Getting out of the marriage business?

Last fall, I was invited to speak at the clergy conference of the Diocese of Quebec about the proposed changes to the marriage canon in the Anglican Church of Canada. I did so, offering some historical context for the proposals which would provide canonical approval for same-sex marriages in churches. But I had a question for the clergy. In the last year, how many of them had performed a wedding? Not a same-sex wedding but a wedding of any kind? To my memory, of the 25 or so clergy who were there, fewer than a dozen raised their hands. When I asked how many had performed more than one wedding, I think only about three people kept their hands up.

Quebec is a small diocese in one of the most secular parts of Canada and in a province with probably one of the lowest marriage rates in the country. But it got me thinking what the general trend in weddings is in the Anglican Church of Canada. This is surprisingly difficult to figure out but I searched around a few diocesan websites and here is what I found.

In the Diocese of Calgary, there were 162 weddings in 2012. In 2016, there were 61.

In the Diocese of Toronto, there were 479 weddings in 2011. In 2017, there were 287.

In the Diocese of Montreal, there were 150 weddings in 2010. In 2018, there were 86.

Caveats are in order. The marriage rate in general is on the decline in Canada. Fewer people are going to church. And there was no grand strategy in picking these three. They were three dioceses that had old synod convening circulars online. Thank you! I suspect, though, that the trend in these data is generalizable across the country.

Nonetheless, the numbers show that in the same period that the Anglican Church of Canada has been considering changing its marriage canon to permit same-sex marriage, the total number of marriages has been falling precipitously.

One line of thought in the conversation about same-sex marriage is that the church should get out of the marriage business altogether. Let the state decide who gets married, the thinking goes, and let the church decide who to bless. As I’ll make clear, I disagree with that view but these numbers show that, whatever it formally decides, the church may be well on its way to getting out of the marriage business.

The decline of marriage should concern us for more reasons than that it is a reflection of church decline. Marriage is deeply theological — and deeply missional. Back when I was newly married I wrote a reflection on precisely this point:

The married relationship that my wife and I share is a relationship that is to be a sign to the world. In our life of loving and forgiving, the prayers in the marriage service make clear that we are to be witnesses to the truth that the brokenness and division that is characteristic of the world is not the final word. The unity of our relationship, and every other marriage relationship, is a testament to the hope — though not always the reality — that fractured relationship can be restored…. Our marriage is part of our role in God’s reconciling mission. Marriage is missional….

The prayers in the marriage service are right. Unity can overcome estrangement. Forgiveness can heal guilt. Joy can conquer despair, in married life and otherwise. It is to nothing less than this — reconciled relationships in the body of Christ — which our daily relationships are to point.

Later this week, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada will vote on changes to its marriage canon. The vote is the next step in a conversation that has stretched over several decades in the church. Whatever the result of the vote, I hope that as the conversation about marriage moves into its next phase, the church may take some note of the trend outlined by these statistics. As the church discerns its mission in a fractured world, there is an opportunity to take hold of a reinvigourated theology of marriage that models and proclaims God’s reconciling love for the world.

The Rev. Dr. Jesse Zink is principal of Montreal Diocesan Theological College.

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4 comments

  • Del Crake
    / Reply

    Dr. Zink puts forward the best solution to the present problem regarding marriage . I pray that it will finally receive the votes to solve this destructive problem

  • Josée Lemoine
    / Reply

    I agree with Jesse. Many countries function this way. Couples have a civil marriage wherever, done by whomever, and they have the blessing at the church. For those who wish that all be done at the same location, the civil part can be done in the rector’s office for example and we could proceed with the blessing right after. I proceeded this way one time when a lawyer did the civil part and I did the blessing. In that particular case, I had not been granted permission by our bishop to marry the couple, only to bless their union. It worked out very well. Both ceremonies were done in the church in front of families and friends., one after the other. I do not know if the Church could be so bold as to take such a decision…

  • The Rev'd C.Ray D. Fletcher
    / Reply

    This is all very interesting. For a priest to imagine for
    one moment that she/he can prepare a couple for
    marriage is, to say the least, a huge assumption, no
    matter how many prep. sessions one has.
    Personally, and I have said so for many years, I think
    all marriages should of a civil arrangement and later,
    should the married couple wish for the Church to
    bless their marriage there should a new and
    separate Canon, if necessary. I believe that such
    would allow for a much greater awareness of the
    significance of the Spiritual/Sacramental dimension
    of married life.
    I have been a widower for nearly thirty years. Not
    forgotten but one learns to live with loss.

    Ray Fletcher+

  • Rick Stief
    / Reply

    We should accept the fact we are no longer in the marriage business. We have already given the responsibility to the state. The licence clergy to perform wedding ceremonies, they tell us who can and can’t get married and the publishing of bans in most, if not all prvonces does not eliminate the need of a state marriage license.

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