AS THE LAST SHREDS of Government support for marriage disappeared with last month’s Budget, I couldn’t help wondering why the married person’s allowance was removed in an otherwise “pro-family Budget”.
According to recently-published research commissioned by the Lord Chancellor’s Department, the fact that two in every five marriages ends in divorce and that one in every three children are born outside marriage has little to do with taxation and benefits. It has more to do with the fact that people have high expectations about the quality of a relationship in marriage rather than simply accepting it as an institution, as in the past. These high expectations are born of a rise in the ethos of self-fulfilment and of individualism. If the relationship doesn’t live up to expectations, ending it becomes an option.
Seen in this light, the fate of the married person’s allowance is neither here nor there. It would, perhaps, be fairer to judge the Government’s attitude to marriage on the basis of its consultative document “Supporting Families”. This at least has a dedicated chapter on marriage. However the Budget and the consultation document are part of a piece; they are both primarily concerned with politically acceptable action in favour of children. The Government values marriage chiefly because it provides stability for children; there is little suggestion that marriage is good for people whether they have children or not.
It seems then, that if marriage is to be properly supported and its benefits explained, it is down to us. So let me suggest a four – point programme for local churches:
I. Teach about commitment. The ethos of self-fulfilment is anathema to the biblical mind. We must unashamedly trumpet the merits of self-denial; the covenant nature of God’s love; the quality of a love which determines to keep on loving even when the object of that love has become a unlovable; and the joy of being in a faithful relationship where the presence of the other person can be relied upon.
2. Say that cohabitation is sinful and harmful. The latest statistics show that 70 per cent of people live together before marriage. However, the fact that cohabitation is widespread and that many subsequently come to church to get married, shouldn’t dull our teaching on the subject. It is contrary to God’s will; and its effects are harmful. In Britain, cohabiting partners are 60 per cent more likely to have divorced after eight years of marriage than other couples.
3. Support those who don’t make it. So often, in our anxiety to promote marriage, we overlook – or even stigmatise – the increasingly large number whose marriages have failed. I was very struck recently when I overheard someone saying about another church “it’s easy to be a single parent there”. Of course we should teach that God hates divorce; of course we should do our utmost to keep people together; but if we are to be effective in both evangelism and nurture for a large group of people, we must not avoid the issue of marital breakdown. Addressing this positively could mean encouraging people to run support groups; urging others to volunteer baby – sitting services; and timing young people’s events to coincide with house groups so that single parents can join in while their children are involved elsewhere.
4. Reach out to the unchurched. People are still interested in marriage, even if it’s for the wrong reasons. Many churches already have well – developed marriage preparation and marriage enrichment courses, but few publicise them other than to church couples. Why not do so more widely? In an age where churches continually worry about their credibility, here is one area where credibility is high. Needless to say, the contacts this might generate with unchurched people could also help them to become more interested in the gospel we proclaim.