empowering children and young people; and building a kinder, fairer, and more forgiving society (News, 26 April 2023).

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, who co-chaired the Commission, said that the report had addressed two key questions: “How best can we support every individual and every family to flourish in our complex, ever-changing society?” and “What kind of society do we want to live in?”

The Commission had heard the hopes, aspirations, concerns, and struggles of families through “a process in which respondents told us what matters to them”, the Bishop said. Loving relationships were “essential to our well-being”, and, while family life could be a joy, it was also “painful and messy. What matters most is not the structure, but the quality of a loving relationship.”

A key recommendation was for the Church to offer high-quality marriage preparation and to cultivate a culture of invitation, he explained. “Churches should be places where those experiencing relationship difficulties of all kinds can turn . . . where families receive a loving message of grace.” He highlighted the extensive work with other organisations, and the Commission’s ongoing, and encouraging, engagement with the Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza.

He also emphasised: “We live in challenging times for single people living alone or in a household. The opportunity we have is huge, but it requires us to take practical steps. Families matter. Relationships matter. Love matters.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury commended the report for examining “the gritty reality of our life and the life for households in the UK today. . . It doesn’t lament where we are, but looks at where we should be — it means working with everyone at the local level.” The title, he said, “speaks to the truth of scripture: that love matters — not in some sloppy kind of way, but love in action”.

James Wilson (Manchester) thought that the report was a “very good contribution to the national conversation” in an election year. He identified the inadequacy of social security as being a key driver of family difficulty, and urged the Synod to support lobbying of the Government to implement the recommendations. “I’d encourage us all to use our voices.”

Guy Hordern (Birmingham) strongly supported the message of honouring single-parent households: a situation in which he had found himself in 1986, when his wife died. “I rejoice that, though people’s lives suffer loss, God never fails to honour his promises,” he said. “Pray for lone parent families in your parishes, even if we don’t know who they are or where they are.”

The Revd Matt Beer (Lichfield) felt that the motion lacked clarity and the “cutting edge” that the report deserved. “We are the Church of England. Jesus is who we bring to society,” he said. “Surely we have something to offer a hurting and fractured world in this area? Why haven’t we used a unique prophetic voice in this motion?”

The Revd Kate Wharton (Liverpool) was glad that singleness was referred to throughout the report, and asked that “we might as enthusiastically celebrate celibacy”. She told the Synod to “keep firmly in mind the needs of single households”, and commended the Commission’s work as “Jesus-shaped, open-ended, and open-hearted”.

Jennifer Fellows (Gloucester) regretted the absence in the report of “the secret weapon of the support and flourishing of family life — Jesus”. It was “beyond disappointing” that he had not been named in the five ambitious proposals, which would have been an opportunity for evangelism.

Dr Julie Maxwell (Winchester) then moved an amendment to add a paragraph reaffirming “the value of marriage, especially when loving, as providing the most stable and permanent environment for bringing up children”. UK data, she reported, showed that 90 per cent of the parents who were still in a relationship when their child reached the age of 15 were married couples. “It’s not solely about the couple, but how their life together enriches the whole of society.”

Christopher Townsend (Ely) said that family stability, in almost all cases, was good for children. The odds that a couple would split up if they were not married were almost double, he said. “Usually, children can benefit from the presence, engagement, and attention of both parents. . . It’s a social-justice issue.”

The Revd Jo Winn-Smith (Guildford) said that she was passionate about marriage, but believed that the amendment could have unintended consequences. “There’s a particular group of people who are going to be hurt by this statement,” she said, making particular reference to the widowed and bereaved, and to victims of abuse.

“Putting marriage first as a hanging bough means we don’t focus on love first,” she said. The primary emphasis on marriage also brought the risk that people would stay in damaging relationships. And some children’s lives had been “utterly transformed” by their being in homes with same-sex couples: this was not a second-best place. “We are called to be wonderful families of huge variety.”

The amendment was lost, defeated in the Houses of Clergy and Laity. Voting was: Bishops 8-8, with one recorded abstention; Clergy 61-81 against, with five recorded abstentions; Laity 74-84, with eight recorded abstentions.

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) said that there was much to welcome and applaud in the report, including the emphasis on valuing the single life. She was concerned, however, by wording that suggested being single did not imply celibacy, which she suggested might imply that there was nothing wrong with non-committed sexual relationships. Chastity should not be confused with celibacy, she said, which was associated with total commitment to God.

Dr Angus Goudie (Durham) reflected that there were “irregular relationships” in his wider family. “We should value all kinds of loving couple relationships.” He expressed disappointment that the recommendations included in that section of the report were only “advice” to the Government. “If we are advising the Government to help all families to flourish, we should also be advising it to ourselves,” he said. “Families come in all shapes and sizes. It’s important to recognise the diversity of families and allow them to thrive.”

In response to the comment suggesting that Jesus was absent from the report, Bishop Butler said: “The love we talk about in the report is exemplified in Jesus Christ. . . It is all rooted in our gospel conviction.”

The motion was carried: Bishops 23 nem. con; Clergy 97-30, with 19 recorded abstentions; Laity 97-38, with 12 recorded abstentions.

That this Synod:

1. welcome the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households’ Report, “Love Matters”;

2. commend the Report and the Recommendations for consideration in dioceses, deaneries and parishes;

3. encourage the Archbishops’ Council to develop practical responses in line with the vision and priorities to be a “younger, more diverse, mixed economy and missionary discipleship church” believing that the recommendations in “Love Matters” will aid the implementation of the vision; and

4. urge HM Government to implement the recommendations made to Government, and look forward to receiving a full Government response to all the recommendations.’

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