D. H. LAWRENCE missed the mark, as he often did, when he wrote in A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “Make marriage in any serious degree unstable, dissoluble, destroy the permanence of marriage, and the Church falls.” Marriage in the 21st century is a far more porous vessel than Lawrence ever envisaged, and yet the Church still stands. The new question is whether, in a foreseeable future, the Church will have anything to do with marriage at all. For more than a decade, fewer marriages have been solemnised in church than elsewhere. Today, the Church of England marries little more than one fifth of all couples.
There are those who regard this trend with mild disappointment, but nothing more. Providing a pretty setting for those who have no investment in Christianity is not a reason to disturb the clergy’s unofficial day off. Before the C of E plunges headlong into a programme to exploit weddings as a mission opportunity, these are voices that it is worth listening to. Any attempt to sell a pre-nuptial package — the preparation course, the teaching DVD — deserves to be met by the hard-nosed consumerist approach that many clergy encounter these days among couples. It has been well argued that, if a church has failed to attract a couple to its services during their everyday lives in the parish, it is unlikely to get very far by pouncing on them when they are looking for a building to make their vows in.
Countering this pessimism are the views of the couples themselves. As we relate (Comment, 29 August; Features), many couples would like to acknowledge God’s presence when they make their vows, curiously prohibited in civil ceremonies. Yes, church weddings look lovely, but there is often an unarticulated desire for the solemnity found inside a church. There is, after all, so very little else that is solemn about a modern wedding. What seems to put couples off a church, though, is the idea that the clergy will be demanding or unwelcoming.
The new Marriage Measure is an attempt to remedy this, at least in part. It is not surprising that the Measure has the look of something composed by a committee. For one thing, it was framed, debated, and revised by the 476-member General Synod, as large a committee as one would ever wish to encounter. For another — and this is something the Synod debates brought out — the Measure attempts to cover a huge range of pastoral situations, personal preferences, geographical anomalies, financial variations, and legal niceties, as well as the odd theological opinion. None the less, even if it does not make getting married in church any simpler, it does make it easier. And by acknowledging the allegiances of parents and grandparents, the Measure goes some way to recognising that a wedding — and a marriage — involves more than just the couple. This is not just a practical observation, it is good pastoral theology.