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Non-nuclear options

Rachel Hagger-Holt

SARAH HAGGER-HOLT on the future of the family

FFamily.jpgI was brought up in a traditional nuclear family, just my parents and me. I learnt most of my values and attitudes to life from them and had the love and security I needed to flourish. Yet I always knew 'family' was something bigger than just the three of us. Somewhere out there was my sprawling, inter-continental, much-married, much-divorced, argumentative and multi-lingual Jewish family, members of which would occasionally appear to stay, distribute gifts and talk about old times. The importance placed on family ties meant I could turn up a on a doorstep in Tel Aviv or Rome or Golders Green and expect a warm welcome and a large meal.

The importance of extended family has stayed with me, and helped me value now being part of a very non-nuclear family: two mummies (who live together), two daddies (who live together), a toddler and a bump (who live with the mummies). And that's before you even start thinking about grannies and granddads, uncles and aunts.

Non-traditional families like ours are now less unusual and, crucially, more visible. The family is becoming more blended,  particularly as a result of an increase in divorce and remarriage that makes step-families more common and calls into question whether sharing genes matters as much as sharing everyday life. And at the same time it's becoming more fragmented - a third of households now contain one person, and single-parent families are four times as common as they were in 1961.1

Yet, as with any statistics, these mask the complexity of people's lives. Although classed as a 'lone parent', a friend who lives with her baby and her ill father while fostering her sister's child can hardly be described as going it alone, neither can another friend bringing up her baby in a close-knit community of canal boaters. My own blended family is a result of relationship building, not breakdown.

It's a cliché to say that you can't choose your family. Yet in many ways, now we can. In the last 50-100 years, changes have occurred that now seem obvious. Birth control has allowed us to choose how many children we have, or don't have; changes in social attitudes have enabled un­married mothers to choose to bring up their children rather have them adopted; and choosing a partner of a different race or religion or of the same gender is now far more acceptable.

My partner and I recently edited a book which includes reflections, experiences and advice from gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians, their families, friends and churches. Some had been rejected by their birth families because of their sexual orientation, others by their church families. For some, the experience of having to rethink their faith in response to a hostile church, meant that they worked hard to deepen their family relationships  or that they chose their own new mutually-supportive families of friends.

If their experiences - and ours - hold a lesson for Christians in the UK about the increasing variety of family structures over the coming years, it is this: it is the 'how' not the 'who' of relationships that is gaining significance. And this raises serious questions. Are the choices people make with regard to their families respected or disapproved of and feared? Are Christian celebrations of birth or of partnership offered and accessible to all types of families? Are we exploring Biblical stories to help people understand their families through the lens of the Bible: the bond between in-laws Naomi and Ruth, brotherly jealousy among Jacob's sons from different relationships, the love of the widow of Nain for her dying son?

While the nuclear family would have been alien concept in Jesus' time, belonging to an extended family, a tribe and a nation were ways in which people knew they belonged. Perhaps these ways of belonging are becoming more relevant now. And yet, just when we start to feel comfortable, again and again, Jesus seeks to draw our attention away from our families, however we define them, and towards the family of God. A family of choice, where those who 'do the will of my father in heaven' belong as much, or more, than his mother and brothers who wait outside to speak to him. A family which includes more and more unexpected people, and includes us too.

1 Office for National Statistics 'Social Trends', Dec 2009.