Demos Daily: Giving marriage back to the people

Rituals form the threads of our society: they order and punctuate our lives, from birth to death, and help to give them meaning.  They bind us together, creating pinpoints of shared experiences and understanding. Rituals also provide comfort in times of uncertainty, familiarity when there is little stability elsewhere.

The current crisis has seen our rituals shift and evolve.  Some have endured – from the churches live streaming services to the Friday night drinks shifted to Skype. Some have had to be temporarily suspended – the thousands of couples planning weddings in the next few months have had no choice but to postpone. The prohibition of integral rituals has been the wake up call many needed to take coronavirus measures seriously.

Yet there was a time where marriage seemed to be failing to keep pace with the times. Back in 1997, Demos put together a set of radical suggestions to reboot the institution, from allowing weddings in supermarkets to scrapping the ‘til death do us part’ for a more realistic timeframe. 

Read Helen Wilkinson’s proposal to give marriage back to the people below, and the full report here.

The Proposal: giving marriage back to the people

What lessons can we draw for marriage in Britain in the 1990s? The main lesson to be learnt from history and from overseas experience is that if the institution of marriage is to be revitalised, and given a new lease of life and new energy, it must be put in the hands of the people for whom it exists – the couples who wish to make commitments to each other, and who wish to choose their own rituals – but in the context of a legal framework. Below I set out some of the guiding principles for marriage in the next century before drawing out the specific policy implications.

Separating church and state

The first principle is that church and state should be separated and all ceremonial privileges to all other religious denominations removed. All religious representatives should be licensed by the state in order to be legally authorised to marry people. The distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘civil’ marriage will thus be removed. People would be able to choose a ceremony that reflects their own belief system, including both religious and secular elements if they want.

Extending marriage

The second principle is that society has an interest in encouraging couples to make commitments to one another through the life course. Couples who wish to marry – including same sex couples – should be free to do so and to make a legal commitment to one another.

Putting the couple in control

The third principle is that the wishes of the couple who marry are all-important. This is why we need a comprehensive deregulation of the rules and regulations concerning the marriage ceremony allowing freedom of choice of celebrant, place and time and vows. This is an important recognition of the multi-faith, multi-ethnic society that we have become. A basic legal framework for such an approach already exists in Australia which provides a useful template for UK reform. But as we make clear, we favour an even broader democratisation than that offered in Australia as a whole. How might this be done?

A new framework for marriage

To achieve these principles, and a new model of marriage, we need:

  • legislation to require that all religious representatives who are currently exempt from any licensing requirements to perform marriages (such as Church of England ministers), must be licensed as celebrants by the state.
  • legislation to extend the rights and responsibilities of marital status to all same sex couples over the age of eighteen, or over sixteen (subject to parental consent).
  • legislation to establish a uniform state licensing system whereby a range of celebrants, including people with no previous experience, are authorised to solemnise and officiate over the marriage ceremony. A detailed appendix at the end of this report sets out the key policy implications of this step and spells out how it might work in practice.

A new culture of marriage and new forms

These new policy frameworks would underpin a changed culture of marriage: based on choice, personalisation, and making an ancient ritual relevant, modern and meaningful. By encouraging people to write their own vows, and devise their own ceremonies, communication within relationships is emphasised, encouraging the broader shift towards developing the life skills and interpersonal skills that are so invaluable in negotiating successful and durable marriages today.

So what sort of marriages would result from these changes? Part of the virtue of encouraging innovation is that it is impossible to predict precisely what might happen. But extrapolating from some of the value shifts and trends I have detailed in this report, we should expect to see:

  • imaginative and creative uses of different places for marriage ceremonies – everything from supermarkets to nightclubs, from planes to hilltops, from ancient burial sites to churches, from restaurants to people’s own homes, from street ceremonies even to cemeteries.
  • inventive forms of rituals which allow people to blend the secular with the religious, and the marriage ceremony with other rituals – from family covenant pacts where individuals commit to love and support each member of the family through to birth-naming ceremonies for newborns. Perhaps too, we will see family commitment ceremonies (especially for blended families and children of cohabiting couples), family welcoming ceremonies (for blended families and particularly for involving and welcoming step-parents), renewal of vows ceremonies with friends and family (for people who have already married but who wish to reaffirm their vows), betrothal ceremonies (for friends who have decided to ‘live together for a year and one day’), and even divorce rituals with former partners.

We are also likely to see a flowering of innovations with a shift to inter-faith rituals and multi cultural ceremonies which capture the diversity of our society today, and actively celebrate it. All of these rituals could complement the marriage ceremony itself, reinforcing the message that marriage is fundamentally a social institution, and one which has consistently adapted to take account of people’s changing needs.

  • But perhaps the most important culture shift that we are edging uncertainly towards is the recognition that the institution of marriage cannot be rebuilt if people continue to make commitments they cannot sustain. In turn, this may lead to a recognition by some people that they cannot commit to lifelong marriage, but do feel they can commit for a specific time period at the end of which they can renew and renegotiate their marriage vows.

Individuals and couples who do not have children may wish to experiment with time-limited marriages, perhaps typically for ten years. These would explicitly reject the idea of marriage as indissoluble but would emphasise the importance of renewing, reaffirming and even renegotiating marriage vows in recognition of the fact that over the course of a lifetime, people are bound to change. However, serial marriage would be encouraged. So too, some may feel the need to combine personal vows with personalised marriage contracts.

For many people, this may well seem like a step too far on a downward spiral of moral relativism from which we will never recover. Others will see it as introducing ‘two tier’ marriage – a distinction between lifelong marriage and conditional marriage – each of which undermines the validity of the other. But ponder these rather important facts. Seventy-five per cent of divorced men and women say that the problems which led to divorce began in the first five years. The number of children under five whose parents divorce has increased by 65 per cent since 1977 and perhaps most important of all, in 1993 almost half of all divorces were granted to people who had not reached their tenth wedding anniversary.

In this context alone, a successful ten year marital commitment would be more than many people are managing to achieve already and it sets the tone for open, honest and realistic communication in relationships, and for more responsible commitments.

  • The issue of commitment and renegotiation throughout life is key. And in my view, it should involve not just the couple themselves but also the celebrant. The celebrant is someone to turn to in times of need. For some people, the celebrant will be a best friend, or a godparent or family member. Others will have opted for professional celebrants. But in each case, the couple will have chosen them with care because hopefully the celebrant is someone who commits not just to helping the couple before and on the wedding day, but to helping them negotiate difficult times or adapt to change in the future. Thus, celebrants – friends or professionals – should be equipped to know how to help or how to find help for couples in times of difficulties.

At a minimum, they could act as the couple’s interface with a range of support services to aid and continue the process of communication and negotiation which the act of personalising and designing your own marriage ceremony has facilitated. (The Registration Service which is the first port of call for any chosen celebrant when they register the couple’s desire to marry should provide information packs and advice books about the range of marriage support services on offer.) Some professional celebrants may wish to take this a step further by actively cultivating a wider range of services and skills – offering pre-marital advice, workshops on conflict resolution skills for couples before and after marriage, and even mediation services, effectively acting as a modern day guardian angel for the couple. Through these means, the central role played by the celebrant is intimately connected with the wider issue of ongoing communication and support in relationships.

These reforms would also accelerate the important shift in our political culture which occurred last year during the passage of the Family Law Act, when the government actively committed itself to funding marriage support services in recognition of the fact that for every £1,000 the Exchequer spends in picking up the pieces, less than £1 is spent on funding marriage support services.

Conclusion

Amidst rising divorce rates, and widespread cohabitation, many people are clinging steadfastly to the notion of marriage for life making the case for marriage as ‘a binding tie, monogamous and indissoluble’. Meanwhile, a younger generation seems to be facing a crisis of confidence about an institution which was once an integral part of the fabric of British life. This is why it is important to remember that marriage is a social institution that has existed for millennia. During that time it has changed its form repeatedly, often in response to people’s changing needs and desires.

The argument made here is that marriage does not need to become obsolete. Perhaps now more than ever, it has an important role to play as a public commitment, and as a shared ritual, a celebration of love, friendship and partnership between two people. But to play its role it needs to be brought up to date, liberated from the grasp of the church and the state, and given to the people whose interests it should serve. I do hope that you will accept my proposal.