FOR the diehard advocates of traditional marriage, current statistics paint a bleak picture of relationship trends in Britain . The number of marriages is steadily declining, while the number of couples choosing to cohabit increases exponentially.
The most recent survey from the Office for National Statistics (2007) suggested that the number of couples cohabiting had risen by about 16 per cent over the past two decades, and forecast that it would continue to rise, as the number marriages continued to fall.
Yet, while the Church of England and its clergy struggle to adapt to this new trend in relationships, it seems that their congregations do not. More and more Christians cohabit before marriage, and some older couples — either after a divorce, or when their husband or wife dies — choose not to marry again when they meet someone else.
Calculating the number of cohabiting couples in churches is problematic. As one priest said: “Christians tend to lie about this.” But anecdotal evidence from parish clergy points to a shift in marriage patterns among Christians which is little different from that in the general population.
Nearly 70 per cent of couples now cohabit before they get married — a statistic that demonstrates that, for many people, living together forms a bridge to a more serious commitment.
Is this an example of a creeping moral laxity in the Church, or too high a reverence — even fear — for the institution of marriage?
The policy adviser on marriage and family to the Archbishop’s Council, Sue Burridge, has been involved closely in the Church of England’s wedding project, which seeks to promote churches as wedding venues in the highly competitive weddings market.
“People still aspire to marriage,” she says, “but perhaps put it on too high a pedestal. They aspire, particularly women, to some amazing dream — a Kate Middleton style of wedding.”
AND while they dream of their ultimate wedding, couples cohabit. A study in the United States, in 2009, by Professor Scott Stanley, of the University of Denver, suggests that people “slide” into cohabitation and then get stuck in a less than ideal relationship. Men are more likely to “slide” into living together, while women are more likely to make a conscious decision to cohabit. The study also suggests that cohabitation is an alternative to being single, not an alternative to marriage.
Professor Stanley has spotted a trend towards something he is called cohabi-dating — where living together becomes just part of the dating process.
He says: “Cohabitation is moving toward becoming something that’s part of the dating scene — intense dating, to be sure — and away from something that leads to marriage. Put another way, it’s becoming more part of the dating part of life than the marrying part of life.”
Theologians in the UK, however, say that there is evidence that many couples — particularly if they belong to a church — do think carefully before they move in together. The Revd Duncan Dormor is Dean of Chapel at St John’s College, Cambridge, and author of Just Cohabiting? The Church, sex and getting married.
“For a lot of people who enter into a cohabiting relationship that is committed, marriage is quite clearly on the agenda. This is particularly true of Christians who cohabit. After all, when you move in together and you get a mortgage, it is not very different from getting engaged.”
There is continuing debate whether cohabitation is an alternative, or precursor, to marriage. The statistics suggest the latter, as most cohabiting couples “convert” to marriage. Those who do not have less chance of staying together.
Mr Dormor was a demographer before his ordination; so he knows his statistics. “Marriage is a good indicator of stability. Eighty-two per cent of marriages are still together after ten years, compared with 61 per cent of cohabiting relationships.
“The figures also show that two-thirds of cohabiting relationships converted to marriage. So it is a bridge for people, and it is widespread among Christians, apart perhaps from the sectarian end of the Church. Many couples, particularly clergy and ordinands, hide it because they do not know how the church hierarchy will take it. But there are plenty of cohabiting children of bishops.”
MARRIAGE used to be a very different affair. Our notions of what is traditional — white weddings, no sex before marriage — date back, for the most part, only to Victorian times. It was only in 1754, when the Marriage Act came into force, that a marriage ceremony was compulsory in England and Wales.
Before this, betrothals were often seen as the beginning of a marriage, to be followed later by the nuptials. Sexual relations regularly followed the betrothal, and children born to the betrothed couple were seen as legitimate.
A research professor at the University of Exeter, Dr Adrian Thatcher, said: “When the law changed in the second half of the 18th century, half of the women who came to the altar were pregnant. This obsession with having no sex before marriage is a modern one. It was the Victorians who started to put a monetary value on virginity. Where do you find Jesus saying do not have sex before marriage?”
Like the issue of homosexuality, sex before marriage has become a marker for some conservative Evangelicals, Professor Thatcher says, and becomes overlaid with an importance it simply does not have in the Bible.
“At a [marriage preparation] weekend I went to recently, all bar one of the couples was cohabiting. Even in conservative Evangelical churches there are a substantial number of couples living together, but it isn’t overt. People are made to feel ashamed about it.
“Yet what are they to do? The reasons why people are marrying later are clearly sociological and well documented — factors like compulsory schooling, and the numbers going into higher education, having to pay off student loans, all delay marriage. And later marriages do tend to be more durable.
“So, with later marriages, with all those hormones, and no gift of celibacy, what do we expect young people to do?”
Mr Dormor agrees: “The average age to get married now is 30 for women, and 32 for men. Can we really say to people, ‘We expect you not to have touched anybody of the other sex before the age of 32’?
Why shouldn’t they have done, anyway?”
CLERGY in many churches simply do not address the issue of cohabitation.
Canon Alan Billings is a retired parish priest and the former director of the Centre for Ethics and Religion at Lancaster University. He does discuss the issue from the pulpit, he says, but he is one of only a few.
“We have to be able to talk about cohabitation. I know many young Christians who have cheerfully cohabited, and see no problem with it; and the Church needs to accept this reality. Either the Church is helpful to people, or it makes them feel guilty, or we say: ‘We have nothing to say to you.’”
And cohabitation is not confined to those in their 20s or 30s. Many older Christians, who have been divorced or widowed, are choosing not to marry again when they enter another relationship. Their reasons for doing so are often more complex than the younger generation — it can be a question of finances, and not wanting to complicate matters of inheritance, if there are children, or it can be due to veneration of the first marriage.
“I knew a couple who were the pillars of their church, and held up as a great example of a Christian couple by others, and one day I discovered, through doing some electoral canvassing, that they weren’t married at all,” Canon Billings says.
“We can all get into a frenzy over this kind of thing; there is a difference between the idea and the reality. The Church gets in a bind when it becomes the moral arbiter on these sorts of questions. We need a few bolder bishops to talk openly about it.”
The House of Bishops last raised the issue in a teaching document on marriage, produced in 1999. The document contained a somewhat uneasy acceptance of the rising trend in cohabitation: “The social and emotional steps by which couples come to enter marriage are often complicated, and some finally think about lifelong commitment only when they are already living together.
“This route of approaching marriage is exposed to uncertainties and tensions, and is not to be recommended. But it was not uncommon in earlier periods of history, and the important thing is simply that the point of commitment should be reached.”
THE Church attempted to respond to shifting patterns of relationships by bringing out a new liturgy for marriage with baptism, which recognisedthat, for many couples, the birth of a child made them think of their own commitment to the relationship.
This was attacked by some on the conservative wing of the Church as giving tacit approval to sex outside marriage.
Yet theologians such as Professor Thatcher also criticise the Church for “pastoral neglect, and even incompetence”, for its lack of clear direction to couples who cohabit.
He says: “The Church has to have a theology of marriage rather than assume marriage is the default position. Marriage is no longer the default position of the sexually active. I am strongly in favour of the Church basing its sexual teaching around marriage. We should be teaching the idea of marriage as a covenant, as Rowan Williams says: loving couples loving one another as God loves God.”
Mr Dormor calls on churches to welcome cohabiting couples openly, while still encouraging marriage. “Cohabitation is like getting in at the shallow end of the swimming pool; you may be moving towards the deep end, and you may come to a point where you want to make a public commitment.
“The Church should still promote marriage, but we need to promote it in a way that answers the question, what is the point of marriage? We need to see cohabitation as an expression of love, and need to be realistic about what marriage adds to that.”
The Mothers’ Union, which provides marriage-preparation counselling, says that it has worked hard to ensure that it reflects “faithfully and thoughfully” on relationship issues. It has produced a booklet, We are Created by God: Exploring our identity in relationships, which looks at cohabitation, same-sex relationships, and divorce.
An MU spokesperson said: “This is not designed to tell readers what they should think; rather, to allow them to come to their own conclusions about these issues in the context of their personal faith. The Mothers’ Union promotes marriage as the ideal relationship in which to affirm and support one another, and marriage still provides the best supportive relationship for children and our wider society.
“While we recognise that relationships and families come in many forms . . . and we offer pastoral and practical support to all who seek our help, this is not incompatible with upholding a belief in the ideal of God-given relationships.”
MANY people — particularly politicians — now see marriage largely in terms of what it offers for any children of the union. Governments are happy to say that they support marriage, as the statistics show it offers the most stability for children, and therefore the best social and economic outlook for their future.
Mrs Burridge acknowledges that the welfare of children has become almost the new marriage covenant. “It is hugely important, obviously, but I wouldn’t want to downplay the importance of the marriage relationship as people get older, and [I want to] offer support for that. It is important that that is recognised, too, aside from marriage being the best vehicle for bringing up children.”
The writer Anne Atkins is an outspoken supporter of marriage, and believes that it is best for women as well as for children.
“The questions I’d want to ask in the face of changing morals are: Who is most vulnerable? Whom is the moral protecting? What’s going to be the effect of taking it away? Genesis 3 — the Fall — Bridget Jones, even common sense all tell us women are more likely to be exploited. So what are going to be the respective results, on the two sexes, of removing commitment? Not when you’re at university, but 30 years later?
“And what about the most vulnerable of all? Fair enough: plenty of women choose to risk being abandoned later for a younger model. But no children do. Ever.”
HANNAH, aged 35, married last year. But, like many newly-weds, she and her husband lived together first for 18 months.
She thought long and hard about it beforehand, she says, and did feel a sense of shame when she told some of her friends at church.
“For me, it was a question of geography — he had moved over an hour away for work, and I applied to move, too, and a job came up quicker than I thought. I could have rented on my own near him, but financially it made sense.
“We talked about it a lot beforehand. We knew we wanted to be together, and marriage was on the agenda, though not when. Neither of us wanted to rush things. Being older, I suppose we’d both been hurt in ways in the past, and we wanted to make sure this was really it.”
Some friends from her church home-group did raise an eyebrow when she told them what was happening, she says. “But some had done exactly the same thing themselves before marriage.”
Nine months after moving in together, the couple became engaged. At marriage-preparation classes, the subject of living together came up. “One priest did make us feel uncomfortable about it. I suppose I never left off feeling a bit guilty about it, though it was definitely the right thing for us.
“But the priest who eventually married us was fine about it. He said, ‘That’s modern life,’ and didn’t make us feel bad at all, which was a relief.
“I do think women tend to think harder about moving in together than men, and they probably have more to lose if things go wrong. But it wasn’t a decision we took lightly at all.”