A right royal boost for marriage?

Image caption William and Kate might be new to the marriage game, but can we all follow their example?

William and Kate may have chosen to take the plunge, but they're in a dwindling minority. Latest figures show the number of couples tying the knot has reached a historic low.

But with all the pomp and ceremony, could the royal wedding do something to buck that downward trend?

In his Christmas Day speech, the Archbishop of Canterbury said he wanted the royal wedding to make us all think carefully about "why lifelong faithfulness and the mutual surrender of selfishness are such great gifts".

Rowan Williams also said that without marriage "our humanity would be a lot duller and more shallow".

But it seems the horse may already have bolted - marriage rates have declined by a third in the past 30 years and of those who did get hitched in 2008 - the most recent year for which figures are available - two thirds had a non-religious ceremony.

The BBC's religious affairs correspondent Robert Piggott says the Church is understandably worried and hopes the royal wedding can give the institution a boost.

"It wants the ceremony to come across as a model marriage, to inspire those who might be unsure whether to follow suit," he said.

"It also wants it to be a very Anglican event - I think they'll use the old words - that marriage is not something to be 'entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God'."

Prof Roger Trigg, academic director of the Centre for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Oxford University, says he believes the Church hasn't defended marriage enough - and the royal couple do have the opportunity to be its champions.

"The problem, of course, is that people think of Prince Charles and what happened after his wedding. It's all very well setting an example, but they actually have to be a good example.

"They do have a responsibility, a public role, and I think it does have consequences for society if a marriage like that fails. I don't think it did the country any good to see Prince Charles and Diana sniping at each other.

"I think the fact that two young people are committing themselves in public is tremendously important. I don't think you can underestimate that. Marriage is also a serious commitment and I don't think enough people take it seriously - I think it's very important that the royal service has a sense of that seriousness.

"It's also taking place in a church - they're being married in the sight of God and that has more than just a temporary significance. It's not just a contract - like for a car or a house, that you can replace when you want a new one."

At 28 and 29 respectively, William and Kate are slightly younger than the average marrying couple these days - latest figures show the typical first-time bride is 29.9 years old and her groom 32.1.

They have, like many of us commoners, lived together for some time - and it is this thorny issue of people choosing to live together long-term, rather than choosing to marry, that has often exercised the Church.

But Rev Duncan Dormor, dean of St John's College, Cambridge and also a social scientist, says that doesn't necessarily have to be the case.

"If the Church just jumped on the royal wedding band wagon and tried to deliver a very teacherly message about the sanctity of marriage I think that would fail badly.

"But if it used the whole thing as an opportunity for an open, generous, broad conversation about the nature of relationships, commitment, that could be very valuable.

"I think many people considering marriage are looking for some guidance - they want to tap into the tradition of wisdom that the Church has on the subject, but don't know how. Everybody knows relationships are difficult and more now than ever people are pragmatic about marriage, I think there's a real role for the Church to speak into that context."

Rev Dormor also thinks the growth in cohabitation isn't a sign that people are rejecting marriage.

"There are very good reasons why people are cohabiting, but they're not ideological.

"A great many people who live together do want to get married and about two thirds go on to do it eventually - there's a continuity between cohabitation and marriage.

"I think of marriage with a 'big M' and with a 'little m' - the big M being the institution, and the small m being the kind of relationship that we all really want in our lives, whether we're actually married or not.

"These days marriage is a confirmation and a celebration, rather than an initiation as it was then."

Rev Dormor also believes the monarchy still has a symbolic dimension in society and the impact on the national mood of a hopeful and joyous occasion will certainly do the institution of marriage no harm at all.

But does the monarchy really have any influence on ordinary people's lives these days?

Royal historian Hugo Vickers thinks that William and Kate are in some ways quite a normal, even traditional couple - they haven't had children before getting married for example - but equally their status means they could be "a real face of new Britain".

"The Royal Family certainly should be role models and if they're not, I think they lose some of their usefulness, so to speak.

"Unfortunately, during the 80s and 90s things started to go rather wrong. The Queen has always set a supreme example, but the marriages of Prince Charles, Prince Andrew... they didn't.

"I couldn't honestly claim that everyone who sees the wedding is now going to behave completely differently, but some people will - they'll see the commitment and decide to do the same."

Does it matter if marriage is on the wane? Well, the Church certainly thinks so.

A comparison of Census replies found that 82% of those who were married in 1991 were still with their spouse in 2001 - compared with 61% who were cohabiting.

But the Church cites other figures, stating that less than 10% of cohabiting relationships last even to their tenth anniversary, two thirds of first marriages can be expected to last a lifetime.

And perhaps there is some sign of a renewed interest. The Church's Weddings Project website got 242,000 hits in the first 10 months of 2010 - a big increase on the previous year's figure of 139,000.

But Rev Prof David Thompson, a modern church historian at Cambridge University, says the idea of presenting a royal wedding as 'a model of marriage' is something that is really quite novel.

And he says the idea that the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton might actually stem the trend towards cohabitation strikes him as totally unrealistic.

The wedding industry itself has made marriage increasingly unaffordable for many, since peer group pressure has raised expectations of what a wedding involves to fantasy levels.

As far as threats to established institutions are concerned, the media do typically exaggerate their influence on public opinion; but that is presumably necessary for their own self-justification. Rupert Murdoch is against the monarchy, of course, but there is a limit to the extent to which even the Sun could risk its circulation by being too overtly anti-monarchical.

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