1. The Argument of the Report
As I noted in my second post, the Report’s insistence on the centrality of male–female partnership to the definition of marriage was not limited to the necessity of such partnership for procreation. Nevertheless, claims about procreation form one important strand in the Report’s overall argument. I don’t have as much to say about this as about the other features of the report, and what I do have to say is a bit more fragmentary – but I think there are one or two important points to make.
The Report presents the possibility of procreation as part, though not all, of the ‘blessing’ that God gives to sexually differentiated, male–and–female humanity (§3) – and it presents differentiated male–female relationships as (in humans and in many other animal species) oriented towards (amongst other things) ‘the tasks of reproduction and the nurture of children’ (§11).
Male–female partnership is not important simply for biological reproduction, but for parenthood more broadly, because parenthood is properly a ‘cooperative venture’ (§16). The report argues that exclusive, life-long male–female partnerships – marriages – are the best form of parenthood (§§2, 16), and that when we marry, part of what we are doing is therefore ensuring that our procreative power is contained with the most appropriate structure for it (‘we commit the procreative power of our own sex to an exclusive relation with a life-partner of the opposite sex.’ (§21)).
If marriage is important for parenthood, parenthood is also important for marriage. Marriage and parenthood complement, crown, and strengthen one another (§22), and parenthood is important in the ‘spiritual growth of a married couple in the course of life’; it lays ‘the foundation for a moral responsibility towards each other’ (§33).
The Report acknowledges that not all marriages issue in parenthood, and not all parenthood takes place within marriage – but it insists that the union of parenthood and marriage is nevertheless the defining ideal. On the one hand, the Report insists (rather mysteriously) that to say of married couples that they open themselves to parenthood ‘may be true even of a couple who, for whatever reasons, have no prospect of actually having children’ (§21). On the other hand, the report acknowledges that it is not only in ‘an ideal family unit of two biological parents’ that parenting takes place, but that we must reckon with various forms of adoption, step-parenting, and single parenthood, too. Other things being equal, however, such forms of parenting will be more of a struggle – indeed, they may well involve ‘heroic’ struggle (§23) – and that struggle will properly take the form of an endeavour to ‘imitate as closely as possible’ the ideal family unit (§24).
As with my previous posts, there is something I want to affirm here. It is absolutely right to ask, as we think about marriage and its changing forms, whether we are making arrangements that are likely to tend to harm any children born into those marriages. And it is right to ask that question critically, and to recognise that it has the capacity to call into doubt some arrangements that we might otherwise have thought desirable.
That being said, I have several questions about the way the Report describes the connection between marriage and parenthood.
(1) I must admit that I am not at all sure what it means to say that a couple who have no possibility of having children are nevertheless opening themselves to parenthood by getting married. I am, therefore, not sure what to do with the implied claim that this opening is in some way central to the definition of the relationship of such a couple. In any case, we as a church have been perfectly willing to marry couples who cannot have children, and who know they cannot, or who have no intention of trying – and (thank God) we do not seem to be required to proclaim that these are second-class arrangements, marriages only in name and not in substance. So my first question is whether the Report, for the sake of making its argument against same-sex marriage, is making procreation more central to the definition of marriage than does our own well-established practice – with potentially serious pastoral consequences. And it is not only our current practice that might give us pause, here. After all, the most direct reason given for marriage in the creation narratives, as reaffirmed by Jesus (§5), is that ‘it was not good for man to be alone’, and that this need could only be met by one who was flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, and with whom he could therefore be one flesh – so we would seem to have somewhere to stand if we want to explore the possibility that marriages might take the form of partnerships without procreation.
(2) If my first question was about the importance of children to marriage, my second and third are about the importance of marriage for child-reading. I think some questions need to be asked of the Report in the light of the very many different ways of bringing up children we can find across history and culture – and across Christian tradition and scripture. Some of those ways are primarily a matter of mother + father + children, but many (most?) are not. Parenting has often, for instance, been a responsibility of a wider and more complex community, with involvement from multiple generations, from various members of the extended family, or from other kinds of household member – or has involved handing the boy over to be bought up by the priest in the temple the moment he is weaned. The Report may talk about how a single mother might try to make up the lack created by the absent father (although I shall have something to say about that comment in a moment), but we could as well talk about how the isolated nuclear couple might have to make up the lack created by the absence of aunts and grandparents. How easily can the Report’s description of an ‘ideal family unit’ survive attention to this complexity?
(3) The Report confidently talks about the ‘best’ contexts for bringing up children – and that again raises for me questions about the relationship between the kinds of claim made by the report, and the other forms of investigation and understanding available to us. This question of the best context for raising children is, after all, one about which there has been a great deal of research, and a great deal of controversy. On the one hand, I wonder what difference would be made to this account of ideal parenthood if we paid attention to that research – and whether it is at least possible that some of that research might undermine or complicate the Report’s confidence. On the other hand, I wonder quite what kind of stake we actually have in this game. Let me explain what I mean by way of an analogy. Different diets have different health benefits for children. I’m not sure, however, that it is the church’s job to make advocacy of certain diets and deprecation of others a direct part of its social teaching – the kind of topic on which we might expect the House of Bishops to issue pastoral guidance – even though there’s a lot of talk about diet in the Christian tradition, and loads in the Bible (rather more than there is about sex, at a guess). I think the church’s proper task probably stands at one remove from that, and will have more to do with forming us in some of the questions we should be asking about our diets than in determining the answers we should be giving. Might not something similar be true in reference to patterns of child-rearing and family structure? And might that not give us the freedom to ask rather more insistently and openly what factors in parenting are genuinely crucial to the flourishing of the child?
The Sharp End
As with the other aspects of the Report that I have analysed, there is a dark background to anything we might say in this area. This is, after all, an area in which it is possible to do quite serious damage – and as a Church we have something of a track record of damage in this area. We have too often taken culturally and historically specific configurations of family life, and valorised them as if they were ideals required of us by divine authority. We have too often dumped all kinds of guilt, vilification and exclusion upon those whose family lives do not match those ideals. And we have too often made it harder to see and name the forms of abuse and dysfunction that can flourish within families that do appear to conform to the ideals. That’s not a history of far away and long ago, either, and its proximity should make us watch our words with care.
In this light, I must admit that I find it difficult to stomach our Report’s description of the ‘heroic struggles’ that step parents, adoptive parents and single parents are apt to face because they are not the original biological couple; or its insistence that all other forms of family ought to be working to imitate the ideal of a family like mine; or the deeply uncomfortable ventriloquism by which we make that point by putting our own words into the mouth of a representative but fictional single mother. At very least, we have left the Report wide open to being read as an uncritical paean to ‘family values’ – as setting an unexamined and undifferentiated normality on a pedestal, and arranging all other forms of family life on the slopes below it, gazing up at it longingly. In a world where such ideas are rife, and powerful, and do real and deep harm, that was badly done.
Nevertheless, I hope I have managed to indicate, in this post and its predecessors, some ways in which the Report does set out an important agenda for deeper investigation. I don’t quite know where to go with this next, but the Archbishops commended this Report for study, so I’m hoping we can find some ways to pursue this agenda further. Any ideas?