God and Mary and a crisis of intimacy

MEANING OF CHRISTMAS: The Rev John Kennedy, Secretary of the Division of Social Responsibility of the Methodist Church, opens our Christmas series with a salutary reflection on modern marriage.
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At Christmas we celebrate the generosity God shows to humankind in the coming among us of a child. It threatens to become mawkish, but two Christmas children might help to reveal a less sentimental perspective on the Christmas story.

The first Christmas child's mother is Kathleen Loughlin, who recently made a documentary film in Bosnia. She was burdened with a number of roles - ace girl reporter, Methodist minister, American. She was also pregnant and her child will be born, God willing, around Christmas.

Kathleen's reports from Maglaj and Gornji-Vakuf unveiled the domestic horrors of ethnic conflict, where neighbours turn into murderers. She was perhaps a touch irresponsible. Certainly her mother thought so. It may seem thoughtless to make others anxious about your fitness to duck and run. But her delicate condition enabled other women to share desperately indelicate stories about their lives.

There is something absolute about the right to give birth in safety and something deeply evil about the denial of that right. The fleeing, pregnant woman is a shameful image of our civilisation. The image of God given life, thankfully shared, is one of its glories.

Our second child was born in London, at Christmas, six years ago. His name is Joshua. Last year his father dutifully told him the Christmas tale. In this story, you will recall, God is Jesus's father and Joseph is Mary's husband. Josh saw the whole picture straight away and asked: "Were God and Mary divorced, then?"

That is a pretty sharp reflection on the Western crisis of intimacy. Peace in Bosnia might in principle be enforced by 60,000 troops. It is hard to imagine who we might airlift into our own painful domestic battleground. Probably not the royal family. They've got the uniforms, but are clearly walking wounded. A fleeing pregnant woman is a terrifying European Ghost of Christmas Past. The Ghost of this present Christmas is, of course, the Princess of Wales.

In the last 50 years we have endured a mass experiment in the recasting of intimate life on a pattern of uncoerced mutuality and personal fulfilment. One day we may learn to live like this, but not yet. The Holy Family has been given a new stereotype - the Redundant Male, the Struggling Single Mum, the self-obsessed Wild Child. The traditional grouping no longer offers a haven in a heartless world - it is often where the pain is.

The remedies on offer from Church and State are of little help. The fixed positions of the churches are collapsing daily. The Government's back- to-basics appeal to family values did recognise that public policy alone cannot remoralise society. But the enterprise finally expired this week in farce. David Ashby MP, one of the spear-carriers in that crusade, has effectively been designated homosexual, with a lot of help from his wife. Joe Orton could not have been more cruelly funny.

The Intimacy Wars look certain to shape our future as much as shooting wars have deformed our past. So how to make peace with ourselves? Perhaps we should first acknowledge the fraught nature of the enterprise that we are launched upon. One of Kathleen Loughlin's Bosnian pieces was called "Naming the Loss". What we in the West have lost is the empire of marriage. It has dissolved into a federal republic of intimacy whose borders are contested and many of its people stateless. It is much too early to draft a peace plan.

Meanwhile, refugees flood in from the old empire - politicians, princess and clergy. In all this, a refashioned perception of the Holy Family can clarify rather than confuse. That family is so strange, so alien to our conventional expectations of the family, that there is room for all of us to find shelter within its ambiguities.

Kathleen's child and Josh will grow up in a world of intimacy quite different to the one their grandparents knew. That world is in the process of radical reshaping. We might dare to believe that God is engaged with us in that. We might imagine there is room within the human family for all kinds of relationship, and that such a relaxed generosity might both please God and sustain marriage. We might risk the conviction that God is the creator of our intimate lives, that in the very oddity of his coming among us he is truly Emmanuel, God With Us.