The number of religious weddings in England and Wales has hit the lowest level on record, the latest figures have revealed. According to data from the Office of National Statistics, published last week, there were 60,069 religious marriages in 2016. The figures have fallen by 4.1 per cent from the previous year and by nearly half (48 per cent) from the turn of the millennium.
While religious marriages have declined, civil marriages have become more popular. In 2016, there were three times as many civil wedding ceremonies as there were religious weddings. This has been a long-term trend. In 1900, 85 per cent of all marriages involved some kind of religious ceremony. By the second half of the 1970s this had fallen to 50 per cent. Since the early 1990s, civil marriages have increasingly outnumbered religious marriages. More and more couples see no need for a religious rite of passage.
Not long ago, the non-partisan think tank ResPublica produced a report about changing attitudes to marriage in England. The authors argued that marriage is both “a traditional and radical” institution and listed the many and proven benefits it brings, especially to children brought up in a stable home. “By almost every measure we now know that marriage confers significant if not life changing advantages on children”. However, the report also pointed out that marriage is being eroded, primarily by weaker ideas about what human partnerships mean and involve. The authors saw the loss of religious belief as central to this process of decay: “lacking religion or a more communal understanding, people no longer live by unbreakable ties. Vows become contracts, and long-term commitments become temporary deals”. With no sense of sacred bonds or sacrificial demands, it becomes much harder to build a place of mutual care and a secure base for children. Many religious weddings are more about the venue than the vows, but what is being lost is more than a photo opportunity.
Despite acknowledging epidemics of loneliness and social fragmentation, no political party now publicly articulates much appreciation for marriage and family life. The focus is almost entirely on the individual or the collective. Just this week the Government announced a radical overhaul of divorce laws, which critics claim will lead to “divorce on demand”. A couple of years ago, Lord Glasman suggested that the Government should instead have the courage to take a quite different direction. “I’d like to see us redistribute resources to people who care – for each other, for children,” he told this magazine, “an acknowledgement that this is not easy – to stay together, to care for others, to be faithful and to forgive and rebuild … some generosity for people who make it work and do their duty – that’s what I mean when I say ‘rewarding virtue’.” It can only be hoped this idea will be taken seriously by our political leaders.