Recent reports state that up to 1 million children have no contact with their fathers. Rev David Shosanya looks at the reasons for this, and argues that the Church should help men renegotiate what it means to be a man and father in the 21st century.
Finding Nemo is a classic Disney film that tells the tale of a father, who relentlessly embarks on a treacherous and demanding journey to find his son, Nemo, who was captured by poachers during a swimming training exercise. Nemo and his father are fishes. But don’t let that deter you; the message of the film is clear: fathers are meant to, and do, look out for their children; nurture, protect, provide and, ultimately, put their lives on the line for them if required to do so.
Sadly, the image of fatherhood portrayed in Finding Nemo – some would assert – is arguably less evident, and not the desired expression of fatherhood that is predominant in British society.
A recent Report*, produced by the influential think tank, The Centre for Social Justice (founded by Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan-Smith) highlighted what can only be described as startling and disturbing trends in the number of children – up to one million in the UK -who have little or no contact with their fathers (or with any other male role model for that matter), and suggests that if the upward trajectory continues, the numbers will rise by a further million by 2015.
The temptation – and even the preferred reaction by some – is to have a knee-jerk reaction, and to paint an apocalyptic picture of the future of families and fathering, by spurting sound bites about everything from the impending and imminent demise of the family; the declining standards in manliness; the disproportionate burdens that are placed on women which, in effect, oppress and exploit them; to the burden such ‘families’ are to the State. These are all realities, which should be considered seriously when confronting such statistics. However, they do not offer the correct lens through which to seek to negotiate the problem and, in fact, can, if we are not careful, lead us up the wrong path in seeking to identify solutions.
My contention is that, if we are to adequately engage with, arrest and reverse the trend in the upward trajectory of absent fathers, we have to address the much deeper problem of the changing role of men and, by extension, the malaise or crisis in male identity. In other words, addressing the issue of fathering, without acknowledging that it is in fact a symptom and manifestation of a larger problem to do with the changing face of masculinity, will be futile. There is not adequate space here to sufficiently explore the multifaceted nature of the problem. However, one doesn’t need to be a genius to recognise that the complexity emerging from the need to renegotiate the parameters of traditionally-ascribed gender characteristics and functions is inevitably fraught with difficulties.
The challenge is either to engage with reality, difficult as it may be, or bury our heads in the sand. The former is necessary, and the latter is frankly not an option. So how can we move forward?
I will suggest three practical things we can do. Firstly, churches must take seriously the need to understand and assist men to wrestle and negotiate with the rapid and constant cultural changes, alongside the consequential impact that redefinition and reorientation of gender roles is having on men and in wider society. While the Bible offers valuable insights into the role of men, we must take seriously the need to locate those insights within specific cultural dynamics. Therefore, ignoring or relegating culture-specific challenges because of our scriptural insights is immature. Maturity demands that we hold the two in tandem.
Secondly, male leaders have the privilege and opportunity to be appropriately transparent about the inner struggles they have to negotiate. This can have the liberative power of freeing men from the unnecessary burden of having to hide behind masks, and creating fictional narratives around which to live their lives. Furthermore, it serves to remove the mythical status that is projected upon those individuals in leadership. This should be coupled with positive exhortations for men to be intentionally involved with and committed to their families.
A word of warning is necessary here. Leaders must exercise appropriate caution in the manner in which they seek to encourage men in public spaces. The danger is that, coupled with the fictional and mystical status that is often projected onto male leaders, exhortations may be viewed by observers as statements of achievement, which lead to unnecessary and unhelpful comparisons domestically and within the church community.
Thirdly, and lastly, being intentional in establishing and resourcing men’s groups can provide much needed support between men, and can further foster a spirit of camaraderie that makes peer accountability possible. In this arena, men can share ‘good practice’ as well as practical resources. The space to relax, chat, connect and possibly ‘sound off’ to other men should not be underestimated!
(* Fractured Families – Why stability matters, June 2013)
Rev David Shosanya is a Regional Minister & Director with the London Baptist Association