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Before you go down the aisle — the growth of marriage prep

by
20 May 2022

Pre-wedding guidance by church groups is now practical, accessible — and no longer embarrassing, Abigail Frymann Rouch finds

Alamy

Marriage-prep banner outside a London church

Marriage-prep banner outside a London church

LOUISA ELLIOTT (not her real name) remembers her marriage preparation — but not in a good way. She and her fiancé visited the vicarage of her mother’s rural parish. It was the 1980s, and the vicar, a man in his sixties, began by telling her and her intended his views on the indissolubility of marriage, “even if he beats you and abuses you, even if the sex is not what you want”, and “even if she nags you incessantly and makes your life a misery”.

She reports: “We staggered back to my mother’s house, and she took one look at our white faces — she knew the vicar — and said, ‘My dears, you need a drink!’ She poured us the most enormous glasses of sherry. (My mother was hardly known to drink.) She said: ‘You don’t have to get married; or you could elope and I’ll give a party for you later.’

“I think I was told [my fiancé] would be the head of the household. . . But I was already the major wage-earner. Some of the stuff he was saying just didn’t make sense in the modern world.”

What is considered a suitable briefing for a couple on the diving-board of marriage has changed over the years, thankfully. These days, using marriage-prep sessions to expound church teaching has softened into the giving of practical advice and providing discussion-starters for the couple’s benefit.

None the less, research suggests that the main providers of marriage prep in the UK are explicitly or quietly Christian, be they parish clergy or authors of publicly available materials. These include the Pre-Marriage Course, which emerged from Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB); and Marriage by Design, from the charity Care for the Family. Even Relate’s marriage prep is carried out by Marriage Care, a Roman Catholic charity headed by a divorced and remarried Methodist, Mark Molden.

Marriage prep has become — whisper it — a success story for the Church.

Two decades of research by the Marriage Foundation (another Christian charity) suggests that more than one third of couples (37 per cent) marrying for the first time undertake some sort of marriage prep. The figure has remained constant since the 1960s.

It can be broken down into 46 per cent of spouses who identified as Christian and 25 per cent of spouses who said they had no religion. In fact, marriage prep has fared better than church weddings, which were had by 70 cent of couples in 1965, but only 21 per cent in 2018.

 

COUPLES marrying in Church of England churches are not required to undergo marriage prep — as they are in many Roman Catholic churches. They are, though, recommended to attend whatever the church offers, which might range from five sessions working through a DVD course, a few evenings at the vicarage, or a weekend workshop with other engaged couples.

The Revd Edward Green

The Pre-Marriage Course and Marriage by Design are available on DVD and online. Research by the Marriage Foundation in 2021 found that conversations with a cleric have been almost entirely replaced by courses and couple-to-couple mentoring. Online courses now account for about one third of all marriage prep.

Canon Sandra Millar, who was, until March, head of the Church of England’s Life Events team, believes that marriage prep should, as a minimum, encourage the couple to reflect on their vows, and how they intend to ensure that their marriage is “lifegiving and lifelong”, to quote the prayer from the Marriage Service.

“‘Prep’ is such an awkward word. . . But taking time to reflect before you get married is still really important,” says Canon Millar, now interim head of Mission and Ministry in Gloucester diocese.

She believes that the best format involves the couple talking to one another, not to strangers. Three pages that she wrote for the C of E website — “The Good Times, The Tough Times, The Special Times” — offer couples ample questions to start reflections about life beyond their wedding day.

The three main courses all cover similar ground, albeit with different emphases and to different depths. HTB’s Pre-Marriage Course (£35 per couple in-person; free online) helps couples to discuss communication, conflict, commitment, prioritising time together, nurturing the sexual relationship, expectations of marriage, relationships with in-laws, and understanding one’s partner.

Couples also have a questionnaire to complete about their relationship, and can meet an older married couple to discuss the results. The questionnaire is based on an inventory devised by the RC archdiocese of Omaha in the United States.

The Revd Nicky and Sila Lee at HTB originally called their course the “Marriage Preparation Course”, but changed it because, Mr Lee says, “we started to get more and more couples who weren’t engaged,” and were possibly “less confident about getting engaged”. About one quarter of couples are merely dating when they begin the course — though some become engaged during it, he says.

The Lees updated the contents of their course shortly before the pandemic to include smartphones and the internet, through which “we can neglect keeping up with the person closest to us,” and porn: “the dangers — how easily you can get addicted . . . how that can affect our sexual relationship.”

Pre-Covid, the course ran three times a year, with 120-160 couples each time. Going online in April 2020 enabled “thousands” of couples to join from elsewhere in the country and around the world. Now, the Lees run three online courses a year to meet the extra demand, in addition to three in-person courses a year. Other clergy can use the Lees’ material, also.

 

ONE of the providers highlighted on the Church of England wedding webpage is Marriage Care. Its Preparing Together course (£175, or a contribution) is designed for couples marrying in a Roman Catholic church, who could include Roman Catholics marrying Anglicans, people of other faiths, or people of no faith. Some RC priests insist that couples undertake some form of marriage prep.

The charity Marriage Care says that, before the pandemic, it provided marriage prep to 35 per cent of the 9000 couples who married in the RC Church each year.

The course contents are similar to that of HTB: communication, problem-solving, managing conflict, marriage vows. The course also discusses marriage as sacrament, and, reflecting the RC Church’s prohibition on the use of artificial birth control, couples are offered a place on a natural family-planning Q&A session.

Alternatively, couples can just choose to work from a questionnaire. In each instance, a facilitator discusses the results with the couple. “Additional content for particular situations is included such as interfaith, cohabiting, and couples with children,” the charity’s head of marriage preparation and enrichment, Fran Watson, says.

The charity says that 90 per cent of couples on the course are already living together, and ten per cent already have children. “We meet couples where they are,” Ms Watson says. “We just want their marriage to be the best it can be.”

The Church of England’s page on marriage prep also lists Marriage by Design (free online), from the charity Care for the Family. It is designed for couples to work through it with a cleric or on their own, and it covers familiar ground in five sessions: communication, commitment, sex, finances, in-laws, and resolving conflict.

Although the charity is Christian, its materials are non-churchy and have been received well by of all faiths and none, the charity says, including a Muslim group in Birmingham.

 

IT IS a characteristic of the marriage-prep community that they are not precious about sharing their materials, Dave Percival, the founder of 2-in-2-1 marriage resources, says. “None of the programmes really see themselves in competition with each other. There’s no rivalry, and most are done by charities.”

Rehana Ismail

Duncan and Janice MacInnes, a retired lay couple, wanted to help marriages after hearing the Lees speak in 2003. The MacInneses use the Marriage By Design materials to create a “Marriage Prep in a Day” workshop, and charge couples £20.

“A lot of young people have never heard of the concept of marriage preparation if they’re marrying in a civil wedding venue,” Mr MacInnes says. He believes that the high number of couples marrying without any preparation is unsatisfactory.

They run five or six day courses a year, and have begun running others on Zoom. They reckon that they have advised about 700 couples over the past decade. Nearly three-quarters of those who sign up describe themselves as Christian, but only one quarter describe themselves as regular worshippers in any faith tradition.

The MacInneses advertise their course online, and attract anyone looking searching for “marriage prep”, including Muslim and Hindu couples. In addition, Mr MacInnes says, “A number of churches in Norfolk and the south-east recommend couples to us. They explain the spiritual side of marriage and give their personal input, then we cover the relationship issues.”

 

REHANA ISMAIL, a retired ophthalmic nurse educator, wants to reduce the divorce rate among Muslims. She wants to develop marriage preparation to challenge the cultural expectations that put pressure on such young couples.

Ms Ismail, who also co-ordinates matchmaking events among Muslims in the UK, noticed an increase in divorcees’ coming to her events. She told her husband: “They do all these wedding preparations — four or five days of wedding gatherings. . . Nobody focuses on the marriage afterwards.

“After the honeymoon, they realise: ‘I’m working, he’s working; who’s going to do the housework? How do we cope with bank accounts?’”

Ms Ismail tried two one-day courses run by Marriage Care, and Zoomed into a Pre-Marriage Course in Kuala Lumpur. (The Lees say their course also runs in mainland China, Latin America, India, Siberia, Mongolia, and in the Middle East.) Then she came across Care for the Family.

The charity’s marriage-support manager, Jess Hills put her in touch with the MacInneses so that she could see the course in action, and Ms Ismail agreed that she was “more comfortable” using material from Marriage by Design.

After a few tweaks (losing references to dating and going to the pub), Ms Ismail is planning a pilot one-day event for ten couples at a mosque in Birmingham, with a view to then promoting the course at mosques around the country.

Mosques “occasionally” offer marriage prep, she says, but, when they do, couples are segregated by gender, and “I really want them together.”

 

IN HER book Seasons of Sex and Intimacy, Emma Waring, a psychosexual therapist, recounts working with couples from “conservative religious families — Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or Sikh”, who had received “constraining” messaging about sex during their upbringing.

Once married, she writes, they can be disappointed to find that their relationship is not instantly full of sexual desire. Some Christians who abstained until marriage and then encounter sexual difficulties conclude that they should have started earlier. Ms Waring believes that church communities should be better at providing support to married couples who are struggling in this area.

The Vicar of All Saints’, Leavesden, near Watford, the Revd Edward Green, agrees that it is important to talk about sex, and particularly the topics of consent and safely. He has known “at least half a dozen Christian marriages that have ended where marital rape was part of the problem”.

Duncan and Janice MacInnes

He says that the first time he mentioned consent during marriage prep he felt nervous. “But one bride immediately said: ‘Thank you for saying this; it happened to a friend of mine.’” He is also concerned about “the pornification of sex”, including the normalisation of sexual violence.

“Contemporary porn that is watched by young people who are moving into the marriage pool frequently involves fantasies of male dominance over women, and a lot of acts are extremely dangerous,” Mr Green says. He recommends that couples use a “traffic-light system” so that they can signal if they are uncomfortable about an activity.

 

THERE is still a long way to go in supporting modern relationships. Dave Percival, of 2-in-2-1 marriage resources, would like to see relationships education more widely available, and funded by the state. He commends the work launched by the Department for Work and Pensions on reducing parental conflict.

One issue rarely mentioned in marriage prep courses is step-families. Care for the Family says that it is working on materials specifically to help with couples who are navigating the creation of “blended families”.

Books fill in the gaps where courses cannot go. One US book, Choosing Us: Marriage and mutual flourishing in a world of difference, addresses inter-ethnic marriage, and is perhaps unique in earning an endorsement from a gay Christian author and speaker, Jeff Chu.

The book, by Gail Song Bantum and Brian Bantum, focuses on the authors’ (heterosexual) marriage, but is aimed at straight and gay couples, and devotes considerable space to challenging traditional assumptions about gender roles.

Covenant, not sex, is given its own chapter; the focus is not on physical intimacy per se, but on the difference the covenantal aspect makes. Although gay couples cannot marry in Church of England churches, Mr Lee says that he and Sila have had two or three gay couples on the pre-marriage course, and five or six on the marriage course. “We never turn couples away,” he says.

The purpose of marriage prep is being re-evaluated. The view persists that it helps prevent marriage breakdown and divorce, and one practitioner quoted “research from the US” that showed that couples who did marriage prep were 30 per cent more likely to be together after five years.

This aspect is challenged by the research director of the Marriage Foundation, Harry Benson, however. He agrees that “there was a link between marriage preparation and divorce rates before 2000, but since 2000 the link’s vanished.

“The reason for that, I’m absolutely certain, is because divorce rates have collapsed so much in the last 20 years. . . We’re now back to the levels we saw in the late 1960s.” He explains: “As societal norms have changed, there’s less pressure to marry; so the people getting married tend to be ‘deciders’ not ‘sliders’”, i.e. people who slide into marriage because of societal expectation.

The enduring value of marriage prep, then, is not that it salvages relationships but that it strengthens them. Couples are encouraged to be open about problem areas that they might otherwise encounter later without the possibility of support. Some even uncover an incompatibility that would have blighted their relationship had they stayed together.

And, although, it is not it primary purpose, marriage prep is seen by practitioners to have a missional dimension. Canon Millar describes it as “a great opportunity for couples to hear the vicar and other church members share something of their own stories, and get to know them, perhaps over coffee and refreshments”.

She also says that offers to pray for a couple are often received gratefully received. “At big moments, people are open to big thoughts and big questions.”

It is for this reason that the Pre-Marriage Course briefly mentions the evangelistic Alpha course, and that the MacInneses want their day courses to be a “great experience” for participants who may never have entered a church.

Ray Humby, the administrator of Engaged Encounter, a Christian-run weekend away for people of all faiths and none who are considering marriage recounts that, during the closing eucharist, “somebody on the other side of the room suddenly said, ‘I’ve just become a Christian!’ I thought, how on earth did that happen?”

Ms Watson says: “We don’t set out to evangelise [but] Marriage Care has sometimes been called ‘the smiling face of the Church’. . . You’re putting down the welcome mat and you’re inviting people in.”

There has clearly been a monumental shift away from the Church’s centuries-old condemnation of premarital sex and illegitimate children. Anecdotal feedback is that couples remember tips years later, and suggests that marriage prep is meeting a need in a welcome and practical way.

Marriage quickly becomes a central and most precious part of a person’s life, on which mental health and other aspects of well-being rely.

To show concern for this aspect of a couple’s life is to also show concern for the family that they could go on — or have already begun — to create. Clergy and course facilitators can model a Church that is accepting, supportive, and empowering, without being intrusive, something it may well want to consider in other contexts.

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