Canada’s Family Portrait

Well it’s been a crazy couple of weeks which has caused me to neglect my blogging. I have wanted to post something on the recently released census reports from the 2011 census on marriage and family since they were released. I have been doing a lot of thinking on the picture they paint of Canadian families and the implications for the church. These are very initial thoughts with more to come.

1. Marriage is not as unpopular as you would think. Married couples make up 67% of all census families and had a modest growth of 3.1% from 2006. People are still choosing to be married, though it would be interesting to know how many couples are choosing to marry in religious institutions like churches, mosques and synagogues. Marriage is one of those events that “gets people in the door” and can be a bridge to get to speak to couples about the role of faith and the church in their lives. So the implication for the church is to take marriage seriously as an opportunity to build relationships and not as a burden. Right now people still want to get married by us in churches, there’s no guarantee how long that will last.

2. On the other hand “shacking up” has become even more popular. In fact common law families grew by 13.8% and have grown by a whopping 342.2% since 1981. Marriage has only grown by 19.7% over the same 30 year period. Are these people any less committed? Are they any less religious or spiritual? Are they any less concerned about the legalities of their relationships? These are the questions that flow for me from the raw data.

The other question is what do we do with these people? Where do they fit in the church? In a church where marriage is the norm it’s easy to make common law couples feel like second class citizens (single people are a whole other topic for another day). Do we judge people by the health of their relationships or their marital status?

This is a hard conversation to have in a church where marriage is a sacrament, an outward expression of inward grace. Almost all couples that I prepare for marriage name ritual and tradition has the deciding factor behind getting married in a church. A close second is community. So is there a place for common law folks? I’m sure ritual, tradition and community are just as important to them. This conversation strikes at the very heart of marriage and what it means to the church. I find it funny that the Anglican Church in particular spends so much energy in debating the validity of same sex marriage, but yet very little energy in discussing what marriage is.

3. The 2011 census gives us our first real look at the growth of same sex marriage since its legalization in 2005. Understandably, same sex marriage has seen a 181.5% growth since its legalization. But still more same sex couples choose to remain common law, in fact there are more than twice as many common law same sex couples as there are married. So there has been growth but perhaps not as much as we might have expected.

My questions for this one are the same as for common law couples. But I can’t help but wonder if the number of same sex married families would be greater if more churches were willing marry them? Are we keeping same sex couples from the sacramental, ritual, traditional and community aspects of marriage that straight couples seek in church? Don’t get me wrong this is no reason for the church to rush into performing same sex marriages, but it is one more thing for us to think about in our ongoing discussion on the issue.

4. There is no doubt that our societal understanding of family has changed and is changing still. Families are smaller and fewer families have children. The number of lone parent families continues to grow. There are simple step families and complex step families. There are skip-generation families with grandparents raising children without the birth parents present. Then there are boomerang families where older children have returned home to live after living outside the home, and multigenerational families (self explanatory). Also foster families were counted for the first time.

So in the church how do we define family? What do we mean when we say things like “family values”? A phenomenon in local Anglican churches is “family services”, or “family worship”. What do we mean by that? Do we have in mind the wide range of families out there or are we referring to our singular definition of family as a mom, dad, and 2-3 kids? When we advertise our family service are we ready to welcome everyone who would use the term family to describe themselves?

I think the church needs to pay attention to these things and other information that will come from other census reports. One challenge of the church is to always be asking who are we and what we should be doing. Another is to ask who are the people in our pews and in our neighbourhoods, what do they need and what we can do for them.

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