A new booklet on the decline of marriage should concern us

Family Education Trust, an independent think-tank that supports family life founded on marriage between a man and a woman through research and the publication of resources, has produced a new on-line resource: A Brief History of Marriage by John de Waal. In PDF format, it is intended for downloading as a teaching resource for PSHE, history or RE classes.

It provides a short survey of marriage throughout the ages, from the ancient world, through the Old Testament and then the Christian centuries, up to the present day. Its strength is that it looks at the institution of marriage from a natural and historical, rather than a narrowly religious viewpoint and, given the potential minefield that the subject of marriage in a classroom context might be these days, it provides arguments and facts to help shape youthful discussions by informed debate rather than by what could be thought of as dogma or prejudice.

It includes questions at the end of every chapter. On marriage in the modern era these include “What impact has the Civil Partnership Act 2004 had on marriage?” “Why do cohabiting relationships tend to be less stable and more fragile than marriage?” and “How influential has the media been with regard to changing attitudes to marriage and family life?” Professor JJ Scarisbrick, the Tudor historian and found of the LIFE organisation, commends the book, commenting that it shows “how important [marriage] has been for society and how relentless have been the efforts to undermine it in recent decades.”

The book quotes figures and statistics which speak for themselves: e.g. 70 per cent of young offenders come from lone-parent families; in 1950 5 per cent of births took place outside marriage; by 2009, this figure had escalated to 46 per cent – and so on. De Waal comments that “For the anthropologist, the widespread failure to marry is a sign of impending cultural collapse.”

Coincidentally, and with the book still in my mind, I overheard a young man say to his female companion on the Tube on Saturday: “People don’t need to get married anymore.” He paused and then added, “People have to work harder in a marriage; it’s more difficult to get out of.” His lady friend teased him, “You’re not yet married and you’re already talking about getting out of it!” They looked and sounded like a modern young couple in their early 20s, trying to work out the possibilities of a permanent relationship but also reflecting the pressures of the society around them.

Fr Lucie-Smith’s blog about family breakdown last week echoes the concern that lies behind Family Education Trust’s initiative. He asks: “Can someone hazard a guess about how a society functions when it has left stable lifelong unions between a man and a woman for the upbringing of children behind it?” He adds, “The decline in the traditional family should be a huge worry to us all, whatever out religious beliefs.” He is right and the work of the Trust is to be applauded. It might not be politically fashionable to bring it up- but this is the key subject we need to be talking about.