The impact of absent fathers - and how the Church can help
Nearly one in three children in Britain are growing up without contact with their father* and the figures are rising year on year. In poorer areas the statistics are likely to be much higher.
Mark Stibbe examines the impact of absent fathers and calls for a change of heart
“I never knew my father. In fact, I have never even known his name. Several months before my twin and I were born, he decided to leave my birth mother and abandoned her to fend for herself. All this put such a burden on my mother that she gave us up for adoption. Having spent the first seven months of our lives in an orphanage, my twin sister and I were adopted into a new family.
It is hard to assess how deep the father wound goes in my life. Even though my relationship with my adoptive father was excellent, there was always a love hunger, or more specifically ‘a father hunger’ in my heart. For decades, this emotional cavity left me with a deep seated sense of abandonment and an intense fear of separation. It has taken me many years to find healing for this great ache in my heart. The journey has been long and arduous and, at times, painful. But in the end I can definitely say it has been infinitely worthwhile.”From The Father You’ve Been Waiting For by Mark Stibbe
A few years ago I was called up for jury service for the first time, at the tender age of 48. My abiding memory of the two cases that my fellow jury members and I had to adjudicate was this. Both of the accused were young males from a local town. Both had been charged with violence and other forms of unruly behaviour. Both had mums in court. But neither of them had dads anywhere in evidence. In the end, both were convicted and, as it turned out, our ‘guilty’ verdicts were vindicated by a long list of antecedents (previous cases of criminal behaviour). Indeed, there was a certain amount of gloating in both juries. People were saying, ‘We got it right’. But I was left asking the question, ‘Where are all the dads?’
A few months later I found myself in the town where the two boys lived. I was at an afternoon tea party in support of a local charity. A lady came to sit next to me who turned out to be the Mayor. We started talking and she asked what I was doing. I replied that I was about to move to her area to begin a charity dedicated to reversing the pandemic of fatherlessness – a charity called The Father’s House. I told her about my jury service and the two fatherless boys from her town. She was immediately engaged and replied with two statements that stuck with me.
First of all she insisted that we meet as soon as I moved so that we could partner in alleviating the great social ill of fatherlessness. The second thing she said was that she had been speaking to her male police officers and they had very recently told her that they now feel that in their dealings with troubled youngsters on the streets, they are performing a role that traditionally belonged to the father of the family. In the great vacuum of fatherlessness, policemen are now often providing both the authority and affection that dads should be showing. But the dads are no longer around. Britain is now fatherless. Indeed, as some public figures are now reminding us, we live in what has been dubbed ‘Broken Britain’, and the absence of fathers is a big reason for our social fragmentation.
Not long ago a prison chaplain decided to offer the 500 male prisoners in his prison the opportunity to say thank you to their mums. Mothering Sunday was approaching and the chaplain thought it would be good to give each prisoner the option of a free Mother’s Day card to sign and send, free of charge, to their mothers. The offer was accepted by every single one of the prisoners.
The chaplaincy team was so encouraged by the response that they started planning for Father’s Day. In May they offered the same 500 prisoners the same option – this time a free card to sign and send to their father, saying thank you. Not one of the prisoners accepted the offer. Not one card was sent.
This poignant story vividly illustrates the point that no one can now run away from. Fatherlessness is responsible for the pathology of most of our social ills, from criminal behaviour to gender confusion. For about a century – certainly since the time of the First World War – there has been a demonic assault against fatherhood in the world. This has created a social disease that is by no means confined to Britain. It is now in fact a global pandemic. Everywhere I travel, from the United States to Uganda, from Sweden to Singapore, the disease is pervasive and spreading. Fathers are becoming an endangered species. Soon they may even be extinct, and the consequences for the world are already devastating.
It is time to acknowledge the sober reality that we are now living in ‘fatherless Britain’. Many people will have their view on why this has happened and what needs to be done to resolve it. One of the best resources politically is the Centre for Social Justice. Ian Duncan Smith and his team have done some sobering work on the breakdown of family and society and are providing resources that highlight the catastrophic results of fatherlessness in the UK. Their report Fractured Families is now available.
Many will have their diagnosis and indeed prognosis to offer. For my part, I believe there needs to be an authentic, prophetic and robust Christian response to this social tragedy. Churches do need to start recognizing the problem and start promoting fatherhood. This needs to happen at a theological and a practical level. In other words, churches need to rediscover the God-image that Jesus came to reveal – a picture so powerfully and timelessly evoked in the parable of the father who had two sons (Luke 15:11-end). This parable is an earthly story illustrating a heavenly reality. It is a story about an outrageously loving dad who goes well beyond the norms of fatherhood in Jesus’ day. This story shows us what God is really like – what I have called, in one of my books,The Father You’ve Been Waiting For. Jesus was born to reveal this Father. He died to connect us with him too – and connect us relationally, intimately and experientially.
From this strong theological foundation, churches then need to start promoting the kind of fatherhood we see in the parable of Luke 15 – a fatherhood that is patient, vigilant, compassionate, active, forgiving, affectionate, intimate, generous, joyful and so on. This means teaching on being a good father. It means praying for fathers. It means running courses on being a good dad. It means helping people outside the church to recognise the vital role that dads have in the well-being not only of every family but also of society as a whole.
None of this is meant in any way to devalue or disdain motherhood, especially single parent motherhood. My twin sister was a single parent mum for a long time, and held down a job and brought up her son (abandoned by his dad). She is a hero in my eyes for doing that, as is every single parent mum in a similar situation. But my sister would say this – that her son needed a dad too. There are some things that a father provides that a mother cannot. And just about every sane and sensible person deep down knows that this is so. It is the way of things. It is how the one whom Jesus taught us to call ‘Our Father’ designed us to live.
Dr Mark Stibbe is the leader of The Father’s House Trust, a charity dedicated to alleviating fatherlessness. He is author of numerous best selling books, including The Father You’ve Been Waiting For and the Father’s Day booklet entitled, The World’s Best Dad. He is married to Alie and they have four children.
Mothers’ Union champions the role of fathers in the faith life of their child. Whether you are living with your child or not, you can play a hugely important role in supporting their emerging spirituality. OurWhat Dads Add page is designed to help you pray with your child, and talk to them about faith and spirituality. You can also order our What Dads Add leaflet.
*figures from Centre for Social Justice 2013