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Father's Day Interview on BBC1

Sunday 18th June 2006

Mary Rhodes interviews the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, for BBC 1's Heaven and Earth show. The programme was broadcast on Sunday 18th June 2006.

A transcript follows:

MARY RHODES: We're talking around Father's Day; what do you believe Archbishop makes a good father?

ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY: First of all, dependability I think- with either parent actually having someone who is dependable, who is reliable, who is there - very little is more important than that. But I actually think Fathers have a duty to try and be exciting as well, to try and open up horizons, to, yes, push the pace in the nicest possible way to get things moving

MR: And how do you feel the relationship is at the moment between fathers and society and parenthood in general and society; do you think it's possible to look at some of the problems in society and say 'It's all the parents' fault'?

ABC: I don't think it's ever all anyone's fault - there are always complicated factors here I think at the moment though, the fact that parents are bringing up children who were plugged into so many different networks; media, advertising and a sort of consumer culture; plugged in from very early on; that makes parenting a lot harder because it means that the influences and the pressures that are coming at children not just the home, not just even the immediate peer group or the school, it's this big kind of economic global world pushing at them, waves coming at them.

MR: So do you think in some ways that parents have lost a great deal of influence over their children because of these external forces?

ABC: I don't think they'll ever lose all the influence but I think there is less than there used to be in that way, definitely, because we do treat children as consumers from very, very early on, as if they were little adults.

MR: What do you think are the main problems facing parents and fathers in particular in society today?

ABC: I think there is this slight sense of not being in control, and parents love being in control and they probably never have been; maybe less than ever; I think though, that there's how shall I put it, a kind of short-termism about our understanding about how human beings work. We don't have very much patience with the idea that to be a human being you've got some growing to do and that needs patience, that needs a stable background, it just needs time. Now, we're not very much in favour, as a culture, of taking time over things, are we? So I think that also makes it harder.

MR: And where do you think society fits into this in terms of the Government, in terms if any kind of legislation that might be brought in to help parents in this increasingly difficult and busy modern society that we live in?

ABC: I don't think that every problem is solved by just providing child care in the abstract; it's perhaps resolved by supporting parents and it's wonderful to have good child care for those who want to or who need to work, but it's not the whole story. Parents actually need active support, which means you know, generous, realistic approaches to maternity and paternity leave for example. It means government playing its part in promoting parenting skills that sort of thing.

MR: Well we've seen just this week, actually, that the government supporting a document being brought out for fathers, but it seems so basic; things like 'Things to do with your children: - take them to the park.' Do we really need that?

ABC: Well, you'd think we wouldn't , but I'm not so sure that we don't. I'm very glad to see that this Fathers Direct document has been welcomed so warmly - I think that Fathers Direct is actually a wonderful organisation that's really focussing on what matters and what helps, but yes, it's like those instructions on tin cans isn't it - 'don't leave open tin cans around where there are babies' and you think 'who needs to be told that', and then you look around and you think 'Well, maybe they do ...'

MR: So how have we got to that state, that actually we do need a document such as that to teach people that they really should take people to the park and have a nice day out?

ABC: I think we've had a few decades of hugely pressurised living for everybody - for people in work and people out of work. I think that we've created an environment in which the pressure's on to succeed, to be on top of your life and children are always going to throw your life off course in some ways. You need time to come to terms with that, just as a person. And maybe people have underrated just what a difference it is to have a child, what a difference it makes. Because it not only upsets your sleep pattern, it upsets your sense of yourself, of who you are, it really makes you a different person. Now if there's any kind of suggestion around that having a child is just getting an accessory of some sort, just someone to cuddle, forget it, it's much more complicated than that.

MR: And do you think we have gone down that route?

ABC: There's just a bit of it, isn't there? In that we sometimes talk about 'the right' to a child. I understand very much where that's coming from - the pain of childless people - and yet when we make it a right there's just that sense that we might be turning a child into a commodity. And that underrates how parenthood changes you as a person.

MR: So how do you get that balance, then, between people who feel that well, it is my right to have a child, and then say, 'Well, actually is it?' How do you deal with that?

ABC: I think we need to go into the education system and look at how children are prepared for parenthood - not for child care, but actually being a parent; the long haul, the changes it makes to you, the changes it'll make to your partner, the changes it'll make to a whole unit over a period and I think, while schools are getting better in some way in teaching practicalities about this, maybe we need just a bit more reflection on the psychological side of it, what difference it will make.

MR: And where does the church fit in to this? What's the church's responsibility as far as parenthood and fatherhood particularly is concerned?

ABC: Of course the image of fatherhood is right at the heart of Christianity; the ultimate 'good father' if you like is the one that we believe in. And we believe that because the god we meet the New Testament is a God totally reliable and very exciting, very much the good father, the good parent. And also the one who doesn't crush or frustrate the growth of children. I think we need to promote that idea of parenthood really as drawing people into life; the creative work of making people. Now the Church as a human network is I think quite good at sharing responsibilities around - at the very crudest, most churches are very god babysitting networks, but there's more than that of course. It's that you can get a model of parenting, a model of human flourishing, you have people who are not your immediate family but more than that, who are alongside who are contributing. You can get a kind of collaborative approach to parenting in a really good Christian community. So that's one thing. I think the other is I think the church just has to be very patient and very available for people. I read somewhere this week that in a survey of schoolchildren, who were asked 'what do you associate with the words 'the church ...' the immediate verb they came up with was 'condemns'. And that's really, really sobering as a condemnation of the church. So none of this should be heard as saying 'there are good families and bad families and we only believe in good ones', we're all bad families as well as good families and we all need that sort of help. The church needs to be available and needs to listen.

MR: Do you think there's enough support available for fathers in particular? 

ABC: Fathers in particular? I'm not sure that there is. And although we're getting a bit better at this, there's a quite a history of not having good robust role models around. I think it's rather good that at the moment, from David Cameron through to David Beckham, we've got quite a lot of good public images of fathers taking their fathering seriously. Now that'll take quite a while to trickle down and trickle through to people because one the biggest problems, especially in deprived communities is this sense of being 'the superfluous young man'. Young women may get pregnant, may not be in long term relationships; young men can feel they're just accidental to the whole process; it's quite a downward spiral so it's good to have good public role models, I think.

MR: So if you think that a lot of the problem as you call it comes from that in perhaps young men feeling disassociated from the whole process, what can be done about that? If you feel that there is this problem, that young men, young fathers are feeling perhaps slightly disassociated from the whole process, what can be done about that?

ABC: I think we can certainly do what we can; in education and in churches and in society at large, to encourage simply stability in relationships. If parenting is going to happen, it's important that there's more than one person involved in it, it's important that background be thoroughly stable and dependable; I just think that we need to go on saying that again and again and say growing up to be a dependable parent to be part of a dependable family, t play a really creative role in somebody else's life and the life of a child - that's actually a huge challenge; a really exciting and creative thing; it's the biggest task to be laid in front of everybody, the biggest compliment you could pay to any human being is to say 'you're trusted to bring another human life to fulfilment.

MR: Archbishop, many thanks.

© Rowan Williams 2006

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