Being part of my own family and ministering to families in the parish for thirty seven years I thought that I knew something about family life. But, since becoming chair of the Marriage and Family Life Committee for England and Wales, my eyes have been opened a little to the messiness of family life and the sheer business of coping (24/7 – rather like being a Synod Father!) And I have learned the importance of listening to families.
My predecessor and the Marriage and Family Life Project Office listened to families in 2004 and were guided by them to focus on family-friendly parishes, family spirituality and family-faith transmission. We call this work Celebrating Family: Blessed, Broken, Living Love because we heard that all families, whatever their size, shape, structure or life stage, experience God’s blessing in their lives; all families at some time, in some way, also experience brokenness – which, as a sign of contradiction, can also sometimes be part of the way God blesses them. We came to appreciate that every family strives to protect their love for one another, through thick and thin, in blessing and brokenness. So let us rejoice and be glad, for this is what God – and we as bishops – hope for them.
So much of what we bishops tend to worry about is simply symptomatic of the way life is today. Our families are called to live in the world with all its difficulties, strains and stresses. Our role is to strengthen them, to help them see Christ in their lives, to know him more fully and to respond to his loving invitation to life in the kingdom, through, in and with the world. A rule of thumb when parenting is that behaviour that is noticed tends to increase – so wise parents don’t encourage misbehaviour by paying attention to it, they pay positive attention to good behaviour. Perhaps it would be good for us bishops to focus on parents, parents who are the ministers of the domestic church. Let us be wise parents too.
Do our own words and actions always give a true witness, a true account of the Gospel? Our flock sometimes finds it hard to reconcile Church teaching with Christ’s commandment to love. Their own moral judgment is jarred by what they perceive as an over-emphasis (in their view) on form rather than substance. Another rule of thumb when parenting: children need both soft-love and firm-love, but loving parents rarely exclude their errant children from the family table. They love them above all else, and know the family table to be the natural place of reconciliation and renewal. Can we be loving parents too? Above all, can we reflect on God’s parental love which is not authoritarian, not permissive but authoritative, the God of compassion and love, the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son who kept the door open.