The Bishop of Shrewsbury has said the introduction of pre-nuptial agreements in Britain effectively invites engaged couples to prepare for divorce and undermines the traditional definition of marriage.
Preaching on Sunday, Bishop Mark Davies said: “Pre-nuptial agreements may soon become enshrined in civil law on the recommendation of the Law Commission. Our society would be proposing to couples seeking marriage that they prepare their own divorce settlement before making the life-long promises of marriage. It is a legal provision which would surely empty the words of the marriage promise for ‘better for worse … to love and to cherish till death do we part’ of all meaning.
“Pre-nuptial agreements would render these promises provisional by the legal preparations which anticipate divorce. We must ask ourselves today, what message does this send to couples considering marriage? What message does this send to the young at a moment when the institution of marriage stands at such a historically, low ebb? Should we not be putting our efforts into guarding and building-up the institution of marriage rather than steadily undermining it?”
A pre-nuptial agreement law is currently being considered by Government ministers, which would mean couples working out the terms of their divorce before they get married.
The Law Commission’s proposals, drawn up over four years, are for a new law “to consider the treatment of pre-nuptial, post-nuptial and separation agreements”. They will be published on February 27.
Such pre-nuptial agreements are used widely in the United States. English courts have traditionally ignored pre-nuptial agreements but the Radmacher ruling at the Supreme Court in 2010 changed this. The ruling is significant because judges ruled that the German heiress Katrin Radmacher should keep her £100m fortune after her divorce, according to the conditions of her pre-nuptial agreement.
But Lady Hale, deputy president of the Supreme Court, said that she believed pre-nuptial agreements undermine marriage. She said: “Marriage still counts for something in the law of this country and long may it continue to do so.”
During his sermon, Bishop Davies said that marriage as an institution was already under threat. He said: “In this week of incessant storms we have been reminded how it is too late to build defences once rivers break their banks and tidal surges hit our shores. Long-standing foundations are already in danger of being washed away.
“So too, in the life of our society it will surely be too late to protect the great good of marriage if we have allowed the foundations of this timeless institution to be eroded away by our own neglect. We must actively guard the truth about marriage with greater effort amid the storms of our time so this vital, life-giving institution is not undermined.”
Bishop Davies said that, contrary to popular perception, the worldwide meeting of bishops in October was about guarding the true definition of marriage, not to change Church teaching.
He said: “Pope Francis wants us to guard the gift of marriage. Realising, as the Gospel reminds us today, if the salt loses its taste then it is useless. Similarly, if the teaching and witness of the Church lost its distinctiveness amid the confusions of our times we would have nothing to offer our contemporaries.”
For an extended version of this report see this week’s print edition of The Catholic Herald, out on Friday