25 November 2019

From the Vice-Presidential Toy Cupboard

From the Vice-Presidential Cupboard: No.3

Our grandson will shortly turn three. He can’t get into the Vice-Presidential Cupboard because I lock it and put the key in the drawer above it (don’t tell him!), but he’d be into it if he could because he’s curious. I can get into his cupboard, though – the one where he keeps a number of his books and toys for when he comes round – even if that’s a bit unfair. It means I can read about the Little Red Train, and Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, but he can’t access my books on John Wesley, or check on details of Standing Orders in CPD. I wonder what he’d make of the Marriage and Relationships report, and the Recorder’s report of our discussions, both of which are now in the VP Cupboard.

I was intrigued when the Recorder chose as its headline for my profile just before Conference ‘Author, theologian, local preacher and family man’ (Recorder, June 21). I was especially interested in the term ‘family man’. What does it mean exactly? For every man has a family, whether or not he knows who his family is. Perhaps family man means someone who enjoys being with his family, in any combination of family-members. That certainly is true of me. And I love it when as many of us as possible can get together, especially, as Chris my profile-writer acknowledged, ‘if a meal is involved’.

We all know, though, that even though the Recorder headline writers were accurately reflecting elements of my profile, ‘family man’ as a term has come to mean something more specific, and even something political. Similar to the way in which, when someone is sacked, they are said to be choosing to ‘spend more time with their family’, the term ‘family man’ has taken on a life of its own. I hear it in church circles. When said at the time when matters of stationing are being discussed, ‘is he a family man?’ can come to mean: is he heterosexual? is he happily married with two children (preferably with one of each – a nice balance)? By extension it can also mean: is he going to be happy with the manse? (‘Please assure me he hasn’t got a boat, or a surfboard, or some other wacky pastime which means he’ll need lots of room, a bigger garage or driveway than we’re providing and/or won’t be away every time he has a day off.’)

It’s striking that we don’t, I think, talk of someone being a ‘family woman’ in the same way or to the same extent. That’s presumably because if there’s a family of any kind around then it’s readily assumed the woman/the mother will be there and doing the bulk of the childcare. (Just for the record: when my wife Jill was first a full-time presbyter back in the late 90s, I was the one that went part-time for 9 years.) But women often face different oppressive expectations, or intrusive enquiries, as we know. Whether single, living alone, house-sharing, co-habiting, or married: ‘Do you not want children, then?’

Whatever people are making of the Marriage and Relationships report – and I hope that informed, constructive conversations about it are going on in your local setting – one thing I hope it is doing is encouraging us all to recognise the realities of the family and friendship groupings we all now live within. I admit to being fed up of the ways in which we in the church sometimes speak of ‘the ways of the world’, as if these are what happen ‘out there’ (and are all bad), and not ‘in here’. However much we might protest and say we’re not wanting to suggest the church is perfect, very often we are! So let’s be clear: sometimes the ‘ways of the world’ are better than what goes on in the church (when provision is made for those with physical disabilities, for example, in public buildings, or when racism is more consistently and directly challenged than it often is within the church). This doesn’t mean it is right to have a rosy view about everything. We are simply to remember all the time that God is inside and outside the church, and that the church is engaged – with the help of God’s Spirit – in a constant task of discerning where God is at work and what God is doing. We’re not to second-guess God, to assume that we always know what God wants, and should be expect to be surprised by God even as we seek to remain faithful.

I think this means, then, that we should not be at all surprised by the ever-changing meanings of ‘family man’ and ‘family woman’. Perhaps the terms are, in fact, unhelpful. There are lots of patterns of family life, and many new forms of friendships. As Christians we shall want first of all to foster good friendships, loyal and faithful relationships, in which truth and honesty reign. And our friendships and family patterns will inevitably be across faiths and with those of no faith. That’s just the way the world is. Our grandson has entered a complex world. But within our family and friendships of people of faith (Christian and Muslim) and no faith our main task will be to love him, laugh with him, help him to discover the world for himself and trust that whatever path he chooses to follow he will flourish.

Clive Marsh, Vice-President

This article first appeared in the Methodist Recorder on 1 Nov 2019

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