The CofE’s Love Matters departs from the traditional Christian view on marriage, and fails to examine the evidence for why it is still the most secure structure in which to raise children and protect long term relationships, says Harry Benson


Source: Photo by Emma Bauso:

Yesterday marked the launch of  Love Matters, the Church of England’s report on families and households, commissioned by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. The Marriage Foundation, of which I am a part, contributed extensively and one of our contributions actually makes a highlighted appearance on page 44, without a namecheck.

Alas, the section in which it appears is titled “Celebrating diversity in family life” - which says it all. One of the key recommendations is that “It is critical to recognise and value all kinds of loving couple relationships” - something of a departure from the traditional Christian message. We should love all people regardless, but that does not mean affirming behaviours that might be harmful or not in our best interests. Love the sinner, not the sin, sort of thing.

In fairness to the authors, marriage gets a good run, in sharp contrast to almost all government policy papers on the family. But it’s how marriage is portrayed to which I take exception.

Faint praise

Marriage is damned with faint praise. Yes, most people aspire to it. Yes, most families are married. But, according to the report, marriage was glorified by the Victorians and has now been replaced by other, more popular and commonplace structures that have become normalised. There are as many bad marriages as good cohabitations, and family change has always been with us. There was even a cohabiting couple in the Bible. So we should acknowledge that the way all families structure their lives is equally valid and equally good.

There is not a single mention of the relative stability and advantage that being married brings

This is just wrong. Marriage has always been linked to childbirth. In my PhD research, I found plenty of sources showing that cohabiting was virtually unknown in England, at least between 1580 and 1960. Yes, people slept together and women became pregnant. But, on the whole, they either got married or the baby was adopted or aborted. Unmarried cohabiting is a new family structure.

There is an acknowledgement that birth control changed the game, by liberating women from the risk of childbirth. But the language describes a liberation from the patriarchal restrictions of marriage rather than something that removed the link between sex, marriage, cohabiting and children. This has directly led to arguably the highest levels of family breakdown in history – and how we, as the Church, should respond to this game-changing revolution is a question the report doesn’t even acknowledge.

Why marriage matters

The Archbishops seem to have little to say on the social function of marriage, or why states and societies throughout history have regulated marriage in one form or another. The social function of marriage is to bond men to the mothers of their future children. The psychology behind this is deeply compelling, but the report only mentions it in passing (because it’s in our quote on page 44). It is then brushed aside with a switch to the importance of commitment.

We should love all people regardless, but that does not mean affirming behaviours that are harmful

Yet there is then no real acknowledgement of how commitment works, or how both the act of marriage and/or cohabitation actively influence it. Nor is there a single mention of the relative stability and advantage that being married brings compared to not being married. There is a sea of literature on this subject, and a lively, ongoing academic debate on whether and how premarital cohabitation undermines stability.

In short, this chapter is a capitulation to the times in which we live. It’s a bit like saying everyone smokes, and so we should accept and love smokers and smoking as an equally valid choice of how to live.

A recipe for success

Of course, marriage doesn’t guarantee success. As a wise Christian once said: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. There will be bad marriages and there will be divorce. And we should love and support lone parents who do a heroic job with one pair of hands - my mother is a lone parent - but, for most, that was never the dream. The function of marriage is to reduce the risk of that happening.

If we fail to engage with the reality of how to stack the odds in favour of making love work; of staying together in a happy relationship; of giving your children the best chance of the best possible childhood, we’re kidding ourselves and failing those we are called to love and serve.

Love matters, absolutely. Love singles, definitely. But promote, distinguish and prefer marriage as the best way to do family.

Come on Church. You can do better.

This opinion piece first appeared on The Marriage Foundation website. Read it here