THE former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams has said that,
while modern marriage has lost most of its connection to
Christianity, there is still plenty to celebrate in society's
attitude to relationships.
Speaking at a discussion on marriage hosted by the law firm
Winckworth Sherwood last week, Lord Williams said that Christians
should not use the law to make marriage more Christian or promote
the institution, but only to protect those within marriages.
"There is no point in expecting the law to fight theological
battles on our behalf," he said. "[But] the cultural strength of
the desire for public acts of commitment hasn't changed. Whatever
you think about gay marriage, it is significant that public
commitment is what people most want to affirm in existing
relationships." Recounting a conversation with a gay friend, Lord
Williams said that it seemed that what gay people wanted from
marriage which they did not have with civil partnerships was this
public act of commitment.
Despite much negative comment from Christians on declining
numbers of marriages and rising divorce rates, Lord Williams said
that the situation was not as bleak as some imagined. "It's still
just about true that the majority of children are born within
marriage," he said. "People want their relationships to be more
than just casual and private."
The discussion, "Marriage: Love or Law?", also heard
that just 58 per cent of marriages today ended with the death of
one spouse rather than divorce.
Lord Williams criticised what he called the "marketisation" of
modern marriage, which, he argued, was "an aspect of the short-term
and emotionally unintelligent time we live in". He also attacked
the unrealistic romanticising of the idea of marriage: "The perfect
relationships crystallised in the perfect wedding day - the massive
fantastical experience which you go through on your wedding day and
which is never quite so good again. We need to look critically at
the romantic influence on marriage, especially the marketisation of
the experience of marriage."
The debate also featured contributions from the psychotherapist
Philippa Perry, the writer and campaigner Melissa Benn, and
Professor Rebecca Probert from Warwick University. Professor
Probert told the event, at Winckworth Sherwood's offices in London,
that the most significant shift in marriage in the past 60 years
had been the huge increase in cohabitation.
"In 2011, 78 per cent of couples marrying religiously gave the
same address when getting married," which implied they had lived
together before getting married, she said. She also discussed the
"common-law marriage" myth, in which people who were co-habiting
believed they had comparable legal rights and protections to those
who were actually married.
A survey released last week by Co-operative Legal Services found
that one third of people wrongly believed that those who lived
together had the same financial rights as married couples. The poll
also suggested that just one in four unmarried couples living
together saw cohabitation as a step towards marriage in the future.
One fifth said that they had moved in together to reduce living
costs. The total number of cohabiting couples has more than doubled
since 1996 to almost six million.
Lord Williams, who has been married for 32 years, also
criticised the rise in the use of pre-nuptial agreements. "If
relationships need to be governed by contract, we may find we have
problems in the relational and ethical register arising from that,"
he said. After the discussion, a number of questions from the
audience, which included several family lawyers, centred on divorce
settlements and pre-nuptial agreements.
But the real challenges to lifelong marriages came elsewhere,
Lord Williams suggested. He referred to changing working patterns,
longer life expectancy, and the "marginalisation of young men" in
modern culture as possible factors.