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Society – Marriage trends in England and Wales

May 2017 | by Rod Badams

Marriage statistics for 2014 — the first year in which same-sex couples could marry in Britain — have defied expectations.

The figures for 2013, the last year in which all marriages involved opposite-sex couples, sounded further alarm bells about attitudes to marriage in Britain. In that year, only 240,854 couples were married in England and Wales, more than eight per cent fewer than in 2012.

In the light of those disturbing figures a number of evangelical commentators, myself included, felt that if marriage was in decline even before the new marriage definition became a reality, then its implementation in 2014 would shrink the statistics still further.

More young couples, we thought, would regard the new definition, embracing as it does a ragbag of different relationships, as less meaningful (see note below) and would simply cohabit.

Against this background, we felt that the statistics in Britain would inevitably follow the pattern in Spain after the introduction of same-sex marriage there in 2005. Over the next six years in Spain, the number of opposite-sex marriages fell in each year until in 2011 it was down to only 159,205, compared with 216,149 in 2004 — a massive drop of 26 per cent in seven years.

Surprising figures

None of this, however, has happened. Marriage figures for 2014, released on 14 March this year by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), showed that in England and Wales in 2014 the number of marriages involving opposite-sex couples, far from suffering a steep decline, rose to 247,372.

Although this was only a 2.7 per cent improvement on the figure for 2013, we should be thankful for it and be pleased for the 6,518 couples the increase represents, who have chosen to marry rather than merely to cohabit.

Two notes of caution or warning need to be sounded though. One is that, in any set of recurring annual statistics, the figures for any one year can prove untypical of the general trend. This possibility is more likely when there has been a material change in the circumstances to which the statistics relate, as is the case with the 2014 marriage figures.

A more reliable picture of the ongoing trend will be revealed when the figures for 2015 are released later this year. If the decrease of 2.4 per cent in the number of opposite-sex marriages in Scotland between 2014 and 2015 is repeated in England and Wales, it would reduce the number of opposite-sex marriages by 6,000.

Secondly, however encouraging the annual marriage statistics are seen to be in future years, the decision taken in 2013 to redefine marriage will remain a human disaster for the well-being of our nation, the stability of our society and happiness of our people.

It will also have incurred God’s displeasure and, when God measures the righteousness of a nation, statistics are not a relevant factor.

Relentless decline

The 2.7 per cent increase in the number of opposite-sex marriages in 2014 cannot disguise the fact that in Britain, as in most of Western society, the take-up of marriage, except for an occasional annual blip, has been relentlessly on the decline for several decades.

The highest ever number of marriages in a year in England and Wales was the 426,241 recorded in 1972. This means that, in the 42 years to 2014, the number of marriages has reduced by 58 per cent, while the resident population of marriageable age increased by 24 per cent. The implications of this huge change within British society are incalculable.

In Scotland, which publishes its own figures independently of the ONS, marriage statistics are already available for 2015. There were 28,020 opposite-sex marriages, a decrease of 2.4 per cent compared with 2014. In addition, 736 same-sex couples were married (2.6 per cent of the total) and 935 couples converted their civil partnerships into marriage.

In 2014, there were 28,703 opposite-sex marriages, an increase of 4.2 per cent on the 2013 figure, eight same-sex marriages (there was a later start-date for these in Scotland) and 359 conversions of civil partnerships.

In Northern Ireland, where same-sex marriage has not been legalised, there were 8,550 marriages in 2014, a rise of 5.2 per cent on the previous year.

Civil partnerships

Same-sex marriages were available from 29 March 2014 and the statistics show that 4,850 same-sex couples were married between then and 31 December. This represents 1.9 per cent of the total number of marriages in that year. The full-year equivalent would be 2.5 per cent.

In addition, from 10 December 2014 in England and Wales, existing civil partners were able to convert their partnerships into marriages, and in the three weeks to the end of the year 2,411 did so.

There are reasons to conclude that the number of same-sex marriages in 2014 is lower than might have been expected.

First, in 2013, 5,646 civil partnerships were contracted. This was the eighth year of civil partnerships and not particularly significant or newsworthy. If the figure of 4,850 same-sex marriages in 2014 was extrapolated to the equivalent of a full year, it would grow to 6,368 — only 722 more than the number of civil partnerships in a moderate year.

Given that the redefinition of marriage was a much more dramatic issue, and a regular high profile news subject for two years prior to its introduction, the actual take-up in 2014 seems surprisingly modest.

Secondly, the 2014 figure contrasts significantly with the take-up when civil partnership was introduced on 21 December 2005. From that date, 1,857 partnerships were contracted in the first 11 days, and 14,943 in the year 2006.

To keep up that degree of take-up, there would have needed to be 12,421 same-sex marriages between 29 March and 31 December 2014. The actual number was only 39 per cent of that figure.

Since the introduction of same-sex marriage, the number of civil partnerships being contracted in Britain has plummeted. From the 5,646 in 2013, the number dropped to 1,683 the following year, and fell again to 861 in 2015.

The figure for 2016 is due to be published in September this year. Although the recent low figures must put the future of the status in some doubt, the government has indicated that it will be monitoring the statistics over the next few years before any changes are considered.

Rod Badams is a director of Coalition for Marriage (C4M), and a trustee of The Christian Institute. Now retired, he was formerly, in turn, a journalist, General Secretary of Christians at Work, and FIEC Administrator.

Author’s note:

Two examples of a downgrade of marriage are found in the new formal definition of marriage, and the way this definition is to be used: ‘Marriage in this country means the union of two people, voluntarily entered into for life, to the exclusion of all others’.

This replaces the previous, well known wording, dating from 1866: ‘Marriage, according to the law of this country, is the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others’.

The 1866 definition was unique and fully prescriptive; the new one is neither, as it contains other options as to who the parties of a marriage can be.

Secondly, although not a legal requirement, the old definition was a standard formal statement displayed in local register offices and quoted by registrars when conducting civil marriage ceremonies. It is no longer mandatory for the new definition to be displayed in local register offices. The definition has the status of ‘suggested introductory wording’, rather than being a requirement of the ceremony.

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