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Families - Something to Celebrate: Part I

By Joan King.

Part Two appears in Issue 8

Introduction

The Lozells area of Binningham teems with life. It is as if the world meets in these streets with their brightly coloured sari shops and foodstores selling oriental spices, mangos, sweet potatoes and plantain. People have their cultural roots in Asia especially Bangladesh and Pakistan, in Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East. Most white British people are elderly. Lozells is an inner urban area. It is multi-cultural and multi-faith. The people experience and express their family lives in diverse ways.

Despite the pressures of inner urban life most people living in Lozells consider it to be friendly. There is little evidence of loneliness. In a recent survey forty-three percent of people indicated that they meet ten or more people outside the home each day. Neighbours visit each other. Only sixteen per cent of those surveyed do not do so.

The people of Lozells value their families, turning first to them when in need of support. While these families come in a variety of shapes and sizes with different customs, everyone knows who belongs to their particular family. However, they belong in addition to a community. Their families seem to be more open than those of many living in out of town mono-cultural white estates or in suburbia.

Just down the road from the sari shop is the Lozells Centre, a Scripture Union project working in cooperation with local churches. Since 1985, when the buildings opposite were ravaged by fire in the riots, staff have been building friendships with families, giving and receiving practical help and sharing life experiences including values and beliefs. People of all ages drop into the centre. Working with their felt needs gives people an opportunity to see and experience the Good News in action. Listening and building friendships has helped SU staff to perceive more of God in the diversity of those he has created. In the coming year we hope to appoint an Urban Family Worker to the Lozells Project.

Families are found in all cultures because family is part of God's created order. His intention was that human beings should live in relationship and in harmony with him, with each other in family and community, and with the environment. Such harmony is' Shalom'.

Something of this is found in the powerful symbol (above) for the International Year of the Family. It shows a heart within a heart representing family (micro-community) at the centre of community (macro-family). The roof that protects them is untidy and unfinished, a sign of both the incompleteness and complexity of family. To me it symbolises the inner tension often felt when engaged in family ministry. It is the tension between the prophetic and pastoral aspects of ministry, between God's intention for human beings living in family and the reality of family as a fallen institution which sometimes damages its members, The challenge is to be pastorally helpful and theologically sound. Another way of putting it might be to say that the Christian church is to hold both ends of the tightrope and keep it in tension, while walking across it at the same time.

Like the people of Lozells, those who designed the IYF logo are expressing the human need for family in community. That they should do so is a sign that God is at work in the world. His presence and image are evident.

God-in-family

Human beings are made in the image of God who is three - Father, Son and Spirit - persons-in-relationship. Although unique and diverse, the three persons of the Trinity relate so intimately that they are One. Such togetherness among diverse persons is God-in-Family; a mystery.

It is because human beings are made in the image of God that they yearn for quality relationships and fear loneliness. Yet they are subject to the human condition and to their culture. Sustaining relationships and negotiating transitions takes commitment, skill and hard work. Post modem culture militates against the sustaining of relationships because it so emphasises the individual and privatises relationships that they are rarely open to nourishment and nurture when needed. Marriage relationships, parent/child relationships, sibling relationship - all family relationships require a community and society that supports and is family friendly.

Family friendly society

The major focus of the International Year of the Family in the UK was the creation of a family-friendly society. Its 'Agenda for Action' has implications for churches and voluntary bodies, but more of that later.

The IYF accepted families as they are, stating that everyone knows who is in their family. This was an attempt to start with the reality of family life in Britain today, and to create a society in which nuclear, lone-parent, reordered, geographically spread and other forms of family are supported. These families exist. People want them to work. The European Values Study 1981-90 showed ninety-six per cent of people valuing family more than friends, work, leisure, religion or politics -in that order.

Nuclear or not

For some people, Christians among them, this view of family is problematic. They see the nuclear family as the norm. Francis Bridger in his critique of 'Something to Celebrate', the Anglican Board of Social Responsibility report on the family, suggests that the symbolism of 'the Adam and Eve pairing is that they offer a universal paradigm for the essence of what it means to be a family'. He is concerned that greater emphasis should be placed on family form and calls for more theological discussion onthe paradigmatic significance of family described in Genesis 1 and 2. That may be for future debate. What is clear now is that God's divine plan included family. The first family was a heterosexual childless couple. By the time their children were born sin had taken its hold. No nuclear family could have suffered more from the effects of sibling rivalry!

From the first family onwards we see human families in need of God's forgiveness and grace. That was certainly the case for the Old Testament patriarchs. Their families were huge and complex. Living in them was often a struggle. but they were connected to community. to clan. tribe and nation. The conjugal nuclear family was not a separate entity or privatised as it is today. Instead it was part of a continuity, stretching backwards into the past to ancestors, forwards towards the future to descendants. and in the present outwards towards the extended family which embraced others who did not fit the norms of the day, eg widows. The economic and social welfare of all was considered in the way in which household (the word more commonly used), neighbourhood and society were organised, and the values undergirding the organisation sprang from a shared belief in one God. Israel was to be a light to the nations in this regard. To some extent the IYF symbol captures this vision of family-community, and that from a position of understanding the current situation. and the acceptance of religious pluralism in today's world.

An Agenda for Action

In calling people to get involved in an Agenda for Action the IYF in the UK is asking for action that will enable connections to be made between family, household, neighbourhood and society. It is calling for local and national initiatives which challenge us all to think family, to check out policies and practices for their impact on families. The agenda includes:

Supporting relationships through relationship education, preventative services, mediation services and counselling;

Combating poverty including work for those who need it, and reforming the benefits system to ease transition to work;

Developing family friendly employment that challenges workaholism, allows for flexible working hours, and provides enough pay to allow for the care of sick, elderly or housebound family members. Affordable quality childcare is seen as a must for which a coherent national strategy is required. IYF suggests that. Government and employers should develop such a strategy in partnership;

Creating a more child friendly society which requires some simple, practical actions, eg baby changing and breast feeding facilities, more welcoming restaurants and buildings for children, adjustments to public transport to make it accessible especially for the elderly and those with young children;

Caring for the 6.8 million carers in the UK with more respite and day care, better support and adequate compensation for loss of earnings;

Improving provision for children in care with better preparation for young people leaving care for independent living. This must also include the reform of the benefit system to ensure that 16 to 18 year olds are protected from homelessness and destitution.

How might the local church engage with this agenda? Christians are for family. Consideration of this agenda may lead to adjustments to work patterns and family lifestyles which enable Christians to function more christianly at home. When we look at our church buildings and activities, how family friendly do we perceive them to be? Do they say to the elderly, to toddlers, to all family people including singles, 'You are welcome here'? So often life is salami-sliced into age groups. Are churches building faith communities that nurture and sustain the families and households in them? Are they reaching out to other households and working in partnership with local initiatives? To what extent are they advocates for families?

Many churches may be active in these areas. However it is no bad thing to stop and evaluate what is being done. Are our policies, strategies and practices appropriate for the post modem culture in which Christians are called to be salt and light?

Something to Celebrate

A recent meeting of the General Synod debated the report, `Something to Celebrate: valuing families in church and society'. It was 'noted' by Synod, which means that after a vigorous debate it was not thrown out, but neither was it adopted. This report, which was always intended to be a discussion document, is strongly for marriage and quality relationships, and against promiscuity, despite what the 'media hype' would suggest. Coming as it does from the board of Social Responsibility, it is about social policy rather than doctrine. A good deal of Bible study went into it, not only by formally trained theologians, but also by people m the pews. A consultative approach was adopted. Four thousand sets of study material and questionnaires were circulated to parishes. Twenty thousand more were requested - a sign of the immense interest in the subject. Thousands of questionnaires were returned and through them came the stories of what is actually happening to families in churches. I understand that some families experience church as bad news. The report as it is written is the result of listening, consulting, dialoguing, and reflecting on both Scripture and tradition. It is shot through with Christian theology especially trinitarian and incarnational theology and includes a fine explanation of the ten commandments on pages 78-80. The result is a report about mission.

Jesus and family

Now mission is God's business. He invites the church to join him in it. To do so Christians need a vision of what God wants for people-in-relationship together with an understanding of the contexts and cultures in which they are placed. Mission involves being, doing, and telling the Good News in a context. Jesus' own mission statement, taken from Isaiah and read by him in the synagogue in Nazareth, speaks of good news for the poor, liberty, sight, freedom and salvation (Luke 4:15-19). In his ministry Jesus affirmed families, holding high ideals for marriage and faithfulness. He challenged the prevailing culture of the day and received children. He brought friendship, healing and restoration to a variety of households and families. Yet there is an ambivalence towards the kinship family in his ministry. There were occasions in his own family life when he experienced misunderstanding and opposition. At the age of twelve he appears to have been a cause of anxiety for his parents. As an adult, he found that his own brothers did not believe him (John 7:5). Then there is the poignant statement made in his home synagogue: 'A prophet is never welcome in his home town' (Luke 4:24). Where was his kinship group then? Jesus looked to his disciples to be family for him. 'Whoever does what God wants him to do is my brother, my sister, my mother' (Mark 4:35). Later we find that some members of his kinship group, including his mother, became disciples.

What are we to make of this? Is it not that Jesus came to create new family, new community and new nation in which relatedness through the blood of Christ transcends kinship ties?

Church as Family

Through Christ, the God-family is open to all human families who bring new dimensions of relatedness within the Christian family which is the church, past, present and future. As members of that family, parents, children, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins are sisters and brothers who share a Parent/Father and Brother Jesus. They are empowered, helped, comforted and guided by the Spirit in and among them.

If church people really grasp this concept of Christian family, both home and local church life will be radically changed. Local church becomes the extended family for a whole range of households. Those without kinfolk or who are unmarried or living alone have their place within the family. Every gathering for worship is a gathering of sisters and brothers in Christ so that a family service is for those with and without children. All will be valued whatever their age or status, and so will be the all-age nature of this extended family. Relationships across the generations will be fostered and valued and all age learning and worship will be a feature of community living which enables learning with and from each other.

The extended family life of the local church will be immensely practical including sharing resources, providing support, e.g. collecting prescriptions, baby-sitting for a young Mum so that she may have some personal space. Such a large family will bean arena for learning patience, compassion, generosity, humility, kindness, gentleness, patience, discipline including self-discipline and forgiveness. People will learn that they are valued and they will learn to value and respect each other. While attention will be given to overt learning, through planned teaching and learning activity, there will be recognition of the covert learning, possibly the most powerful learning, that occurs through the experience and process of belonging to the local church.

The church family has purpose in the kingdom of God, and it has the task of engaging in God's mission. It will be open to the world, ready to embrace and welcome others; and it will be in the world being Christ's hands, feet, eyes, ears and voice reaching out not only to individuals, but to families and households, with the love of God. The kingdom of God is not confined to the church, so the local church needs to cooperate with God in what he is already doing and enable people in families to grow towards greater wholeness.

Family as church

Within the local church family is a range of families and households. They too are arenas for learning. In families values, attitudes and beliefs are developed particularly in childhood. The Good News is experienced through the rough and tumble of daily life and it is here that we grow, develop, are evangelised and discipled. Families are to be communities of love and mutuality, of peace and justice. It is interesting that guidelines for living in families and households are placed immediately after guidelines for being a Christian community, ie the churches in Ephesus and Colossae. As under the Old Covenant, families are placed within communities and beliefs in one God are shared. Again some of this is reflected in the IYF logo.

Families with Christians in them need a local church which itself is networked with other churches to form Holy Nation. The Christian community's responsibility is to promote the well-being of its families and to enable those without kinship to belong to committed networks of friends so that their human need for intimate company is met. Such intimacy may be found in close healthy sibling relationships. Its families are to be home communities worshipping and serving God through their daily lives in the home and when they are dispersed to school, workplace or wider community activity (e.g. the parent and toddler group). All families have a purpose in the kingdom of God.

God's call is towards a kingdom coming. Jesus makes it clear that God's kingdom must take precedence over family. When family is at odds with the demands, principles and values of the kingdom of God, then following Jesus must be the priority. However, like the local church, the family or household with Christians in it can be a taste of things to come and a sign of hope. The message of Scripture in the Old Testament is that there is hope for people with the most difficult and complex family lives. God can and does use them (see Jacob or David for examples). When we come to the New Testament, that message of hope is still present but now it points to a kingdom, a kingdom in which harmony will be experienced. People will be in tune with God, each other and the environment. The dream home lost in Eden will be heaven on earth.

Somehow Christians need to grasp hold of God's vision and purpose for their families, for them and for churches in the world as it is now. Encouragement of outward looking family life that is for the world is necessary because the God family is open and outward looking. Church families are to be a living example of God'slove and grace with a family lifestyle in which individuals seek the good of others and are committed to faithfulness and permanence, to peace and to justice. The mission of the Christian family which includes all church families, is also to promote authentic sexual freedom in which sex and sexuality are about meeting, relating, communing, belonging and loving rather than about power, selfishness, exploitation, possessiveness and abuse.

Living christianly in families is not easy because we are human. No family can live up to the ideals which have been outlined. The privatised small families of this age will be healthier if they are open to and part of church and community, but churches and communities are fallen institutions too. Christians will always struggle with their family lives as do other people. The difference for Christians is that they struggle with God alongside. His acceptance of them in their weakness and vulnerabilty is something to be celebrated. Acceptance of failure and forgiveness of self are also necessary, but often difficult for Christians to attain, living as they do with high expectations and ideals. New starts are possible. All church families require knowledge, skills and support that will help to prevent the normal difficulties of family life from becoming crises. When crises do occur the necessary remedial help is essential. And that is exactly what most families in the wider community require too.

Life in a well functioning family where love, justice and peace are experienced is part of the life of the kingdom of God. Those on the fringes of churches and beyond have high expectations and ideals for their family lives too. No-one begins a committed relationship, whether it be marriage or cohabitation, without wanting that relationship to last. All want to be good parents or grandparents and have to learn that 'goodenough' relating is OK. Families, church and non-church, have so much in common when it comes to development, education and support needs. So why not plan to bring them together, build friendships household to household, share life, learn from one another and provide opportunities for family life education? This is the stuff of family evangelism - helping all types of family or household towards greater wholeness and encouraging those who do not know Christ to do so and to know faith relatedness as well as kin relatedness. Such relatedness will give added purpose and dimension to their life together. There is some mutuality in this approach. Church and non-church families will be able to give and receive.

Joan King works as a consultant and trainer with the Scripture Union Family Training Unit.

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You are reading Families - Something to Celebrate: Part I by Joan King, part of Issue 7 of Ministry Today, published in June 1996.

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