Report on Day Two (June 3) of the World Congress of Families Regional Congress in London
4 June, 2010
David Eaton of Family Values began the second day of the conference by admitting that the organizers were disappointed by the size of the audience (though the numbers had tipped over the 40 mark since the conference opened), but they were confident that an oak tree would grow from this acorn. After an opening prayer, Eaton asked the audience to take a moment to think about the awful killings that had taken place in the north of England the day before. A disturbed taxi driver had fatally shot 12 people before killing himself. Eaton pointed out that the man had been divorced, and surmised that the horrific events must have had their roots in family breakdown. And with that, day two was underway.
The first session on The Influence of Media on the Family was opened by Andres Hernandez O’Hagan, wearing bright yellow trousers, a large red bowtie and a bowler hat. O’Hagan is a Mexican magician. His presentation, part interactive magic show, part PowerPoint gimmickry, concerned the dangers of addiction to pornography, reprising a topic from the previous day. O’Hagan has developed his routine for young people, so his performance in this instance was more of a demonstration for an approving older audience. The thrust was that pornography corrupts young people’s minds and harms their relationships, and the solution is for young men to recover chivalry and young women to recover modesty.
Next to speak was Amy King, who talked about her Front Page Campaign to protect children from the sight of indecent newspapers and magazines on display in newsagents, book stores and so on. She explained that she had started the campaign after her own complaints to store staff and managers were not taken seriously, and neither the police nor trading standards officers were willing to take responsibility. King had succeeded in getting a few particular stores to display the offending material more discreetly, but was looking for more support to get the major chains to take action. Vivienne Pattison of Media Watch revealed that she had got further with her campaign to protect children from sex and violence on TV. She had arranged meetings with representatives of the new UK government to talk about getting broadcasters to make it harder for children to use online facilities like the BBC’s iPlayer to view adult programs originally screened after the 9 p.m. watershed.
Members of the audience asked whether the focus on protecting children is too limited, suggesting Christians ought to speak out against pornography and sexually explicit material for adults too. There was sympathy for this, but also a consensus that you have to start with what’s realistic.
The next session was on Family and Marriage and opened with a presentation by James Parker, who runs the EnCourage program for Christians “struggling” with same sex attraction. He spoke in particular about his Catholic Men’s Network (you apparently don’t have to be Catholic to join, but you do have to be a man), as his argument is that same sex attraction is less about sex than confused gender identity. In fact he spoke very little about morality in religious terms, instead offering a psychological account of how homosexuality is grounded in childhood trauma. While no doubt offensive to liberal sensibilities, Parker’s argument was tempered by an insistence that everybody deserves respect, regardless of sexual orientation or even activity. Moreover, while rejecting the idea that gay people are born that way, Parker cutely presented his as a “prochoice” position.
One member of the audience, Farooq Hassan, who had spoken yesterday, objected to this presentation, asking what it had to do with marriage, but others were satisfied that Parker’s message had been suitably conservative. He’d made it clear that the right choice is heterosexual marriage, after all.
While Parker is a charismatic speaker, the same cannot be said of Stephen Green, who began his talk by warning that our civilization is dying. Green is the voice of the UK’s Christian Voice, and that voice is a shrill voice. He argued that Britain will be taken over by Muslims in 30 years, because they still like children; he later mumbled an embarrassed acknowledgement of the Muslims in the room as he wielded a Christian Voice pamphlet against Islam. Green then boasted he had recently protested against the first ever UK TV advertisement for abortion services on Channel 4, by writing to the station bosses at their home addresses. But having recently married a Kenyan, he is also devoting considerable energy to protecting the religious culture of Kenya, where “righteousness is still exalted.” As well as opposing proposed legislation that would legalize abortion in that country, Green made a point of defending the notorious recent anti-sodomy legislation in Uganda.
The next speaker was Edmund Adamus from the Catholic Diocese of Westminster, who returned to the theme of the session by talking about the importance of marriage preparation. This means an active advance effort on the part of the church to ensure marriages succeed. Adamus was adamant that marriage preparation is not an option, and must be obligatory. And a couple of evenings or a weekend are not enough: We’re talking six-week courses. When it comes to teaching couples about fertility, Adamus said the emphasis has to be on the idea of fertility as a gift. But apart from the obvious injunctions against abortion and contraception, he hinted that the church can give young couples natural birth control tips they’d never get from secular sex education.
The final two sessions, on The Education of our Family and Strengthening the Family, confirmed the growing sense that this was a counter-cultural gathering. While opposition to sex education was couched in terms of parents resisting state encroachments, there were also frequent references to the decadence of Western or specifically British culture in general, presumably including non-Christian parents. Theresa Okafor spoke about the healthier attitude to family life in Africa, another regular theme over the two days. Lacking numbers in the West, the World Congress of Families clearly hopes Africa and the Islamic world can lend weight to conservative arguments in the West.
Matthew Nichols went for a more straightforward appeal to logic, arguing that young people in the West just have to be shown that love is better than lust, but you still get to have sex. He cited surveys apparently showing that the best sex is had by married couples rather than philandering celebrities, and concluded that young people’s desire for great sex can be used as an argument for family values. He seemed convinced anyway.
John Smeaton, director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, was very angry about sex education, and suggested that developments in Britain now threaten to fulfill Pope Paul VI’s worst fears, expressed in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, about the abuse of birth control by public authorities. Worse, he said, the Catholic Education Service itself endorsed the previous government’s proposals for even more explicit sex education lessons including homosexuality, abortion and contraception, and it is almost impossible for parents to withdraw their children from sex education even in Catholic schools. Smeaton went on to unfavorably compare Vincent Nichols, the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, with former schools secretary Ed Balls and King Herod, because of his apparent acceptance of sex education. Who knew?
Christine Vollmer and Louise Kirk have developed an alternative PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) curriculum for Catholics and others who feel that secular sex education is corrosive of their religious values. Kirk explained the thinking behind Alive to the World, insisting that children do need sex education, but with proper respect for values. Even children from the best families will be exposed to the wider world, she noted, and good general education about sex and values would ensure they have “a clean pool to swim in.” Whereas secular sex education is focused on tackling issues, whether sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy or sexual bullying, this curriculum educates children towards an image of how to live, focusing on things like friendship and loyalty rather than beginning with sex itself.
Overall, the two days of the conference revealed not so much a movement for family values as a ramshackle collection of individuals, mostly well-intentioned, and some with reasonable concerns and sensible ideas, but some downright cranky, and all inward-looking and defensive. Unlike most people in the West, Christian or otherwise, they are resolutely opposed to abortion, to (artificial) contraception, and to homosexuality (a bit more quietly). Otherwise, what exactly is meant by family values, and how they sit with other cherished ideas like freedom and choice, is far from certain.