Lord Mackay’s proposals for divorce law reform are proving remarkably controversial, being seen by some as a further liberalisation of divorce law. Although the procedure for divorce would be simplified by the new Bill, Lord Mackay is actually proposing that there should be an opportunity to reconsider, with professional counselling and assistance, before taking the final step. There is much to commend such a plan, not least the opportunity which it will provide to make proper provision for the children of a doomed marriage, before the divorce can be granted.

It represents a very modest attempt to stem the tide of change in society’s understanding of what marriage is about. There has been steady development of divorce law reform since 1937, and in recent decades the financial advantages of marriage have been eroded to vanishing point by the removal of tax concessions and the equal provision of social benefits to couples with children, married or not.

It is very much to the advantage of society that marriage should continue to underpin both personal relationships and especially the lives of children. In financial terms alone, the cost of bringing up children is enormous, and best absorbed by the family, rather than by the state. In the less easily definable world of emotional and mental stability, both children and parents themselves need relationships built on trust, especially in sustaining them through the stresses of modern life. The lifetime commitment represented by marriage has traditionally provided that kind of trust, especially in our legacy of Victorian attitudes, which regarded home and family as a sacred unit.

With most, if not all of the visible advantages of marriage now removed by the combination of tax and benefit changes, and with the removal of most of our Victorian taboos against divorce and illegitimacy, the wonder is that so many people do continue to get married, either in Church or in a civil ceremony. A considerable number of those who have endured the anguish of divorce still choose to remarry despite their experience of an unsatisfactory marriage. A very large majority of those who do decide to marry are already living together, and for many it is not their first partner.

There is a particular problem here for the Churches. Marriage is still a very large part of the work of the clergy, and the Church of England has rightly set its face against the introduction of universal civil marriage, despite the changed expectations in recent years of those who come to book their wedding in Church. It is a conclusion that is not easily reached, however.

In years gone by few couples completing the application form in the priest’s study would have given the same address, which has become the norm in recent times. Again, the right to be married at the parish church has always meant that only a small proportion of such weddings are for practising Christians, who might be expected to understand the nature of their commitment. Many of those planning a church wedding in 1996, who are not active churchgoers, may even disagree with the biblical notion that such a bond is for life, drawing their concept of marriage from their experience of the secular world. It is tempting to conclude that the Church should only marry those who understand what they are doing.

But the continuing demand for Church weddings, more than 100,000 services a year, means that the Church has a key place which it would be foolish to abandon in affirming the importance of marriage as a human commitment, with immeasurable value both for those who enter it, and for society at large. The lack of understanding of its significance on the part of so many who make their vows in Church, does not render the experience of committed marriage any less valuable. The desire to be married, in spite of its devaluation in society, is a clear indication that human beings need such an arrangement, that monogamy is part of the human make up, despite the inclination of some to stray from home from time to time.

The Church’s place as a provider of marriage is a powerful symbolic affirmation that the desire to marry is a natural impulse implanted in human beings by their Creator, and a sign to society that marriage still has its place. Here lies the opportunity for the Church to insist that the intention in marrying is that it should be for life. If the whole point of marriage is to be able to trust and depend upon one’s partner, then no lesser vows will do.

The State too operates at the symbolic level. What it does by law, to encourage marriage by way of distinction from looser commitments, can affect the public understanding of marriage as something desirable and valuable. Again, the State has the capacity further to undermine marriage, by opening up such a wide escape route in its divorce laws that for all except committed Christians, the legal formalities of the Marriage Act become no more than a quaint ceremony void of its original meaning.

Lord Mackay’s reforms are unlikely by themselves to effect a major change in attitudes towards the permanence of marriage. What they do signal, however, is a more responsible approach by the State towards those who are in the process of divorce, and with that a recognition of the trauma which it can cause to those caught up in it. Any assistance which the State proposes to give in saving marriages, in the course of divorce proceedings, is a welcome indication that marriage is seen by society to be worth upholding.