No more living in sin, and that's official

The Church of England's new report on the family is liberal and humane. Half of Synod will hate it
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Onward the Christian soldiers march, fighting the good fight. Canons to the right of them (traditionalist and evangelical ones) and probably no canons at all to the left of them, into the valley of controversy, again. The Church of England has girded up its cassocked loins to do battle with the Government, though these days it looks a little more like Don Quixote than Valiant for Truth.

It is 10 years since its report Faith in the City raised the wrath of the Government with its stern critique of growing poverty. Now it says the social divide has deepened. The Church's report on the family will turn half the Cabinet purple with fury and will burst a few blood vessels in the Synod which commissioned it. The report is strong on understanding and as sotto voce as a whisper on condemnation.

The Synod two years ago sent forth a working party, "To perceive the will of God for the human family within contemporary English society". The will of God turns out to be profoundly liberal and essentially left- wing. He is not, after all, the God of John Gummer, Ann Widdecombe and Moses.

The report makes hard-hitting recommendations to the Government: with three times more poor children than in 1979, the poorest families need more social security, better housing, more jobs, better social services and education, kinder employment conditions for parents, support for asylum seekers and more mediation to help couples divorce painlessly.

The report eschews all those moralising quick-fix solutions currently cascading from all quarters. It has no truck with the Archbishop of York's curious recommendation to bend the tax and benefit system to favour marriage. Odd how the moralists are always trying to find ways to bribe people into the path of virtue.

Instead, the report "celebrates" all families, gay and lesbian, single parents and cohabitees. It is one of the most liberal studies of the family to appear in these millennial days of moral panic. For all that, non-believers will find it hard to stifle a giggle at certain ineffably comic aspects. The spectacle of the C of E tying itself up in knots is like watching a contortionist at work on a bed of nails. They are always trying to have their sacramental wafer and eat it.

With its empty pews and crumbling edifices, the authors admit their conundrum, aptly summarised by quotes from two of those who gave evidence: "Christian teaching is bound to fail if it gives in to the spirit of the age," said one, while another said, "The Church needs to address the fact that it alienates a great many people by the way it puts across its views on the family." The committee plumped for the second voice.

The report recommends that the terms "living in sin" and "fornication" be struck out. By the year 2000, 80 per cent of all those who marry will have cohabited for an average of two years. "For many the link between permanent commitment and sexual intercourse has largely been abandoned." So should the Church condemn them all and drive out the few young people left in its pews? No, instead it should declare cohabitation just as good as marriage - if the couple are truly committed. The report does say the ideal of Christian marriage remains, but does not explain how there can be an ideal side by side with something else equally good, though not an ideal. Those who yearn for the firm smack of moral authority won't like it.

Others may enjoy lines like these: "One of the problems that the Church has to face is that it so often sounds judgemental when drawing attention to human failings." Well, yes, indeed, proclaiming what is and isn't a sin is inclined to sound a wee bit judgemental. Oh, how the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail will martyr them with a hundred arrows, stones and flaying knives. The Bishop of Sherwood, who chaired the working party, responds tartly, "We did not write this for the Daily Mail!"

Those of us without belief may puzzle over the Church's hopeless theological and moral muddle. The report is larded with dense theology which tries and fails to square the Bible and the God of the Ten Commandments, patriarchal, and, yes, judgemental, with a modern understanding of society.

But peeling away the nonsense, underneath is an excellent study of the family and its needs, with less obstructive moralising than several recent reports by professional sociologists. Last week there was a bizarre Institute of Public Policy Research report from the veterans AH Halsey and Michael Young, hand-wringing, oozing moral panic about the imminent collapse of everything because of the parlous state of family life. Also, Sir Michael Rutter and David Smith's vast learned tome for the Policy Studies Institute came to the strange conclusion that sex, drugs and rock and roll, the permissive Sixties and family breakdown were to blame for crime and adolescent problems, not poverty and unemployment. (Though when they saw the crowing of the Government at these pleasing findings, they recanted somewhat.) These people offer no social cost-benefit analysis: they forget to balance the gain in freedom for the majority against the social problems more freedom inevitably brings with it for a few.

But the Church report celebrates new freedoms, particularly for women living more fulfilled lives than ever before. It approves of the shift of power between women and men even though it leads to more family breakdown. Working women won't tolerate men who don't contribute enough to family life, so the authors rather touchingly call on the Church to help make men better, "supporting them in adapting to new roles".

This is so far from the Roman Catholic Church's teaching that it puts the Pope and his recent encyclical ideologically closer to the mad mullahs than the C of E, which ought to be the death knell to any ecumenical flirtations with Rome.

There will be much blustering by right-wing politicians and the closet- gay High Church world of smells, bells, and birettas. At yesterday's launch, one bishop predicted "fireworks", while the Archbishop of Canterbury scuttled for cover behind a reminder that this is only a "rich resource for debate" and not a doctrine.

For the outsider looking in on all this, it is another reminder that the C of E really is almost done for, because even when they get it basically right they make such asses of themselves. What can you do with cotton- wool thinking like this: "Even in family breakdown, insights can be gained into the grace of God which may not be available otherwise" ?

The report glows with compassion and good intent. Yet, endearingly, whichever way they turn they seem doomed to look foolish, tripping over their cassocks to empathise with sinners. What can they do? They could disestablish themselves so as to become full-time advocates of the disenfranchised and abandon the time-wasting puzzle of a theology fruitlessly trying to square 2,000- year-old Palestine with everyday modern life. But even then this wicked world might still mock.