It’s about marriage, not weddings

Today marks the start of no-fault divorces. There is no doubt that this makes it much easier for warring couples to divorce and simplifies the system for those looking to get out of their marriages.

Some will certainly welcome this development. No doubt, for those trapped in particulsrly difficult and abusive marriages – the kind that even most stricter Christian folk would agree are legitimate grounds for divorce – this will make it simpler for such people. For others, though many believers may not sympathise with the reasons for their leaving the marriage, it probably will stave off the worst elements of what many have to suffer through the existing system when a marriage is broken.

Nevertheless, as Frank Young states in The Times, marriage is not the political taboo many seem to think it is. He claims:

It is a myth that talking about marriage is politically unpopular. A substantial majority of voters think marriage tends to be the most stable environment for raising children. They even support taxpayer cash being spent on helping married couples.

Marriage is good for society but it needs a rescue plan, The Times, Tuesday 5th April

He goes on:

Marriage should not be a middle-class perk but it often is. The middle classes enthusiastically embrace marriage, with eight in ten top-earning couples likely to get married as a prelude to children. For lower-earning couples, the figure is little more than a quarter.

While poverty has always been with us, this marriage gap has not: it has grown rapidly over recent decades. Later on, family breakdown disproportionately affects poorer children. We might not want to admit it but marriage still matters, and it matters most for children. A recent study found family break-up was the single biggest predictor of mental health problems in teenagers. For younger children the news is little better, with NHS data showing a threefold increase in mental disorders for children under ten who experience parental separation.

One of the issues I suspect is at play is our cultural view of weddings and marriage. I have lost count of the number of people who seem unwilling or, in their views, unable to get married because they do not have the means to do it. What they tend to mean is not that they don’t have the means to get married – which should not really cost any more than the fairly little amount involved in going to the registry office – but that they do not have the means to have a large, lavish wedding in a fancy church, big venue with all the trappings. The poor working class are not able to ape their middle class counterparts so easily in this regard and the casualty is usually marriage itself. And, as a consequence of putting off marriage, the children.

I have written before about why I think the church should get out of the marriage game. Marriage is a communal matter that is not the preserve of Christians but for the whole of society. I do not think marriage is fundamentally a church conern, but a societal one. That is why I think it confuses matters when marriages happen in the church, or the state license ministers to undertake them in their buildings. At such moments, whether they like it or not, the church is acting as a functionary of the state in undertaking marriages. For this reason, I think we should follow something like the French or Dutch model in which everyone must get married in a registry office and, if they want it after the fact, can go to church at a later point for a blessing on their marriage. This underlines the fact that marriage is not determined by the church, but the state and is only recognised when society acknowledges them, not just when the church have decided they are apparent.

That, of course, doesn’t mean the church has no societal role to play. But I think its role is not a legal one, rather it is an exemplary role. I think the church would do well to not buy into the culture of lavish weddings. Instead, it should be counter-cultural on this. Instead of all the fanfare and expense, the church could exemplify simplicity. Imagine what it would say to the world if churches encouraged their members not to save for the ‘most important day of your life’ (which, let’s be honest, though it is significant, it isn’t that) but got married early, at little expense, at the reigstry office.

We have been privileged to conduct a few weddings at Bethel Church. And because my glorious rule has not yet come about, we have to accept that my view of what *should* be the case currently is not and we have to work with where we’re at. But, nonetheless, the weddings we have done have exemplified this to some degree. They have usually been a service at Bethel followed by a small reception at the church itself or in a local restaurant at limited expense. The emphasis was not on the big, blow-out wedding, but on the marriage itself. The desire of the couples – in one case an asylum seeking couple – was to be married. The wedding was a means to the marriage (which is as it should be). The idea of saving and waiting until they were able to have the wedding they might have wanted was just not a consideration.

If we want to see the institution of marriage saved, the church could do a lot worse than emphasising this sort of simplicity.