Bishop David Rossdale, Chair of The International Anglican Family Network, reflects on the complexity of the word ‘family’. He highlights Dignity, Belonging and Forgiveness as the three foundations of family and shows how the family of humanity and the family of the church as well as the diversity of human families can be the place of reconciliation. IAFN has published its latest newsletter entitled: The Family – A Reconciling Community with stories from Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and the Middle East.
By David Rossdale
A problem with using the word ‘family’ is that, when set in a global context, it doesn’t fit with a single understanding or description. ‘Family’ can mean what we want it to mean biological, nuclear, extended, tribal, of nations, of churches, etc. At base, ‘family’ is a group of people in some sort of relationship. Yet, throughout human history, family has played an enduring and essential part in human experience and formation – psychologically, socially, legally and theologically. The idea of ‘family’, for most of us, evokes strong feelings of affiliation and loyalty towards other members of the family.
In the Bible we discover God using ‘family’ both in creating patterns for society and also as the place where the dignity of our being made in the image of God is received, recognised and nurtured. The gift of a name is symbolic of this bestowal of identity within the family, as it celebrates family as the primary place of belonging.
However, in whatever way ‘family’ is understood and experienced across the world, there are perhaps three biblical features which give structure to what makes ‘family’ distinctive. They also offer a thread of connection which makes sense of how ‘family’ sits at the heart of a global church.
The first foundation upon which the idea of family rests is ‘Dignity’. Dignity is one of God’s greatest gifts to humankind in creation – it gives us the right to be valued solely because we matter to God. This gift of dignity underpins and even goes beyond human rights enshrined in law, for human dignity is a gift of God’s grace. As a gift of grace, such dignity is to be championed not only within the biological family, but also in the family of God’s people. All the love and care which characterise family life are celebrations of the value which we give to one another as members of the family.
The second foundation is ‘Belonging’. The notion of belonging has its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures. The people of Israel belong to God and are held within his loving focus. Belonging is also central to God’s redemptive activity in Jesus. He calls us to belong to him and, in him, to each other. Belonging to family and community is a feature of being human, which Jesus celebrates in so many of his healing miracles as he enables those healed to be restored to the communal family from which their illness had separated them. The importance of not being lost from our family is celebrated in the parable of the Prodigal Son and is found in the astonishment of Jairus’s family when their little girl is restored to them.
Yet dignity and belonging are fragile things, even within a family. Living together is no easy thing and through neglect, deliberate act or abuse, the interconnectivity which is so essential to being a family is damaged or destroyed. The character of forgiveness – expressed by the crucified Christ – is essential to restore the relationships which enable us to belong and which secures our dignity.
‘Forgiveness’ is the third foundation which is fundamental to being a healthy family. Forgiveness enables the future, because within a family, relationships can be recovered, restored and renewed. Yet for a family to flourish such forgiveness has to be accompanied by a repentance which moves a family and its relationships in a new direction, away from those things which have hurt, damaged or abused
Advocacy for the family is not to champion a particular expression of family connection. Advocacy gives voice to the networks of connections which receive the God-given gift of dignity and which celebrate each person by ensuring that they know that they belong and that none should be marginalised or lost. At its best, the family is a redemptive community, where we experience the character of God’s forgiveness through the forgiving love of those of whom we are part.
Giving voice to the family and resisting all that strips dignity and all that excludes, is the stuff of the IAFN’s work in the cause of a God who works through grace, who gifts dignity and who, through redemptive love, calls us to belong in the families of God’s world.
The International Anglican Family Network is a forum for the exchange of information about the challenges facing families in different countries and cultures and the practical work undertaken by churches and individual Christians. To learn more, like the IAFN Facebook page, subscribe to IAFN News and find useful resources on the IAFN website.