There is a view of the family which sees it as progressively getting better and adapting to people's individual needs. This liberal view has dominated much of British culture in recent decades. It tends to see problems benignly. It sees families as developing plural forms, based on choice, and identifies the main job of the church as accommodating these changes, while encouraging people to have good quality relationships within them. Such is the view which, in part at least, was accepted by the report of the Church of England's working party on the family, of which I was a member. But is it a correct diagnosis of the current situation in this country and throughout the West?
Another view, which I accept, is that we are living through an unprecedented crisis in marriage and marriage-like relationships. Family life has suffered in the past through wars, poverty and internal failure, and there is no golden age to look back to, but the source of this crisis is different. It is shaped by attitudes to love, marriage, friendship and sex which we generate ourselves, and these are individualist, short-term and consumerist.
These views are pushed on a large scale, mainly for money, by groups which have little concern for truthfulness and depth. They aim especially at the young and are changing the culture of relationships.
The result, in much of the West is the deconstruction of good, intimate, faithful, marital relationships on a vast scale. There is not only the break-up of four in 10 marriages, but the loss of quality in many others. The personal suffering that results is beyond knowing. Moreover, the damage lasts for decades. Children lose parents and are left with seemingly insoluble problems. The scale of this crisis goes beyond particular problems and calls into question the liberal individualism which has previously been orthodoxy.
The picture is complex, but there has been a strong overall trend from a formal Christian view of marriage to an individualist one. The formal Christian one was itself deeply flawed; it tended to focus only on church weddings and the wrongness of adultery. It is not surprising it lost ground. However, its individualist replacement has gross weaknesses in terms of the kind of relationship it encourages.
l Individualism asks us to think egocentrically about relationships. If a marriage or cohabitation suits, that is accounted good, but if not it ends. The biblical meaning of unqualified trust is lost.
l The idea of self-fulfilment induces people to use and manipulate others, even those close to them. It allows selfishness, adultery and many other wrongs to be "justified". Self-giving becomes difficult because of the likelihood of being hurt; so defensiveness becomes normal.
l Sex as self-gratification has been pushed by pornographers and media people motivated by making money. It splits sex from love, is dishonest and manipulative. As a result abusive, casual, fantasy and impersonal sex has grown, harming many but held in place by commercial interests which are largely unchallenged politically.
l A transfer of resources from poor to rich has occurred under a Tory individualist ethic. It has undermined the ability of many young people to form families.
l We have found ways, through ideas like "incompatibility" and "marital breakdown", of transferring responsibility for relationship failure from ourselves as partners to the "marriage". The solution is therefore to end the marriage, not to address our own failings. We have lost much self- critical awareness which the biblical analysis of sin gave our culture in favour of an uncritical sense of self-rightness.
l People are often "in love", but in the egocentric terms of love as feeling, an ideal, having sex, or finding happiness. These let them down. The full interpersonal Christian meaning of love is becoming lost to a generation.
l Marital and family communication is often minimised by television and consumerism.
These and other changes are pervasive. They should be challenged more directly by a Christian faith which dethrones the individual and recognises again the created relationships with God and our neighbour.
Christian marriage is a universal God-given institution, and people enter marriage rather than constructing it on their own terms. It is to be a mature, voluntary, heterosexual union marked by love, faithfulness, full self-giving, tenderness and equality before God. Love must be patient, kind, humble, without anger and blame, and rejoice in what is good for the other person.
These are not "ideals", but norms within which a couple should live. There are many cultural expressions of marriage, but these norms are unconditional. Moreover, marriages need to be built from a full sense of personal worth before God and with respect, chastity, gentleness and hope. At present young generations are given few tools to fight for this kind of love against the pressures of the day, but the techniques for building good intimate marriages can be relearnt.
This kind of marriage works, as millions would testify. In fact it is the only good basis for family life in any culture. We therefore need to see the cultural choice between individualism and the Christian meaning of relationships. Involved in this is the central response of love to God and our neighbour. But it also involves a set of other crucial Christian experiences - of being God's person, learning from Jesus, knowing the goodness of life, facing wrong and if necessary repenting. So, linked in with our intimate relationships are our personal and cultural responses to God and the Christian faith. These themes have little space in our media; snooker has more.
Thus the crisis we are experiencing is deep and full of hurt. Yet we are only addressing it in the very terms which have shaped it, namely individualism. There is a need for a renewed understanding of the Christian teaching on marriage and family on its own terms. It is not a matter of accommodation to current trends, but of questioning many of those trends at root and reconstructing in our culture what love, the structure of marriage and parenting, faithfulness, respect and sexual honesty mean.
Dr Alan Storkey is co-ordinator of pastoral studies at Oak Hill Theological College.Reuse content