Next week, 7-14 February, is marriage week, when all around the country churches and community groups will encourage married couples to focus on actively nurturing their relationships.
More than two thirds of Britain’s families are headed by a married couple and statistics show that these twelve million couples are more likely to stay together because of, not in spite of, being married.
To launch Marriage Week 2012, Sir Paul Coleridge, Rabbi Mirvis and Professor Scott Stanley will speak at an event in the Houses of Parliament on 6 February.
The website tells us that Marriage Week ‘celebrates healthy marriages – the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other, primarily though not exclusively, with the intent of procreation and the raising of children.’
It adds that ‘this social institution has been enshrined in the history of civilization providing vital inter-generational links and stability’.
And yet this event is taking place in the middle of moves, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, to redefine marriage altogether.
Next month the government will launch a consultation on legalising same-sex marriage. They will not be asking whether to do so, but how.
And yet introducing ‘same-sex marriage’ would confer almost no additional legal rights: same-sex couples have these already thanks to the Civil Partnership Act 2004. The President of the Family Division has even described civil partnerships as conferring ‘the benefits of marriage in all but name’.
When asked last month by Archbishop Peter Smith what additional rights marriage would give same sex couples that they did not have already under the Civil Partnership Act, Home Secretary Theresa May was not surprisingly unable to give an answer.
The first shots in the battle have already been fired.
Labour’s Jim Dobbin warned that David Cameron’s plans to rewrite the definition of marriage could be opposed by more than 100 MPs.
The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, said last month that marriage is still the bedrock of society which promotes love, care and forgiveness in relationships.
Last week, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, he warned ministers not to ride roughshod over centuries of tradition by changing the definition of marriage and cautioned that such a move would face fierce opposition from bishops and parliamentarians.
He said: ‘I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are.’
He has now been joined by the former Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, who has said: ‘Marriage is a special kind of relationship and should not be confused with other relationships which have their own integrity.’
They join 39 American church leaders who recently spoke out in support of marriage, warned of the dangers of attempts to redefine marriage and gave specific examples of religious freedoms that will be threatened if same sex marriage is legalised.
However, there is division in the Church of England over the issue in advance of the General Synod meeting, also next week.
The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Rev Nicholas Holtam, has now become the most senior cleric to say that same-sex couples should be allowed to wed. And over 100 clergy have written to the Times asking for the 'right' for civil partnerships to be held in Anglican churches.
Earlier, the Very Rev Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, said he would consider suing the Church over its decisions not to promote him to bishop. The 58-year-old, was required to give up his appointment as Bishop of Reading in 2003 due to his relationship with another priest and was blocked from the post Bishop of Southwark in 2010, a position Bishop Holtam was also considered for.
In January, the Telegraph reported that senior High Court judge, Sir Paul Coleridge, had launched a campaign to promote marriage and fight family breakdown. Sir Paul, 62, who has been married for almost 40 years, said that he was ‘unashamedly advocating marriage as the gold standard for couples where children are involved’.
Previously on this blog I presented evidence that marriage leads to better family relationships, less economic dependence, better physical health and longevity, improved mental health and emotional well-being and reduced crime and domestic violence.
The findings of the landmark 2006 report 'Breakdown Britain' were similar. Based on an extensive evidence-based analysis by the Centre for Social Justice it found that the breakdown of marriage and the family was the key driver of Britain's collapse, strongly correlated with the five 'pathways to poverty': family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependence, indebtedness, and addiction.
Not surprising then that a recent paper from the Jubilee Centre calculates the annual cost of relationship breakdown in Britain at around £100 billion, about twice as much as alcohol abuse, smoking and obesity combined.
Marriage is a virtually universal human institution because it was originally God’s idea. It was God who first said that it was not good for man to be alone and who created the unique complementarity of the marriage relationship for companionship, pleasure, procreation and the raising of children – one man, one woman, united for life (Genesis 2:24).
Marriage is also in this way illustrative of Christ's own self-giving abandonment to his bride the church (Ephesians 5:31, 32) and points to a greater richness of human relationships beyond the grave of which the very best on earth are but a pale shadow.(1 Corinthians 2:9, 10).
Marriage is practised by virtually all societies and cultures and this was God’s clear intention. Marriage is not just something for Christians but for all mankind. It was given as a creation ordinance in the second chapter of Genesis long before the calling of Abraham, the establishment of Israel or the birth of the church.
The very same biblical definition of marriage has been part of British law for centuries and was formally defined in a famous court case late in the 19th century. The classic legal definition of marriage dates back to that given by Lord Penzance in Hyde v Hyde in 1866:
'… the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others.'
Some same sex couples may choose to live in civil partnerships, and under present law this is now legal (although I would argue not moral!). But no one has the right to redefine marriage for the rest of us.
Let's do everything possible to make sure they don’t.
Marriage is special and unique. Marriage is marriage – one man, one woman, for life. It is not for governments to redefine - but simply to recognise.