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Till death do us part?

While Australians still delight in white weddings and happy-ever-after romantic movies, divorce rates are rising and more people are choosing never to marry. Journey asks what is the place of marriage the new millennium?

The last four decades have seen a sharp decline in marriage rates and significant changes in relationships sparked in part by the introducation of the oral contraceptive pill in the late 1960s.

Since the mid 1970s there has also been a marked rise in cohabitation, a steady increase in the proportion of children born to unmarried parent(s), a steady increase in the age at which people marry and an ever-increasing gap between marriage and having the first child within the marriage.

There are now up to 20% of couples who will never marry and demographers estimate that if current marriage rates continue 29% of men and 23% of women will never marry.

An increasing number of married couples will remain childless. Once marriage and children were a package deal for everyone except those who were involuntarily childless. This is no longer the case.

Since one of the traditional functions of marriage was to provide a social context for the raising of children, the increasing trend for women (especially middle-class professionals) to consciously decide not to have children in order to pursue a career may further decrease the likelihood of marriage.

Changing patterns have also seen marriage become more secular and there are no longer any requirements in Australia for a religious ceremony associated with marriage.

Since 1973 civil celebrants have provided an alternative for couples who choose not to have a religious ceremony and statistics confirm more marriages are performed by civil celebrants than by ministers of religion.

Divorce rates are also up with 40% of marriages now breaking down.

This is not just a secular problem according to the Barna Research Group in the United States who claim “born again” Christians are more likely than non-Christians to experience a divorce.

“That pattern has been in place for quite some time,” said George Barna. “The high incidence of divorce within the Christian community challenges the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriages.”

While the church might formally hold to traditional patterns of marriage most members are aware of the extent of changes in contemporary relationships and acknowledge the need for the church to deal with the trends constructively.

Journey spoke to Uniting Church Ministers who reported that around 80% of those presenting for marriage were already cohabiting.

Rev Yvonne McRostie says it’s unusual to find couples who are not living together.

When couples present for marriage after years of living together and raising children Ms McRostie often wonders, “why would you bother?”

“I often ask that, and why they want to do it in a church, and they say they just want an acknowledgement that God is a part of it.”

Rev Ray Herrman from St Andrews conducts about 30 weddings each year and has the same impression.

“A lot of people fear the process and what will happen. They see weddings that are absolute drama and theatre and they want something simple.

“They certainly want the blessing of God, so we sign the documents and offer that blessing.”

Some would argue that the traditional values were mythological in any case and that unmarried sexual activity that was once shared in secret can now be openly expressed in cohabitation with little fear of unwanted pregnancy.

Calls to a traditional Christian benchmark of “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage” actually reflects a relatively recent standard.

Christians regard to the social constraints on sexual activity outside of marriage in between 1890 to 1960 as normal when they were probably more rigorous than at any time in the last 400 years.

In her controversial book Sex, Marriage and the Church, Melbourne academic Dr Muriel Porter points out that it has been moral consensus, rather than theological imperative, that has driven the church to radically alter its stance on divorce and contraception in recent decades.

“It is moral consensus which is now pushing Christian thinking towards a radical shift in its attitude to de facto and homosexual relationships,” she said.

Doctor Porter argues that over its 2000 year history the Christian Church has regularly changed its mind on issues of sex and marriage.

“There are no ‘certainties’; there are no tablets of stone.

“It is time that was recognised, and the Church was freed to offer Christ’s promise of life, in all its fullness, to all people.”