FOR the first time ever, fewer than one quarter of all marriages in England and Wales were religious ceremonies, statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show.
They accounted for 24 per cent of marriages in 2016, falling by nearly a half (48 per cent) from two decades ago. In the same period of time, the number of all marriages fell by 28 per cent.
In 1966, a third of marriages were civil ceremonies. Since 1992, civil marriages have increasingly outnumbered religious marriages every year.
In 2016, only 61 same-sex couples (0.9 per cent) married in religious ceremonies, which remain illegal in the Church of England.
Overall, there was a slight increase in the number of couples getting married — up by 1.7 per cent on 2015 to 249,793 — but rates remain at historical lows. In 1940, 471,000 couples married, and, in 1986, 348,000.
The number of couples who chose to have a civil marriage increased by 3.6 per cent on 2015; the number of those who chose to have a religious ceremony fellby 4.2 per cent.
The age at which people are marrying is increasing as more over-50s get married, pushing up the average. The average age for men was 37.9, and for women 35.5.
Canon Sandra Millar, who heads Church of England work on weddings, said that it was important to ensure that people knew that a church wedding was a possibility. Church House had begun advertising in a leading bridal magazine.
“In a world where there is a lot of choice, the Church needs to be more confident in telling people it’s an option that is open. . . People self-exclude, believing that they must be christened or a regular church attender.”
Young people were “thinking about what kind of wedding they would like”, much earlier than might be realised, she said. “We need to make sure that we talk naturally about this as a possibility.”
In a “much more secular culture”, a church wedding wouldn’t be “appropriate” for some people, she said. “We have to respect that.” Vows were said in the presence of God, “and if you find that too much, we have to respect that.” But there was no “faith statement” in the service, and “lots of people find the sense of placing their story in the context of a much bigger story, and doing something fairly timeless, that has happened for generation after generation, meaningful.”
There was a need to reassure couples that a church wedding wasn’t “impersonal”, she said. Hymns could be chosen, and the popular reading from 1 Corinthians 13 (“Love is patient . . .”) “talks about love, and love is language of weddings and marriage.”
Prayers provided “that sense of being supported in what should be a lifetime commitment”, and there was often someone in the couple’s family “for whom prayer is a special part of the service”.
Research on people who were preparing for marriage suggested that calling that process “something like ‘space to think’” was “really helpful, in giving the couple a chance to think through not just the day, but the whole of life they are living together”.
Clergy should feel encouraged, she suggested: “Where we do it, we know we do a good job.”