Selling marriage short

26 April 2013

A fortnight ago, we recommended ignoring the latest report from the C of E's Faith and Order Group (FAOG), Men and Women in Marriage (Leader comment, 12 April). Subsequent exchanges suggest that others have shared our low opinion of the report, although, in defence, the limited brief given to the group has been pointed out ( Letters, 19 April).

In part, there was a problem of process. A draft appeared before the House of Bishops in December, at a time when the Bishops were exercised by other matters. It returned to the Bishops' standing committee in March, and it was this committee that agreed its publication. It was also where an early date for publication was arranged, partly because of the availability of the Bishop of Coventry, the group's chairman, and partly because of parliamentary manoeuvres over same-sex marriage, which the report was produced to inform. The early release meant that any further work on the report's text by FAOG members was curtailed.

Had there been more time and more scrutiny, the limitations of the report might have been recognised. For, essentially, the report began from the wrong premise. It is true that the institution of marriage is under threat, but from far more serious quarters than the relabelling of faithful same-sex relationships. The Revd Dr Charlotte Methuen, a member of FAOG, has suggested that such relationships might be, in fact, a redemptive force in marriage, in that they subvert "the profound inequalities between men and women which have too often shaped it" (News, 19 April). By taking its cue from the same-sex-marriage debate, and being drawn into tendentious pronouncements about men and women, the report wastes an opportunity to say something positive about marriage in relation to what would once have been termed "living in sin". The authors elevate marriage above other forms of relationship without ever defining it: are couples deemed to be married if they have not passed through what the report calls "the regulation of formalities", for example? It argues that the Church's permitting marriage after divorce has not materially changed its teaching. Yet the prevalence of divorce has done more damage than any other factor to the concept of marital fidelity. Finally, the lack of attention given to relationships before marriage means that the report fails to address the source of the greatest pressure on young people: the severance of sex and commitment.

It is generally unfair to criticise a work for not being something else. We have not dwelt on the sins of commission - the obscure language, the unsupported pronouncements - but in this instance, the sins of omission have created the greatest disappointment. Marriage is a precious element in our society, and it needs a more robust defence.

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