As we approach Father’s Day, the social landscape of families and, in turn, fathers, is changing. According to the Office of National Statistics, families in the UK with a single parent are growing. In 1971 just 8% of families comprised of a single-parent structure, in contrast to 26% of babies born in N.I. in 2016 into that of a single-parent family, with it being higher in Belfast at 41%(1). In 9 out of 10 of these single-parent families the parent is the mother. So the clear majority of children born into this growing number of single-parent families do not have their father present in their home. “Fatherlessness” is rising in Northern Ireland.
A recent Belfast Telegraph article that discussed the growing number of single families in Northern Ireland stated; “In former times the Churches' strong lead on such issues had much more effect… But people are now making up their own minds on such matters.” It is true that the Bible’s structure of a family, being a man and woman in a committed marriage relationship, is what we as a church believe God has designed as the best circumstances for their children to be raised. Yet the biblical understanding of family is so much deeper and richer including wider family networks, the orphan and widow. In fact we worship the God who calls his enemies to become His children. None of this is to criticise single parents, as there are undoubtedly many painful and complex factors that lead to these circumstances, but simply to ask: does a father being present make a difference to the well-being of children? Is it evidenced? And, if this is the case, what are some key questions that we, as the body of Christ, need to ask?
An overview of research literature(2) that has been undertaken on single-parent families undeniably displays that the presence of a father at home in a two-parent family is more beneficial for children. Whilst considering other factors that could influence outcomes for children, it asserted that the evidence demonstrated that a father’s considerable presence in their child’s life is linked to better educational attainment, mental health and behaviour. High father involvement in reading, appropriate disciplining, social activities, etc., is associated with fewer child behaviour problems, lower criminality and lower substance misuse(3). The 2013 report ‘Fractured Families’ (Centre for Social Justice) asserted that their extensive research had “showed that 76% of children and young people in custody had an absent father”(4).
This research demonstrates that a family with both parents’ present is generally the most beneficial environment for a child to grow in. Yet no matter how sensitively we say this, it has become an increasingly controversial statement to make in this current age. As a church, we must prayerfully think about how we engage with these trends. How do we humbly propose this as the ideal situation but recognise that, for growing numbers of parents, they may not have that choice anymore. How do we encourage men, who are absent from our churches in worrying numbers, in their spiritual and practical commitments as husbands and fathers? How do we create space within our churches and homes where families who don’t ‘fit the mould’ feel welcomed and accepted, where we take the time to build relationships and grow in mutual understanding to know how they may be supported? Where single parents, or families with complicated circumstances, are yet affirmed for the incredible jobs that they are doing with the resources available to them.
As we approach Father’s Day, may we as the church celebrate and thank God for the beautiful and wise design of marriage and family and for the valuable role of a father. But may we all ultimately look to God as our Heavenly Father, as the fullest expression of what a father could be to us; whose eyes don’t glance for a second away from His children, and who is always working in love for our good and His glory, the epitome of this being displayed in His giving of His beloved Son to draw us into His eternal family.