Thought for the Day - 30/09/2013 - Clifford Longley
The Government has announced tax breaks for married couples, to signify State support for marriage. But will they work, for instance by persuading more people to marry? They could, but the question is more complicated than it seems and the facts don't all point one way.
A survey by the think tank Civitas a few years ago found that most unmarried people, including those who cohabited, still valued marriage highly and wanted it for themselves, if not now, then eventually. This contradicts the common assumption that society is neatly divided in two - one side in favour of marriage and the other side hostile to it. The number of people in that category is actually quite small.
The survey also found that a wedding ceremony did not create a commitment between two people, but celebrated one that already existed. A high proportion of those who marry are already living together. So though legal marriages are statistically more stable than cohabitation, a wedding does not necessarily make a good relationship better, or cure a bad one.
What we appear to be witnessing is not the abandonment of marriage in favour of a more permissive lifestyle - the public's disapproval of infidelity is actually growing - but the return of a much older pattern. It's known as customary marriage, or what we sometimes term common law marriage. In the Middle Ages, in fact in England until the 18th century, society recognised as properly married in the sight of God, any couple that lived together as man and wife. As you can imagine it became quite chaotic, which is why Church and State eventually stepped in to tidy it all up.
Originally the Church's role was not to create the marriage but to give it God's blessing, to celebrate the reality already created by their commitment - at the heart of which was mutual faithfulness. At the time, Church teaching was that husband and wife administered the sacrament of matrimony to each other. I find that a powerful insight...