'Universal Civil Marriage and the Importance of Religious Rites'

Published March 19, 2024 by Dr Patrick Nash and Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner

Dr Patrick Nash, former Research Fellow and now Director of Pharos Institute (Oxford) summarises the Woolf-Pharos lecture by Professor Rebecca Probert and the 'In Conversation' that followed with Rajnaara Akhtar, Samia Bano, Frank Cranmer, Stephen Gilmore and Jean-Francois Mignot.

Rebecca Probert:

Rebecca's lecture presents the case against the introduction of universal civil marriage in England and Wales. She observes the precipitous drop in religious weddings over the last century and concomitant rise in civil weddings taking place in register offices or approved premises. She notes that this trend, alongside enduring regulatory discrimination between religions, the scarcity of register offices, and the proliferation of religious-only marriages with inadequate safeguards upon relationship breakdown, have led to calls for a mandatory and uniform system of civil marriage. However, making civil marriage the only option ignores the fact that many of those who currently marry in a register office or on approved premises do so out of necessity or convenience rather than choice. It also fails to account for the attendant rise in costs to both the state (for maintaining an even and accessible nationwide system) and couples (for holding an additional religious ceremony). A new Marriage Act fit for the 21st Century must therefore be made accessible and align with how people want to marry, now. Rather than introduce further restrictions, the object of reform must be to increase choice for couples so that English marriage law becomes truly universal and accessible to all.

Rajnaara Akhtar:

Rajnaara's response highlighted the need for English law to provide choice to couples in order to accommodate the great diversification of religious belief, affiliation and practice that has taken place over the past century. While traditional multicultural theory focuses on inter-group difference, she emphasises the importance of intra-group diversity as one recent Nuffield study of 35 British Muslim weddings found that each one differed in form and emphasis to at least some extent from each of the others. Marriage law reform, when it eventually arrives, needs a framework capable of accommodating such in-group individuality as well as mixed-marriage preferences.

Samia Bano:

Samia's response highlighted the inherent conservatism in discussions about marriage law reform. Marriage, she notes, is itself a conservative institution rooted in patriarchal assumptions and designed to secure male property rights and control over women's autonomy. She points to the overall decline in marriage formation and rise in divorce rates to suggest that marriage is an increasingly outdated and unpopular social structure for interpersonal relationships which may fade into irrelevance by the end of the 21st Century. Family law reforms should therefore focus on more tangible and enduring issues such as strengthening cohabitation rights which at present are sorely neglected.

Frank Cranmer:

Frank's response notes that the ECHR Article 12 does not mandate any particular form of ceremony. While universal civil marriage is often touted as a neat solution to contemporary problems such as the proliferation of religious-only Muslim nikah marriages, it is not especially practical. Its introduction would not, for example, do much to enable officialdom to detect unregistered relationships, nor would it lower the high costs of weddings, and it may further reduce the relevance of the established Church of England. Rather, to safeguard vulnerable partners upon relationship breakdown, the best solution would be to introduce legal rights for cohabitants.

Stephen Gilmore:

Stephen's response notes that while most marriages are now conducted in register offices or on approved premises, this is often a result of regulatory constraints rather than deliberate choice. Making universal civil marriage compulsory would be hugely expensive, further constrain religious couples' choices, do little to address the irregularity and inaccessibility of existing legal architecture, and go against widespread public support for allowing religious content in civilly-binding weddings. Wedding ceremonies are deeply personal and personally significant affairs, so a reformed regulatory system must be officiant-based and sufficiently capacious to account for personal choice, cultural diversity, bureaucratic efficiency and uniform accessibility.

Jean-Francois Mignot:

Jean-Francois' response notes the dramatic rise in couples opting for civil as opposed to religious marriage in England and Wales over the past century from under a quarter in the first quarter of the 20th Century to over three quarters in the first quarter of the 21st century. Contrasting this with Italy's rate of civil marriage which remains under half to this day, he concludes that more religious societies may consider commitment of marriage to be stronger when it includes religion. He suggests that marriage law reform must deal effectively with unregistered Muslim marriages and needless discrimination against non-conforming couples.



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