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23 February 2011

Church and State: A match made in heaven?

Politics in Northern Ireland has come a long way in recent years. The release of the second Police Ombudsman's report into the 1971 McGurk's bar bombing reminds us that the past is still painfully fresh in the minds of many but encouragingly, such tragedies are no longer dictating the content of our public discourse. Politicians and policymakers here are now busy working on a raft of mainstream 'non-conflict' issues, including family policy.

The social, political and economic benefits of becoming more 'family-friendly' appear to be resonating with their desire to build more cohesive and resilient communities, while saving increasingly limited public funds. In last month's piece which highlighted some of these benefits, I only briefly touched upon the more specific area of marriage. Unsurprisingly this remains an obstacle for some who in all other ways seek to embrace the move towards creating a society underpinned by strong families. This is not simply a case of marriage being seen as less politically and ideologically palatable than the generic 'family' narrative but, in many cases, a more easily overcome issue of finding the appropriate policy language and means to support this model of family.     

Speaking at the launch of National Marriage Week 2011 in the House of Commons earlier this month, Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith pressed the case for promoting marriage to ward off family breakdown, believing that marriage was also the best antidote to the self-obsessed celebrity culture of modern life. 

His timely speech coincided with the Relationship Foundation publishing its third annual 'Cost of Family Breakdown' Index.  The think-tank, based in Cambridge, calculated the total cost of family breakdown to society at £42 billion for 2010/11. To help put that figure in context: £42 billion is more than double the amount the UK government spends on law and order each year and nearly five times the Northern Irish Assembly's total budget for 2011. 

The Right Honourable Iain Duncan Smith MP went on to say that it was not the Government's place to "lecture people or push them on this matter", but appealed to churches and other civic organisations to also do their bit.

And yet, as Christians, we believe that marriage is God's idea, not a human invention. God's extraordinary gift of marriage is an expression of His truly loving and relational character. Why is it then that a politician, convinced by the secular evidence and clear social benefits, felt that he had to urge churches to do their bit to encourage and support marriage?  

The Marriage Week Northern Ireland committee, made up of 10 local organisations/denominations, believe that churches here should be leading the way in championing and proactively equipping marriages within our congregations and the local communities they serve. We should not be being dragged into it kicking and screaming by society or merely in response to particular crisis situations.

Events of the past few years make this even more important. Rather than shy away from the issue, the Church needs to respond to the accusations of hypocrisy by continuing to speak out on what we know to be true but also committing more resources to strengthening relationships. As with family policy in its broadest terms, the role of the Government in upholding marriage - while crucial - is only one part of the jigsaw.