40 years on…what has changed?

16th January 2020

Beyond the nuclear family

Reading John Gladwin’s Happy Families, I was struck by the strength of his message that the church should not only focus on the ‘traditional’ nuclear family of two parents and average two children, but look out at how society actually is.

In this short book, he challenges the church to consider and reach out to the society in which the nuclear family may no longer be the norm, but where there is much more variety and flexibility in family arrangements and the bringing up of children.

The picture presented by the church

It is Sunday morning Family Service,  On the church notice board is a cartoon picture of a young family eagerly approaching the church building for worship. They form a bright happy and well-dressed Mum/Dad and two children group. Inside the church, as the service progresses through its popular songs and choruses, quizzes and visual aided talk, there is frequent mention of ‘family’ in terms of the family on the notice board. The quiz this morning is set up as a Mums and Dads versus boys and girls competition.  The talk is about happy family life and has a picture of the family at home — Mum and Dad and two children again.

It is small wonder that many find these services hard to take.  Adult single people are often made to feel as through they don’t belong to a proper family and are second-class members of the church family.  Then there are those single-parent families who have to endure reminders every second sentence of the one who has gone.  The couple who have no children of their own, the family with the handicapped child, the family made from a second marriage, and so on— all of these can sometimes be made to feel left out of the church’s picture of what ‘family’ is all about.

Most churches are probably not like this. Many smaller ones will lack any children at all, as parents tend to choose churches with thriving activities and groups for children, or they are located near faith schools that demand a certain level of family attendance. Many churches would long for children and at least one Church of England diocese, noting only a third of their churches had children, made funds available for attracting them by the provision of activities.

On average across all churches and denominations, however, the percentage of adults with dependent children in church is the same as that in society.  There are far more empty-nesters,  married people whose children have grown up and left home (and most probably the church), and far fewer single people between 20 and 40 years of age and single men of all ages.

Still it appears to be an image for many for what church ‘should’ look like - happy families attending with children,  who will in their turn grow up to run or be the stalwarts in churches. And there is a big growth in the use of the word family in describing church and church services (see our article)  in an apparent attempt to attract them. Associated with this is the funding of the expansion of Messy Church by the Archbishops Council - with its marketing message that this particular service allows children to run round, to be noisy, to make a mess and that’s okay.

Forty years ago

The astonishing thing to me is that John Gladwin wrote this 40 years ago in 1981. In general single people do not think that things are getting better. The older a single Christian is, the less they think church is a good place for single people (from our survey). The renewed emphasis on attracting families with children is good, but appears to fly in the face of the shape of the church and numbers of different kinds of structure and styles of family life and household composition.

And so much has actually changed in these intervening years:

  • divorced couples are now able to remarry in church
  • women priests and bishops
  • greater ethnic diversity - black and Asian leaders
  • greater inclusion of gay people
  • more creative worship for children
  • great changes in styles and choice of worship
  • more focus on environmental issues.

The question is why this particular area of social awareness is being overlooked by the church. What worries me most is the warning that he offers might be coming true:

Unless churches can recognise the changes that are taking place in the structure and style of family life, they may well find themselves driven into a cultural ghetto, only able to speak to the families which fit the picture on the notice board.  People who live in ghettoes live behind strongly protected walls,  The mythologize about the dangers of the world outside and comfort themselves in their own isolated security.

And in that description of family life, as we know from his earlier comments, he is including single people whether never married, previously married or cohabiting or in relationship.

Keep two principles in mind

Gladwin offers much good advice including that it is helpful that churches keep two principles in mind:

First, every person, household and family as a potential contribution to make to the rest of the community.

Second, every person, household and family has needs which can be met by the support of others.

This we affirm from our research too.  Single people can bring a different kind of energy to the church, offer ministries not easily accomplished by those with children, and (according to US research) tend to be financially more generous. Although they also report that churches don’t know what to do with them, how they could fit in and how to give them opportunities of making a contribution.

On the second point, one of the biggest challenges is to have the level of honesty, truth-telling and empathy that starts to seek and accept support, whatever one’s relationships status.  In particular, single people report that there is little understanding and empathy for the kinds of issues they face and with which they struggle.

Single Friendly Church campaign

The slow lack of progress in the church of accepting and reaching out to single people, who make up 40% of UK society, is the reason why we formed the Single Friendly Church campaign.  We want to bring renewed awareness of the the contribution and support that single adults can make to churches and the kinds of issues they face for which they would, in turn, appreciate support.

But in focusing on single people, we don’t ignore or seek to diminish attention on others.  Rather we want to point to the richness of diversity of people’s living arrangements and Christ’s message of hope to all, whatever state they find themselves in. Single people is our focus, but our prayer is that the church would move beyond the myth of the nuclear family (itself only a recent invention from the times of the Industrial Revolution) and move to proclaim Christ’s message of hope and redemption to all people whatever their situation.

David Pullinger, December 2019

Ref:  John Gladwin, 1981, Happy Families, Grove Booklet on Ethics No. 39