Thursday, 7 February 2013

Some Notes on Modern Marriage and the Church's Role

I have been asked to lead a session during our Episcopal Area Study Day on 'evangelism and marriage'. The theme of the day is 'Evangelism Without Tears' and very encouragingly over 250 people have signed up for it. Below are my notes.


Making Marriage Matter
1.         Introduction
Consider the following statement about marriage, put forward in an official Anglican report on evangelism:
Marriage presents the parish priest with, perhaps, the greatest evangelistic opportunity of all. [...] We would emphasize that no preparation for marriage is adequate which does not appeal for decision for Christ, as the only sound foundation for married life. [Note 1]
But things are different now. According to the same report, the opportunity is so great because:
As at no other time in their lives, those who are about to embark on the adventure of uniting their personalities “as joint heirs of the grace of life,” and of setting up a home for themselves, are moved to listen to the claims of Christ and to yield their hearts to His obedience.
We must think about what is different now from 1945, particularly as suggested by the assumptions in the above sentence.
2.         Modern Marriage and the Church’s Role
In 2006, the Church of England commissioned some official research on modern marriage from market researchers Henley Centre and HeadlightVision. This looked into why couples choose to marry in church and put forward some suggestions as to how the Church of England might respond as one amongst several ‘players’ in the marriage ‘marketplace’. [Note 2]
The authors observed:
            1.         We believe that there is ‘space’ within contemporary society for the Church to talk positively about marriage
            2.         There is a need for clear, coherent and unapologetic communication about what the Church does in fact stand for in relation to marriage
            3.         There is a need for the Church to make explicit the implicit understandings within the Church about who is entitled to a church wedding, and to actively reassure couples that the Church is happy to marry them
            4.         Couples have different expectations of a church wedding experience, and it is important that clergy are aware of these and communications tailored accordingly where possible
            5.         The personal dimension of a church wedding is a huge potential draw which the Church should emphasise
            6.         Couples preparing for marriage and planning a wedding have many anxieties that the Church could look to at least partially alleviate (Kasriel, 3-4)
3.         Marriage — What’s the Difference?
In 1945, getting married involved undertaking several major transitions at once: leaving home, setting up in your own place, moving in with someone, having a legitimate sex-life within which to have legitimate children, etc.
For some decades this has not been the case. In 1960, according to figures from the US Census Bureau published in 2002, over 60% of men had completed five key milestones (completing school, leaving home, becoming financially dependent, marrying and having a child) by the time they were thirty. In 2000, that figure had dropped to about 27%.
People do not get married now for the reasons they got married in 1945. The shift in sexual behaviours in particular is highly significant. TTCE deplored the fact that,
The “double standard of morality” for men and women ... no longer obtains. Instead, owing to the immunity which contraceptives and prophylactives [sic] promise, the “man’s standard” is increasingly being adopted by both sexes. (TTCE, para 7)
            Kasriel and Goodacre note, 
In 1990 the mean number of sexual partners in a lifetime was 3.7 for women and 8.6 for men, whereas in 2000 the figure had risen to 6.5 for women and 12.7 for men. (11, quoted from ‘The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles’, 2000)
Interestingly an awareness that they might be judged as ‘living in sin’ is one factor in people deciding against a church wedding (Kasriel, 35).
4.         Why Marry?
Kasriel and Goodacre identify the primary motivation for marriage as ‘usually a couple’s desire to feel more committed to one another by making a public, lifelong commitment.’ (16)
This is, incidentally, important in helping us understand the current debate on ‘same-sex marriage’. In modern terms marriage is all about a public expression of love and commitment.
We need to see, therefore, that the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of marriage is not a matter of a radical change in lifestyle but of a declaration, thus making the wedding the key event. Kasriel and Goodacre note ‘a growing disconnect between the marriage ceremony and the marriage itself” (23).
Significantly, according to Kasriel and Goodacre ‘getting married’ is seen as a more significant social marker of commitment than starting a family, which actually comes third after moving in together!
The normal pattern of a modern relationship is thus:
Meet ➔ ‘Go Out’ ➔ Have Sex ➔ Move In ➔Commitment’ ➔ maybe Engagement ➔ eventually Marriage
5.         Where Does the Church Fit in?
Yet a remarkable percentage of couples want to get married in Church: 53% of the population think church weddings feel ‘more proper’ (Kasriel, p29) and in couples planning a church wedding, 56% state that their own or their partner’s religion was an important factor.
In other words, it is not just about the venue, although it would be naive to suggest the venue makes no difference.
Couples fear the interview with the ‘vicar’, which may be perceived as a ‘grilling’, but can be pleasantly surprised. A good relationship with the vicar can ‘make the day’, but it has to be genuine and personal. Modern and not too stiff, ‘approachable but not too matey’, are perceived as good (Kasriel 32).
Marriage preparation is also appreciated: ‘36% of those getting married in church say the sessions offered by the church were an important part of their decision’ (Kasriel 31), though the prospect of this can also be off-putting. Much depends, once again, on the relationship with the minister.
According to Kasriel and Goodacre, men particularly were found to appreciate preparation sessions, not least as a ‘check’ that they are doing the right thing:
Rather than simply being commitment-phobes as the stereotype would have us believe, men are often more likely than women to think about the meaning and the significance of the marriage commitment, and are less willing to rush to this stage. (Kasriel, 16)
Marriage preparation thus offers an opportunity for the Church to be involved in a way that many couples appreciate. (In our benefice we have been using the ‘Prepare Enrich’ programme [Note 3] for which I am also about to take the training course.)
6.         Marriage and Evangelism
But what of the earlier statement, ‘We would emphasize that no preparation for marriage is adequate which does not appeal for decision for Christ’? Is this also possible?
Kasriel and Goodacre offer a number of observations in their Recommendations:
It is absolutely reasonable for the Church to have a strong view on marriage, and to firmly hold to its values; people are in fact counting on the Church to do so. [...]
... it is vital that the institution recognises the importance of clear, coherent and unapologetic communication about what the Church does in fact stand for. It is absolutely vital for many couples that the Church continues to take marriage as seriously as it does, and to continue to emphasise that the wedding is primarily about the marriage commitment. [...] (Kasriel, 40)
Finally, the challenging nature of contemporary meanings of marriage and weddings mean that couples preparing for marriage and planning a wedding have many anxieties that the Church could at least partially alleviate. For example, the Church could help couples to understand and overcome the tension between individualism vs a desire for security within their relationship ...
... it could provide particular support for men helping them to overcome fears about the seriousness of the decision ... (Kasriel, 41)
But what is the gospel for couples getting married?
Marriage is ‘an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of mans innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church’ (Book of Common Prayer). The trouble is, we expect this to be accomplished by two sinners living together in close proximity.
The problem is particularly acute where the Church is approached by those who have been divorced and now wish to remarry. Jesus words (eg Matt 19:1-12) must be taken with full seriousness, indeed they underlie the Church’s unique, and apparently valued, view of marriage. But we are in a different situation to 1945, when TTCE could deplore the fact that,
In the past 30 years the number of divorces has risen from upwards of 500 a year to approximately 12,250 in 1944. (para 7) [Note 4]
According to the Office of National Statistics, there were 119,589 divorces in England and Wales in 2010. [Note 5] Indeed, these divorce statistics themselves suggest just how much marriage is in need of the gospel:
22 per cent of marriages in 1970 had ended in divorce by the 15th wedding anniversary, whereas 33 per cent of marriages in 1995 had ended after the same period of time. [Note 6]
Despite, therefore, the widespread acceptance of cohabitation before marriage and the general agreement, even amongst the younger generation, that marriage is an expression of commitment, divorce is widespread, and although people are marrying older, they are also divorcing older.
Contra what was said in 1945, it may well be that marriage is no longer the best time at which to engage people with the challenges, demands and promises of the gospel. But we must nevertheless ask with absolute seriousness what the gospel is for marriage and how we may convey it, not just at the point of the wedding, but before and after.

1. Towards the Conversion of England (The Press and Publications Board of the Church Assembly, 1945) para 97.

2. Tamar Kasriel and Rachel Goodacre, Understanding Marriage, Weddings and Church Weddings: An Exploration of the Modern Day Wedding Market Among Couples (Henley Centre HeadlightVision, 2007)


4. The actual figure for England and Wales was 12,312. It peaked at 60,254 in 1947 but thereafter dropped back to 30,870 by 1950, not rising greatly again until 1965. The 1947 figure was only surpassed in 1971. (Source: The Office of National Statistics,



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  1. Deep down couples are looking for something different with a Church wedding.

    They want it to last.

    But most when pressed do not think it will.

    And they are right.

    You are quite right John, the Church needs to say what the Bible has to say about marriage and the message is very countercultural

    Husbands loving wives and wives honouring husbands.

    Not at all fashionable…. Or is it? The “partner” model of I will meet your needs if you meet mine has not worked. I think that people can see that.

    Attitudes are changing especially in the US

    And this film should be required viewing for all those considering marriage.

    Really powerful


  2. Why do you see marriage as something ‘that needs the Gospel’? Let’s remember the Gospel actually says it’s better not to marry – this is the advice of St Paul and a mitigated teaching of Jesus. Let’s also remember that the notion of marriage being a union of love is similarly a fairly modern concept; as is the role of the church to marry people. Marriage, in many cultures, including our own, has been seen as a solemnising of a legal contract – in Puritan England, during the theocratic dictatorship of Cromwell, marriage wasn’t even allowed in churches – it was seen as the business of the magistrate.

    And get your history right, ‘In 1945, getting married involved undertaking several major transitions at once: leaving home, setting up in your own place, moving in with someone, having a legitimate sex-life within which to have legitimate children, etc.’

    In 1945 getting married often meant living with your in-laws, sometimes for years – as there was a massive housing shortage at the end of the war! And what is the craving after yet another past that didn’t exist? ‘a legitimate sex-life within which to have legitimate children’ – conceptions before marriage were common and it would be interesting to look at the STD rate at the time – esp. of men being demobilised after combat.

    Stop preaching this belief that somehow the past was better than the present. There is very little evidence for this, except, people were better at keeping the 11th commandment.

    Here’s a little exercise for you – have a look back at your own family tree – look at birthdays of first children of a marriage and marriage dates and it is likely you’ll find (as much of the research on parish registers shows) that several of your antecedents had sex before marriage – and it is not uncommon to find the odd illegitimate birth even in the most ‘respectable’ of families.

    I am not saying you might not have a few good points in the above – and I am a firm believer in marriage, but please listen to scripture:

    ‘Do not say, "Why were the old days better than these?" For it is not wise to ask such questions.’ Ecclesiastes 7:10

    And as for the belief ‘the Church could [help]’ – I think great care is needed here – first of all few Anglican priests are skilled in this area and I think setting the ‘Church’ up as an authority on relationships is a case of inviting the retort: ‘'Physician, heal yourself!... Given it itself is riven with strive, division and discord.

    That said, I think couples do need preparation for marriage – as long as it isn’t too preachy, holier than thou and pretending to be omniscient.

  3. It's amazing how many threads on here have had to be shut down because of people insulting each other. Why don't you all agree on disestablishment and then you can go and insult each other on a full time basis, rather than in breaks between spiritually oppressing the English people.

    Tom Paine

  4. Tom, I assume your irony is deliberate! BTW did you know a famous English radical had the same name as you?

  5. John, is there a way to PM you directly? When I clicked on your profile, it took me to Google+ which I don't really have the inclination to join.
    There is a ministry vacancy for an evangelical Anglican minister for our congregation in the Middle East, and I would like your advice as to publicising it among evangelicals in the UK, but the discussion would be better done privately.
    Best wishes,
    Andrew Reid

  6. Hi Andrew. If you look to the right, just below the Sitemeter stuff, there's an email link. Or phone! +441279851962