What does the fall in church weddings really mean?

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In 2017, just 23% of couples in England and Wales chose a church or other place of worship for their wedding according to the Office for National Statistics. As a bald figure, the statistic is certainly striking, but what lies behind it?

In common with most social trends, we can be fairly sure that it is the result of multiple factors. There is no single cause, neither is there any one particular magic bullet to reverse the curve. Indeed, it is not even clear that all Christians would necessarily see the change as a negative development.

One possible conclusion might be that couples who seek a church wedding are now much more likely to be doing it out of a sincere commitment to the values being proclaimed, rather than because it is a default option. The "cultural Christianity", which in previous generations led the many families with no interest in regular church-going to seek out the vicar for "hatches, matches and dispatches", is undoubtedly ebbing away. Whether that is a cause for sorrow or rejoicing is hotly debated, and somewhat off topic for this article. For present purposes, it is sufficient to note that cultural Christianity is declining.

The nature and significance of weddings, as well as the social institution of marriage, has also altered beyond recognition in recent decades. In the 1970s, it was still the norm for couples to marry relatively young, usually before they had children and often before they cohabited. It was a rite of passage and also a practical institution, and traditions like "Wedding Lists" enabled friends and family to help the newly-weds get together the things they needed for their first home. The proverbial toasters had a useful function.

Now weddings are frequently seen as an affirmation of commitment after couples have been living together for some years, and it is very common for people to have children before they "feel ready" to get married. In some circles, there is huge social pressure to spend literally thousands of pounds on the occasion, and an increasing expectation of an almost equally expensive hen or stag weekend some weeks or months previously. It is difficult to avoid concluding that at least part of this is about display, and conspicuous consumption.

Arguably, there is a huge disjunction between a Christian understanding of marriage and the prevailing culture. Sometimes this is conscious and ideological; the law recently changed to allow heterosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships.

There are some people who regard "marriage" as being oppressive towards women, exclusionary towards gay people, or otherwise not an institution which they want any part of. Perhaps Christians would do well to look inwards as well as outwards in wondering why this might be so. For instance, it is fairly clear that during the twentieth century, churches at an institutional level could have been better at confronting the evils of domestic violence. Undoubtedly, women in abusive relationships who managed to escape were often stigmatised by society, and some of them felt that the Church played a part in that.

Yet having acknowledged that some people may have principled objections to marriage, and that there may be scope for dialogue about this, especially in terms of how churches have changed their response to some issues, it remains the case that lots of couples simply don't see a marriage in church as a fit for them. Some of this might be practical; they may wish to have a venue which can host the ceremony and reception.

Others might be put off by misconceptions, such as the idea that church weddings are an expensive option, or that the couple must have been baptised (in fact, Establishment in England, and vestiges of Establishment in Wales, mean that people actually have a legal right to be married in an Anglican church, subject to some conscience clauses for clergy around divorce and gender reassignment).

Perhaps the most dangerous myth of all however, is that marriage no longer matters. Cohabitation is now the norm, but it remains the case that: 1) if a relationship breaks down a cohabitee will have no claim to any property or maintenance, regardless of the sacrifices which they made for the partnership whilst it lasted in terms of childcare or career. Common law marriage is as mythical in England and Wales as the unicorn; 2) unmarried fathers do not automatically have parental responsibility for their children (but they may have this by virtue of being registered on the birth certificate, or otherwise acquire it).

Deciding to live with someone, and or have a baby, is a massive, life-changing undertaking. These things should be done with thought, and from a Christian perspective, prayer. Making a conscious commitment at the outset, and ensuring that you are legally protected, is still worthwhile. Perhaps Christians should be concerned about explaining the positives of marriage, and weddings will follow.

Rev Dr Helen Hall is a Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Law School