The C of E isn't soft on sin

The Church won't dump marriage, says Alan Morgan, author of this week's report on the family
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The Independent Online
"Something to Celebrate", the much-publicised Church of England report published this week, is about families and what is happening to them. It takes a long, cool and often critical look at family life today. It challenges the individualism and selfishness that is so common and recognises the many pressures which families face.

But discussion about families inevitably means thinking about marriage. Here the report is quite clear: "A central place in Christian understanding of the family has to be given also to the institution of marriage. It is seen as a relationship undertaken in a context of wider communal support and obligation. It is based on the mutual promise of the partners to lifelong fidelity to each other, expressing itself in a love that is unconditional: in sickness and in health, for better or for worse. It is a relationship which involves not just a sharing of interests but a sharing of selves, body and soul, as part of the common life of a community.''

Similarly the report is crystal clear about the boundaries of relationships: "We do not believe that casual, promiscuous, adulterous sexual relationships have any place in promoting human well-being.'' It is not a case that ''anything goes''. Rather we seek to encourage and uphold people in the difficult but fulfilling task of strengthening their marriage, growing in love, trust, faithfulness, duty and self-sacrifice.

Much has been made in the press of the section on cohabitiation. The report points out that there are different kinds of cohabitation - some fleeting, some much more long-term and committed. It points out the drawbacks, in particular the lack of a public commitment. It also recognises that some cohabiting relationships are deeply loving and faithful but concludes that:

''The Christian practice of lifelong, monogamous marriage lies at the heart of the Church's understanding of how the love of God is made manifest in the sexual companionship of a man and a woman. The increasing popularity of cohabitation, among Christians and non-Christians, is no reason to modify this belief. On the contrary, it is an opportunity and a challenge to the Church to articulate its doctrine of marriage in ways so compelling, and to engage in a practice of marriage so life-enhancing, that the institution of marriage regains its centrality.''

So this is not the Church going soft on sin. Rather it is the Church doing what Jesus did, drawing near to the people. He gave us high ideals but was the first to stand alongside those who were broken or defeated and felt excluded from the love of God. Since the report was published I have had many conversations with people who have started to feel welcomed by the Church in a new way.

In many ways this report on the family is deeply traditional. It draws on the Ten Commandments, the Epistles and Gospels to reaffirm the importance of families as places where God expresses his loving care for the whole of humanity.

We believe the Church as an all-age community in every parish has much to offer suffering, damaged and broken families. We should offer that support without judgement. Can we set up playgroups, bring warring parents together, give people somewhere to relax; can we make friends, can we show how much we care without being patronising?

Our group was diverse and we had long and careful discussions during the two years that we met. Everyone contributed, and everyone - including Dr Storkey who later resigned - influenced the thinking of the group. Dr Storkey's points, which he listed in the Independent yesterday, are all contained within the report.

Over the next few months, 'Something to Celebrate' will be widely discussed within the Church of England. My profound hope is the headlines can be put on one side and the report read carefully and thoughtfully.

The writer is the Bishop of Sherwood. He chaired the Church of England's working party on the family.