Today the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published a news release showing that the proportion of single parents in England and Wales had tripled over 40 years, as well as giving other headline demographic change data. The numbers the news release was talking about had come from the 2011 National Lifestyle survey overview report which has been published by the ONS. I am going to unpack the statistics and question why the headline was chosen before moving on to look at what challenges that headline data poses for those of us who are Christians within congregations.
What the news release suggests is that the proportion of single parents in this country has steadily risen over that time. This is not the case though, if one turns to the data which the release is based upon there is a slightly different story to be shown. The greatest rise in single parents was actually over the first 25 years of this comparison period, in 1971 the proportion of single parents was 8 percent and in 1998 it had risen to 25%. The proportion of lone parent families hit its peak in 2002 – when the figure rose to 27%. Since the early naughties figures have levelled off and the proportion of lone parents has actually fallen slightly to 22%, the lowest figure since 1995. The proportion of lone mothers has been stable at 20% since 2008, a fall of 4% from 2005 when they peaked at 24% same level as 2002.
The statistics then tell us that there has been a levelling off and a stabilisation in family life over the last 10 years. Over the last decade we have not seen significantly more single mothers who have never been part of a two parent household, neither have we seen a huge increase in divorce and separation leading to single parents. Those significant changes in the shape of family life happened around the turn of the century rather than over the last ten years.
So why is it that this has been chosen as the headline for this news release?
It could be because it is amongst the most significant of the figures for change when doing a forty year comparison. If this is the case I can see the rational but would argue it then unintentionally gives a false impression of how that rise has been achieved over the forty years. It was headline news when doing twenty or thirty year comparisons but should now probably not be the key headline data.
The second possible explanation is more disturbing and relates to the way in which myths grow up around welfare spending. The Joint Public Issues Team report ‘Truth and Lies about Poverty’ talks about the myth making which has occurred around issues of poverty.
A recent Gingerbread report highlighted that amongst the many who are going to be the forthcoming changes to the benefits and welfare system single parents are particularly likely to be hit. They said, in their press briefing, Single Parents and Universal Credit, Singled Out, “Single parent families are already almost twice as likely to live in poverty. A lack of flexible working and affordable childcare means many are struggling to find stable work that pays. The charities are concerned the changes to welfare support will only make these barriers harder to overcome.”
We do need to be careful before drawing the most negative conclusions as the evidence is not clear as to why this headline was used.
The key point I want to make in relation to the headline is when looking at the reporting which might follow based upon this release we need to keep a focus on the facts rather than the possible inference.
Looking at the statistics and news release from a different angle I want us to think about what questions they ask of those of us who are Christians interested in ecclesiology and missiology. The basis for this interpretation will come from my research into the experience of single parents in evangelical churches.
Before launching in I want to give a health warning. We have to be careful of the data used in relation to the number of single parents in our churches – because they are a category which we don’t have clear information on. However, from the data which has been available and from anecdotal evidence it is widely acknowledged that single parents are an under-represented group within white majority churches particularly.
1: What era is our church culture rooted in?
Is it the culture of the 21st century where family shapes have now stabilised to include lone parent as a “norm” and where statistics for never married, divorced and separated single parents have stabilised to their current level?
In looking to answer the key question and the sub-questions which follow on from it we need to think about a range of factors many of which go beyond being focused exclusively around single parents.
We need to think about our attitudes to women working and when meetings and events are scheduled for. We need to think about attitudes towards divorce, separation and those who have had sex outside of marriage.
2. What spaces do we provide for people to reflect upon and discuss their experiences of contemporary life?
My research showed that whilst the diversity of contemporary household shape is evident in our congregations, and in the relationships of those close to us it is rarely mentioned in public worship. However, small groups can be a place where that reflection and discussion can occur. Where a holistic approach is taken which sees the potential for transformation in the whole person small groups can be very important spaces.
If small groups take a wider focus than being bible studies primarily based on achieving ‘conversion’ and increasing theological literacy then they can provide the opportunity for people to explore their experience. They can work through the reality of what it means to be a single parent, (for example), today and how they can contribute to the wider body of the church. If this model is used small groups can also become important spaces for sharing potential opportunities as well as needs. The passing on of job opportunities, for example, can happen if people are able to share in this way.
3. Have our congregations gone through a process of transformation and change?
If the congregation itself has gone through a process of transformation and change it is more likely, I would argue, to have questioned some of its traditional understandings and to be able deal with some of the feelings of dissonance which may arise between the model of family they feel that they should be advocating and the reality which they are called to engage with.
4a. Are our congregations focused on friendship evangelism courses or wider engagement in the local community?
If congregations are under-represented by single parents and have a culture where evangelism is done through like seeking to attract like (through existing networks of friends and contacts) it is less likely to be engaging with the changed shape of society this report has highlighted. The type of ‘targeted’ evangelism which Rick Warren and others have sometimes advocated has tended not to look to single parents as a group to attract.
However, if congregations are engaging with the wider society and community around them then it is going to involve more contact with the contemporary shapes of family and household.
4b.Do we see church as something we just do on a Sunday or as something wider which includes a range of activities during the week?
This contact with the wider community I referred to in 4a will not necessarily be on a Sunday morning and I would be very interested to find out the figures for single parent family participation in messy church activities if they are know. I suspect they may be disproportionately higher than other forms of church.
5. How do we choose our bible readings? Do we include stories such as that of Hagar and Ishmael?
There are bible passages which are highly relevant to our changed society, but they are not included in the lectionary and don’t come from the letters of Paul. For many churches engaging with the relevant biblical material will mean moving away from the passages normally used.
6. Do we have leaders (lay or ordained) with experience of or a good understanding of single parent issues?
If a church/ congregational leader is a single parent or has a close relationship with somebody who is or has been a single parent they will have a greater understanding and empathy. If not they may be holding on to inaccurate stereotypes based upon perception rather than reality. In the latter situation we need to question where their views of single parents are coming from.
Issues around leadership and gender can play a part here. If lay leaders (such as deacons and elders are able to be female there is a higher likelihood these bodies will include somebody who is or has been a single parent with full time care of their child). Similarly, if leaders who have been divorced are accepted then there is obviously going to be a greater probability that they will have an experience of single parenthood.
These six questions are ones which relate to a much wider debate and set of issues but I think are important to be engaged with, particularly in light of the statistics and headline comparative data.