Mark Diebel is Pastor at Christ Episcopal Church in Greenville, New York.
In sum: children of divorce have something important to say to churches. This report challenges some accepted practices and beliefs that have shaped how faith communities have thought about and responded to divorce. I want to focus on two particular practices that shape families and that should also challenge the responses of faith communities: donor conception and adoption. This report is unique in raising donor conception practice to the attention of religious bodies in general, especially in a context of offspring experiences. The Episcopal Church has virtually ignored the subject.
First, I want to point out two ways parent/child relationships are described in the report, one bodily and the other, relationally, through interactions. Julie Rubio develops a body theology. Marriage represents a spiritual bond between parents who become one flesh – with the child as the issue. The report states, “Even more so than in sexual intimacy, in which spouses become one flesh for a short time and then part (even as their feelings of unity may endure), when a child is conceived the child is a one-flesh union of his or her parents that cannot break in two.” The child may experience his or her relationship to both parents on a unitary – bodily – level.
Chris Kiesling discusses attachments between a child and a parent. Attachment is conceived through a series of “interactions” between a parent, usually a mother, and the child, that strengthen the forming of a “bond” – which in turn holds a large meaning (larger than the sum of its parts) for the child, becoming a “representational meaning.” These two views, both arising from historical realities, emphasize different aspects of a child’s more or less conscious sense of relationship to his or her parent(s). Rubio’s is based in conception; Kiesling’s is based on historical interactions, where conception and birth are not discussed. These realities of conception and historical interactions are essential to keep in mind as we turn to donor conception and adoption practices and the role they play in shaping a family.
A next step for work in the spirit of the report would be to ask questions of adoptees and donor conceived – as for children of divorce. Donor conception is a practice in the United States existing since the nineteenth century. It has evolved into a very visible practice in the U.S. I estimate there may be between six and twenty thousand donor conceived adults between the ages of 18 and 45 in the Episcopal Church. With gay and lesbian families growing in the Episcopal Church, there will likely be an increasing number of children who are donor conceived.
Adoption practice, which is ancient, took a curious turn after the first third of the twentieth century. The relinquishment of a child, the history of his or her life prior to adoption and a child’s race quickly became socially irrelevant. Children, in general, were denied the right to question the past in order to process their relinquishment and losses. Likewise, donor conceived children’s losses were denied reality. Work such as Rubio’s and Kiesling’s challenge these views with respect to historical reality. Historical realities like conception and early interactions need to be connected to adoptees and donor conceived persons, each in different ways.
Finally, I want to rework a couple of the recommendations in order to make clear how they might apply to adoptee and donor conceived persons.
The recommendation for Pastors, Youth Ministers and Youth Sponsors, item 5) Adoption and Donor Conception shapes the life story of a person and so should be addressed when writing a confession of faith or discussing a person’s life story. Comment: Pastors and youth leaders in general do not think of the reality that either adoption or donor conception are for the children. The same sort of research found in this report could be helpful in the cases of adoption and donor conception.
The recommendation for Children of Divorce, item 2) The Church cares about you and your family. However, know that the church will not allow your adoption or donor conception define who you are. The church will strive to be a place where you can be defined by faith and not by what happens to you in life. Comment: In the past the church did this by ignoring the real history of particular adoptions and donor conceptions. In the future, the church should do this by consciously affirming historical realities of conception and other historical interactions, and then helping children work in faith towards a more comprehensive identity.
Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? is a unique contribution to bringing the life of children to the fore in discussing faith formation and the role of the church.