Has the Church given up on the family?

A Bethany Family Institute response to Evangelisation in England & Wales. a report to the Catholic Bishops

This report is the result of a research project commissioned by the interim management committee of the proposed Agency for Evangelisation. The authors were based respectively at the CMS Mission House in London (Knights) and Ushaw College (Murray). Their remit was:

§ To consider the principles of mission and evangelisation at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
§ To review current practice.
§ To make recommendations for the future development of evangelisation in England and Wales.

The report is 172 pages long, and attractively published. As some of the survey responses have been available on the web for some while, this final document was particularly eagerly awaited. However, after reading it from a family perspective, both of us here at Bethany share misgivings about the authors’ recommendations to the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales. We feel that they have failed to take into full account some of the major findings of their own research, as well as the view of family, as foundational to all aspects of church, that our faith proclaims.

Families at the ‘Coal Face’

To put our concerns into context, it is essential to note that those surveyed (parishioners, seminarians, parish priests and bishops/diocesan workers) repeatedly affirmed family and friends as central to their journey of faith. This is reported several times in the body of the report:

“The ‘coal face’ of evangelisation is located in families….” (p50)
“It is very clear that the means by which people are most effectively evangelised rely predominantly on human relationships and pastoral care. This is evidenced by the strongly affirmative responses in elements relating to the influence of family, friends, having children, marriage…” (p119)
“What is very apparent yet again, is that it is in the context of the family that faith would seem to be most effectively communicated and nurtured. Secondary to this
influence is the importance attached to a sense of belonging in the local Church” (p121)
“Our research shows a high percentage of active Catholics attribute their sense of the Gospel to their families and personal friendships. However they need supporting and equipping. Resourcing the domestic Church to assist families raise their children in the faith must be a priority” (p141)
“Human relationships between Christians and their families, friends, and neighbours are the most powerful evangelising force in England and Wales” (p142)

The relationship between these domestic churches and the parish is noted as being rather less than symbiotic:

“supporting families (is)… indicated as (an) area where the parish is generally least engaged with the needs of the world” (p91)

The authors even express concern for a future where families might increasingly become less able to continue their indispensable evangelisation:

“in the light of predicted trends in Church demographics… this primary influence of family as a contribution to evangelisation … is likely to be lost at an increasing rate in the coming years.” (p 122)

                      Inadequate Recommendations

Reading these statements gave us great hope that the report would conclude by recommending a whole-hearted and holistic policy of supporting church families as a matter of some immediacy. It is extremely disheartening therefore, for us to report that on turning to the final chapter (13 pages) of Priorities and Recommendations, we discovered that the only mentions of family were these:

“..the Church should be the ‘home and school of communion’. This must apply to every level of the Church’s life including the domestic Church…” (p165)
“The formation of children and young adults and ministry to young families must be
special moments of formation and evangelisation” (p167)

We think that these rather weak expressions betray a huge lack of understanding, firstly of family (and therefore of church) and of how families can be cared for by the larger family of the parish. We also contend that the document fails to appreciate the family's role as a subject of evangelisation, a source of life where God's Word is often strongly expressed through the daily living of the Gospel in the family. In reality, that's where most Catholics were evangelised in the past, and where we would hope that they will continue to be evangelised in the future. Other forms of evangelisation are important, but the family remains the primary community where this sacred act takes place -- day after day, year after year.

When is a church not a church?

This might have surprised us more, had the authors not already given evidence of a tendency to go right up to the door of the home, without asking to come in. Although they refer to ‘domestic church’, they seem not to have translated the deeper meanings of ecclesia domestica. On a semantic level (and much is made of semantics in the first chapter) this is illustrated by the following statement: “we must make our homes and our ecclesial home, places where the Gospel flowers” (p16). Many domestic churches will rightly be amazed that home and ecclesial home are different entities.

On a more pragmatic level, the report repeatedly describes ‘ecclesial reality’ without explicitly mentioning the family:

“All ecclesial realities: parishes, communities, movements, lay associations, individual Christians in whatever state of life, are called to be evangelisers” (p48)
“… other ecclesial realities had become more significant. Small groups, communities, movements, conferences etc..” (p 84)

Indeed, it ultimately becomes apparent that the authors really are unaware of the many family ministry initiatives in place up and down the countries. The section on ‘formal individual evangelisation initiatives’ (pp141-3) is prefaced with a signal that these formal structures might offer the ‘focussed preparation’ required by the networks of families and friends that evangelise each other so efficiently. Unfortunately their list neglects to mention any specifically family oriented structures. At this juncture it is worth mentioning that of the 23 dioceses in England and Wales, 11 have diocesan workers in marriage and family life. Of these seven are paid and have diocesan offices.

‘Relational’ Aspects Essential

This ‘oversight’ is all the more puzzling given the emphasis that the authors place on the importance of ‘the relational’ in evangelisation:

Missio Dei relocates the primary weight of the concept of mission away from Church structures…. to God. Christian mission becomes seen as the participation of the Church in the activity of the Holy Trinity… the images and actions growing from a Trinitarian theology of missio Dei are relational (love, dialogue, sharing, community, solidarity, integral human development etc.)” (p57)

It really is not a stretch to connect these relational ‘images and actions’ with the family. In nurturing the relational aspect of family life, where primary evangelisation takes place, then de facto we build the relational aspect of parish and societal life, where secondary evangelisation happens.

From a family perspective, a way of approaching all church life that was strongly recommended by John Paul II's Familiaris Consortio, we must state our belief that this report has failed to comprehend or appreciate the seminal prophetic role of the Christian family, especially that of parents. Whilst the evidence of the authors’ own research incontrovertibly re-emphasizes the importance of family as foundational to faith, once again an opportunity of articulating what can and should be done to help families is missed.

No calls are made for further research into the prophetic role of the family. No mention is made of all the tools and resources that already exist for ‘equipping’ families in their vocation. No mention is made of the Pope’s repeated calls for urgent pastoral support for families. Family is once again sidelined, rather than being a central aspect to the discussion.

Instead we have calls for more youth work, more investigation of the impact of the New Movements and one woolly statement about “appropriate training for and formation in evangelisation for all Christians” (p169). Instead of parenting programmes and relationship education, we have calls for more research into collaborative ministry. Whilst we would not disagree with this last recommendation, we think that collaboration, like charity, begins at home.

The report is a well-intentioned document with many excellent points. It's unfortunate that it fails to provide a full description of the processes of evangelisation that have built the good church of the past and will continue to do so in the future. To again echo the Pope: The future of society and the church pass through the family. This statement should be read as both descriptive and prescriptive. If evangelisation fails to include the family as a major player in the game, we all will be losers in the end. And the game is too important to let this ever happen.

Evangelisation in England & Wales: a report to the Catholic Bishops. Philip Knights & Andrea Murray. Catholic Communications Service, 2002. ISBN: 090524124X

We have gathered some quotes on evangelisation and the family from the church documents of the last few years. We are infilling all the remaining spaces in this issue with them. Please read and reflect on them. Clearly a lot of work remains to be done in raising awareness of families’ importance to the wider church, but perhaps restating what we believe will help!

From Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975):

“At different moments in the Church's history and also in the Second Vatican Council, the family has well deserved the beautiful name of "domestic Church." This means that there should be found in every Christian family the various aspects of the entire Church. Furthermore, the family, like the Church, ought to be a place where the Gospel is transmitted and from which the Gospel radiates.

In a family which is conscious of this mission, all the members evangelise and are evangelised. The parents not only communicate the Gospel to their children, but from their children they can themselves receive the same Gospel as deeply lived by them.

And such a family becomes the evangeliser of many other families, and of the neighbourhood of which it forms part” (#71)

From Familiaris Consortio (1981)

Since God's plan for marriage and the family touches men and women in the concreteness of their daily existence in specific social and cultural situations, the church ought to apply herself to understanding the situations within which marriage and the family are lived today, in order to fulfil her task of serving. This understanding is therefore an inescapable requirement of the work of evangelisation. (#4)

As the synod repeated, .., the future of evangelisation depends in great part on the church of the home. This apostolic mission of the family is rooted in baptism and receives from the grace of the sacrament of marriage new strength to transmit the faith, to sanctify and transform our present society according to God's plan (#52)

The ministry of evangelisation carried out by Christian parents is original and irreplaceable. It assumes the characteristics typical of family life itself, which should be interwoven with love, simplicity, practicality and daily witness (#54)

From Familiaris Consortio (1981)

Therefore, it must be emphasized once more that the pastoral intervention of the church in support of the family is a matter of urgency. Every effort should be made to strengthen and develop pastoral care for the family, which should be treated as a real matter of priority, in the certainty that future evangelisation depends largely on the domestic church (#65)

From Redemptoris Missio (1990)

“People today put more trust in witnesses than in teachers, in experience than in teaching, and in life and action than in theories. The witness of a Christian life is the first and irreplaceable form of mission…The first form of witness is the very life of the missionary, of the Christian family, and of the ecclesial community, which reveal a new way of living” (#42)

From Novo Millennio Ineunte (2001)

“At a time in history like the present, special attention must also be given to the pastoral care of the family, particularly when this fundamental institution is experiencing a radical and widespread crisis.” (#47)

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