In March of this year a report was presented to the Archbishops' Council of the Church of England exploring modern-day attitudes to marriage in a society where marriage is in decline.
The research confirmed not only that the social context in Britain is one of growing instability within long-term relationships as society becomes increasingly individualistic, but also that there is a continuing desire for the security and companionship that marriage provides.
The idea of finding one person to spend the rest of your life with remains highly desirable, but seems more elusive than ever. Relationships have become a highly confusing emotional territory. So why do people decide to marry? Our research, and other research into the issue, suggests three reasons: commitment, children and stability.
Marriage represents the lifelong commitment to a partner. There are, of course, numerous examples of rash proposals, but the decision about whether or not to get married is generally taken with due sobriety – 85% of married people and 59% of unmarried people believe that it is the most serious decision of your life.
Indeed, the research discovered that it was a couple's desire to feel more committed to one another by making a formal, lifelong commitment – "the ultimate commitment" – that was the primary driver for marriage.
Marriage matters. The majority of the population still view marriage as a positive social institution. Married people, in particular, strongly believe in the value of marriage to society – 86% of married people and 64% of unmarried people agree that "despite the challenges, marriage is important for society". Marriage is one of those glues of stability in a changing society that both married and unmarried alike support.
Marriage – to quote a government green paper from 1996 – "is still the surest way for rearing children". The conventional view at one time was that parents should normally stick together for the sake of the children even if one or both of them were unhappy. For decades this view was criticised by therapeutic professionals who claimed that children are better off if unhappy parents separate We now know that the traditional view was usually right. Only in high-conflict families – a distinct minority of cases – is divorce, on average, better for the children. The worst situation for children is to be in a continuing high-conflict marriage or in a low-conflict marriage that ends in divorce. Children do better when their parents are married. The beneficial impact of marriage upon children in terms of wellbeing, mental health, educational attainment and antisocial behaviour benefits us all as a society.
It remains appropriate, therefore, that the laws of our country reflect this and that the support for marriage offered by the state in a legislative framework should not only remain intact but, more importantly, should actively support marriage. I do not believe enough is being done. What is needed is not lofty words about marriage but practical and costly actions.
Foremost among these needs to be a frank admission by the state that it still supports marriage. The actions of government have, at times, suggested otherwise. In a laudable attempt to focus on the needs of children – through initiatives such as the replacement of married persons' tax allowances with the child tax credit – the government has, perhaps unwittingly, loosened the ties that bind.
The government needs to undertake a policy reorientation that incorporates the benefits of marriage to society as a whole rather than relegating it to just another lifestyle choice.
In addition I believe there is an opportunity for the government to further invest in our society by supporting parents who stay at home for the sake of raising their children. A well-raised child is a benefit not only to the parents but also a gift to tomorrow's world. Hence when a married couple on a low income have children below the age of 11, one of the parents should be given the incentive to stay at home and be paid a living wage, if they also commit themselves to voluntary work in the community.
Such a scheme would benefit community, parents and children. This view is informed by the personal experience of my own childhood in Uganda and the raising of our own children in a vicarage. We were there for our children at all times.
Such a policy reflects the decision taken at the General Synod in York last year where the synod called on the church, voluntary organisations and the government to support the institution of marriage by all means available to them.
Lord Denning, the former master of the rolls, was right when he said: "The precepts of religion, consciously or unconsciously, have been [judges'] guide in the administration of justice. If religion perishes in the land, truth and justice will also."
It is my belief that we need to find a way in which religion, morals and law are once again indistinguishably mixed together. A good example is to be found in the Gospel of John, chapter 8, verses 3-11: "Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to him a woman caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, 'Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?'
"Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, 'Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her'. And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
"When they heard it they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders, until Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' She said, 'No one, sir'. And Jesus said, 'Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and sin no more'."
Here we have the religion of the Israelites, mixed with the law of Moses and the morals of the time on sexuality. Christ's response is to respond to all three with a judgment that acknowledges the law, acknowledges the woman's wrongdoing, but also includes a justice and equity rooted in compassion and humanity.
This country's Christian heritage provides us with that same instruction that Jesus found as he squatted, bent down, writing in the ground. Not a slavish following of religious literalism or a theocracy but rather recognising the truth of what has gone before and reinterpreting it for the present age.
This article was published in the Sunday Times.