The church has surrendered on marriage

Today marks the launch of the Church of England’s report on Families and Households. You can download and read the report for yourself here.

Today marks the launch of the Church of England’s report on Families and Households. You can download and read the report for yourself here.

We contributed extensively to the commission and one of our contributions actually makes a highlighted appearance on page 44, without a namecheck.

The relevant section is pages 31-58. Alas the title ‘Celebrating diversity in family life’ says it all. One of the key recommendations is that ‘It is critical to recognise and value all kinds of loving couple relationships’. This is something of a departure from the traditional Christian message that we should love all people regardless. And we should. But that does not mean affirming behaviours that might be harmful or not in our best interests. Love the sinner, not the sin, sort of thing.

In fairness to the authors, marriage gets a good run, in sharp contrast to almost all government policy papers on the family. But it’s how its portrayed that I take exception.

Marriage is damned with faint praise. Yes, most people aspire to it. Yes, most families are married. But marriage was glorified by the Victorians, according to the report, and has now been replaced by other popular structures that are now commonplace and normalised. There are as many bad marriages as good cohabitations. And family change has always been with us. There was even a cohabiting couple in the bible. So we should acknowledge that the way families structure their lives is equally valid and equally good.

This is just wrong. Marriage has always been linked to childbirth. In my PhD research, I found plenty of sources showing that cohabiting was virtually unknown in England at least between 1580 and 1960. Yes people slept together and got pregnant. But they then either aborted the child or got married. Unmarried cohabiting is a new family structure. There is an acknowledgement that birth control changed the game by liberating women from the risk of childbirth. But the language describes liberation from the patriarchal restrictions of marriage rather than a product that removed the link between sex, marriage, cohabiting and children. How we should handle this game-changing revolution better when it has directly led to what are almost certainly the highest levels of family breakdown in history becomes a much more interesting question. It’s a question they don’t even acknowledge.

Alas the report, or at least this key section on families, has nothing to say on the social function of marriage or why states and societies throughout history have regulated marriage in one form or another. The social function of marriage is to bond men to the mothers of their future children. The psychology behind this is deeply compelling. To be fair, the report mentions this in passing because it’s our quote that makes it to page 44. But it is then brushed aside with a switch to the importance of commitment.

Yet there is then no real acknowledgement of how commitment works, or how both the act of marriage and/or cohabitation actively influence it. Nor is there a single mention that I could find – forgive me if I overlooked anything here – on the relative stability and advantage that being married brings compared to not being married. There’s been a sea of literature on this subject and there is still an ongoing lively academic debate on the cause/effect on whether and how premarital cohabitation undermines stability.

In short, this chapter is a capitulation to the times in which we live. It’s a bit like saying everyone smokes and so we should accept and love smokers and smoking as an equally valid choice of how to live our lives.

Marriage doesn’t guarantee success. As a wise Christian once said ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. There will be bad marriages and there will be divorce. And we should love and support lone parents who do a heroic job with one pair of hands. I know and love and accept and support and praise and admire lone parents in my immediate family. But for most that was never the dream. The function of marriage is to reduce the risk of that happening.

We’re kidding ourselves if we fail to engage with the reality of how to stack the odds in favour of making love work, of staying together in a happy relationship, and of giving your children the best chance of the best possible childhood. Love matters, absolutely. Love singles, definitely. But promote and distinguish and prefer marriage as the best way to do family.

Come on church. You can do better.

Harry Benson, Marriage Foundation, 26 April 2023

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