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Marriage Preparation

A presentation to the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of 
The Association of Interchurch Families, Heythrop College, 2 March 1996

 The Lord Chancellor's Family Law Bill (formerly the Lord Chancellor's Divorce Bill) now before Parliament has made all the Churches in England rethink their attitudes and approach to marriage breakdown, and focused their attention on ways to prevent it.

The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church fundamentally share a theology of marriage firmly rooted in Christian teaching and tradition. Both hold to the principle of "the union of one man with one woman voluntarily entered into for life, to the exclusion of all others".

It would be less than honest not to admit that there is a difference in the responses of these two Churches to the pastoral treatment of those people whose marriages have failed. It must be acknowledged, too, that there is a difference in thinking on contraception. But there is no divergence of view on the sacred and sacramental nature of marriage itself, nor on its centrality to Christian family values.

For some years now the Roman Catholic bishops in England and Wales have required that parish priests should ensure that couples who come to them asking to be married in a Catholic church are adequately prepared for the step they are about to take. The Church of England, because of the legal requirements and restraints on it, is not in a position to make such stipulations. We know, though, that in practice Anglican clergy urge young people to consider very carefully the nature of the commitment which they are undertaking, and encourage them to seek marriage preparation. We are also aware that interpretation of the Catholic guidelines varies greatly, and that many couples do not have the opportunity for more than the most cursory preparation. Organised marriage preparation courses are by no means widely available.

Marriage preparation stresses that marriage is a sacrament between two committed people ready to make a spiritual as well as a public and legal affirmation of their love and long-term commitment to each other. It aims to give couples, faced with all the social pressures of planning a wedding, enough time and space to recognise and prepare themselves for the greatest endeavour any two people are likely to embark on in today's demanding and uncertain world. It tries to reinforce the communication between partners, so that their mutual understanding and appreciation before marriage is all the greater. It hopes to explore the characteristics of various marriage pitfalls, so that the skills and qualities needed to build a successful relationship are highlighted.

Seventy per cent of Roman Catholics getting married in a Catholic church in England and Wales are marrying partners who are not Catholics. Some will be marrying others whose commitment to their own Church is as deep as their own, if not deeper. Others, perhaps in reality the majority, may have no strong adherence to any Church, or indeed any transcendental belief. We must acknowledge, too, that the strength of commitment on the part of the partner seeking to be married in church is not always that strong, either. He or she may be seeking a church wedding to placate the family, or for predominantly social or romantic reasons. All this is also true of couples marrying in the Church of England, which conducts a much larger number of weddings.

Any couple wanting to marry in church, though, is by that very gesture demonstrating their recognition, even if only subliminally, of the spiritual dimension to the contract, and to their relationship, and in making their vows before God they are asking for His grace and seeking His strength and blessing in their union. The Christian community cannot fail to respond to this approach. The Churches must offer all the help and support they can towards sustaining this desire; to do less is to fail the Spirit.

A significant number of interchurch families are involved in helping in marriage preparation. We feel that we have a valuable contribution to make here because most couples embarking on marriage will, at least to some extent, have grown up in different traditions. We consider that our witness to mutually-reinforcing interchurch relationships recognises that, in a predominantly secular world, Christians of different denominations have far more that draws them together than separates them. We think that our experience of crossing boundaries, and of building links between families and bridges between communities, can be a reassurance to those who are wary of such bonds. (And all marriages connect more than two individuals.) We know the difficulties and, although we acknowledge solutions are not easy, we hope others can draw on our confidence and the trust we have learned we can share.

We consider, furthermore, that marriage preparation is an area where co-operation between the Churches could produce immense benefits. In our experience, it is not doctrinal, nor catechetical, nor denominational, in either intention or format.

Resources are limited. Essentially, resources here are the trainers themselves, and the skills, ability and capacities they can draw on, because trainers must be willing to give of themselves.

We should like to make certain suggestions - our "Wish List", so to speak.

First, we suggest that the Churches should look at ways in which they can co-operate in the training of the trainers in marriage preparation. The mechanisms to do this already exist. It is happening in certain dioceses - for example, in the West Country. This will maximise the resources that are available. Given the limits to the resources of our own Association, interchurch families think we could contribute most effectively here.

Second, we suggest that the Churches should unite in planning a recruitment campaign to persuade more married couples to help in the work of marriage preparation.

Third, we suggest that the Churches should share information on the availability of courses and on the best practice. At present, there is no recognised or agreed method of preparation. An exchange of ideas and experience would be particularly fruitful.

Fourth, the more resources the Churches find they can share, the more productive they can be, especially at the local level. In one parish on Merseyside, the Churches felt able to run a joint marriage preparation course; in time, others may come to do so also. Even now, too many engaged couples never get to hear of the possibility of attending marriage preparation courses.

Finally, it would provide a great impetus if the Christian Churches at the highest level felt able, in an ecumenical context, to affirm their support for marriage itself and to stress the value they place on preparation for it. Otherwise we face the prospect of pastoral resources becoming increasingly absorbed in the distressing work of dealing with marriage breakdown. As we know in other contexts, preventative care is not only more effective and less costly than remedial treatment, it is far more life-enhancing.

Rosy Baker