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May 24, 2003
Column #1,134

Presbyterians Send Wrong Message on Family

     I believe the central domestic problem of our time is the disintegration of the American family. Half of all new marriages end in divorce. What's not known is that the marriage rate has plunged 39 percent since 1970.

     Cohabitation has soared to 5 million couples, diverting millions from getting married at all. The number of never-married adults has risen from 21 million in 1970 to 48 million in 2000. Cohabitors are 50 percent more likely to divorce than those who never lived together.

     However, these are NOT major problems according to a key committee of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which studied the issue for five years before writing a report to be submitted next week to the church's General Assembly in Denver. The report, "Living Faithfully with Families in Transition," comes to two stunning conclusions:

     1. "Committed relationships" not marriage are the cornerstone of family life. For example, it asserts, "It is in committed relationships that sexual intimacy is best expressed." That puts marriage on equal footing with cohabitation or gay couples. It argues, "There is no universal form of `the family.' Further, "many forms of family (are) doing the work of families well." In fact, the word "marriage" appears only once in pages of recommendations.

     2. Most "children of single-parent families, step- or blended- families are doing just fine." If most children are "doing just fine," it makes no difference if a child is brought up by a married couple, or by a mother who never married.

     Indeed, the denomination's Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, in its report, urged its 3.5 million members in 11,000 Presbyterian churches to take no stand: "Church and social policies should not discriminate among these families, but support all such families equally."

     Don Browning, director of the Religion, Culture and Family Project of the University of Chicago, notes the report appears to be based on what the social sciences and Scripture says. "Unfortunately, the report is mainly wrong about both the social sciences and the Bible...On the whole, intact married couples do a better job of it. Why? They are on average more invested in both their children and each other."

     Of course, "all families should be accepted and treated with dignity," he adds. "But shouldn't church and society go beyond acceptance? Is there anything to do to also concretely aid families of divorce, address instabilities of cohabitation, and reduce non-marital births? The report is astoundingly silent in responding to these questions."

     Christian denominations should offer moral leadership. They should help churches discern what is the best way, for example, to bring up children.

     Children of divorce and of unmarried parents are twice as likely as those from intact homes to drop out of school, three times as apt to be expelled or to have a baby out-of-wedlock as a teenager and six times more likely to be raised in poverty. Unmarried women living with a man are three times more likely to be physically abused that a married woman.

     Therefore, the Presbyterian Church ought to be providing evidence that divorce and non-marital child-bearing are harmful to children. It should suggest steps that local congregations can take to save marriages and create better homes for children.

     It should spotlight what some Presbyterian churches are doing right that results in better outcomes for both parents and kids. For example, St. Giles Presbyterian Church in Richmond, with 1,000 members, over a four years, has had only two divorces.

     How? It identified 15 couples in strong marriages and trained them to be "Mentor Couples." They prepared 61 couples for marriage using a premarital inventory, in which the male and female are asked whether they agree with such statements as "We have some important disagreements that never seen to get resolved."

     If either partner says yes, Mentor Couples ask for examples and then help them talk through those issues over five evenings. Premarital couples are also assigned exercises designed to improve their skills of communication and conflict resolution, to help them prepare a budget and to set personal and couple goals. Only one of those couples has divorced.

     St. Giles has also mentored 29 married couples whose problems ranged from minor to a deep crisis. Of that number only one has divorced, though another may do so.

     Senior Pastor Randy Bremer says Marriage Mentors "have provided effective guidance to those preparing for marriage, those faced with challenges of a blended family, and to marriages in crisis." They have even "substantially reduced my counseling load and provided a more positive outcome."

     Presbyterians should reject their morally neutral family report, and develop a new one.

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