Faith and Reason: A home for love in all its forms: The Bishop of Worcester, the Right Rev Philip Goodrich, argues that in the Year of the Family there has been too little discussion of the role and benefits of the married family

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The Independent Online
THERE may be disappointment for some that the International Year of the Family has not been the occasion for a boost to the married family that they would have liked. Rather, the trend has been to talk up the diversity of families, making the family of mother, father and growing children but one way of life among many. It is a strange paradox that in supporting robustly the traditional family as the most effective and the most economical way of bringing up children, it is possible to attract the charge of being sanctimonious. Far better, it is argued, to let people do it their way and rely on the innate powers of survival in children to make them the rounded adults of the next generation.

This should not be surprising. For at least three decades the liberal tendency amongst the intelligentsia, including a vocal proportion of Christian believers, has exalted diversity almost to the point of making it an absolute. The ways in which people lead their lives are not to be deemed right or wrong, only different, so long as they are not indecently luxurious or violent.

The good in this should be acknowledged immediately. It is based on a greater knowledge of the behavioural sciences and anything which is shaped by knowledge rather than by ignorance and fear is to be celebrated. An open, generous and liberal society will, we hope, accommodate variety. It will establish equal opportunities. Nor will this be grudging because diversity, within certain parameters, is enriching.

Within certain parameters, because for all to be free to follow any course when they like and as they like can put the freedom of one person or one group at odds with the freedom of another. For example, to press the rights of the child as in the Children Act, can bring you to the point where the rights of the parents are in jeopardy. It only goes to show that a utopia, where all rights are observed in all circumstances, may be a will o' the wisp. You can pursue it but it will always elude you.

Nevertheless it is good to witness the demise of the narrow-mindedness which prescribes for others one way of doing things. It is the mentality which stigmatises and ostracises others. No wonder the reaction is a refusal to be judgemental, even to the point of walking away from an issue when judgement would be too difficult. Social workers spend their working days amongst disintegrating families but understandably live on the other side of town where something like family values are accepted. The churches are also in danger of suburban captivity. Of course there are other reasons for all this which are so obvious as to require no discussion. Yet if there is no discussion the result is to accept a divided society.

If we are to live together harmoniously, do we not need norms? By definition a norm is a standard pattern or model based on agreed guidelines of good practice. Established conventions, even laws, are not merely negative. They also protect individuals, not least because they derive their force from collected wisdom. It could be argued that a society which is no more than a honeycomb of individualism, endlessly experimenting, dissipates its energies and cannot become the compassionate society we all desire.

The social gospel of the last few decades has thankfully roused the churches from odious complacency. The Samaritan who saw the man in need on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and went where he was, bound up his wounds and took him to a place of care, has become the model. Where there is distress you go with first aid and you go with a thought-out, developing care which will eventually release people to take charge of their own lives. You do not go with a sermon in your pocket.

However, if the Church has anything to offer which is relevant to our corporate existence, it must consider norms. We proclaim a liberating love which should inform our personal as well as our community life. But without a consensus on social norms things fall apart. Love, like other emotions, needs to be organised or channelled. Aesthetic emotions are most powerful when poured into a chorale or a sonnet or a building. By the same token it is possible that within the commitments of the conjugal family, love in all its forms, including sexual love, is heightened, harnessed and preserved from dissipation.

Of course norms cannot be imposed. Talk about the churches reclaiming the moral high ground may be a form of wishful thinking. And the family can only commend itself on its own merits. True, some children and young people and some women, are in headlong flight from the family because it has been oppressive, burdensome and unloving. Yet almost anything from grand opera to first-class football can fail the test if you deliberately present the downside.

People need a love which forgives, which will 'forgive me for being me'. They need space to grow, to be healed, for none of us reaches adulthood without bearing the scars of childhood. They need companionship, with a common fund of memory, a shared identity and extended kinship.

These are the things which both children and adults need. Families are for adults as well as children. If you did not have the conjugal family you would have to invent it. To decide to have children without having a man about the house is to bequeath to society a whole lot of unloved men whose contribution to the common life may well be disruptive. It is also hard to believe that designer babies will not have immense difficulties when they begin to ask questions. Nor will growing children have the gender balance and the role models they need.

The family, like many institutions, has as much to fear from its friends as from its critics. Proponents can romanticise to the point of sentimentality. Preparation for family relationships is as important as any other training for life. Fragmenting families are emotionally costly, cause stress and pain, loss of work, and stretch the housing stock to the point of inadequacy. Has the International Year of the Family gone deep enough? Merely to say that families come in all shapes and sizes is only to go skin deep. Has it been fully realised that when institutions are strong, and the married family is one of them, then individuals can be free. Care for all in their diversity is a Christian imperative. Equally important is a dialogue with all interested parties on the subject of norms. The Church should promote this, but the Church should not dogmatise from afar. It must work through dialogue and it must work from within.