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Tuesday, 23 January 2018 10:45

The Changing Face of Marriage

Written by



All societies and churches have held three foundations of marriage in common:

  • A union of a man and a woman.
  • A commitment for life
  • A monogamous sexual union (cohabitation was reserved for marriage).

There now appears to be at least a common anecdotal attitude among many Australians that these foundations of marriage are not necessarily that relevant anymore. As marriage has become more of an individual conception, there is also the view that if a person wants to marry, then there should be no prohibition on marrying.

How has this changed occurred? There are many reasons, but firstly, I want to highlight some of the changes in Australian Society in the last forty years.

While the ideal of ‘being for life’ remains in law, easier divorce arrangements from the 1970s has led to a perception that marriage does not have the same level of commitment and this has had a wider impact on the whole understanding and practice of marriage. There have even been discussions about changing the ‘life’ context and moving to contract periods, and then renewal if the parties consider the marriage is still viable.

Widespread acceptance of sexual practice outside of marriage has neutered the idea that one should wait for marriage and challenges monogamy as people are more used to multiple or at least serial partnering. People generally now marry later in life (exceptions are usually for practising Christians who still maintain a belief that sex is reserved for marriage), and have children later, and fewer children.

With more acceptance of sexual practice outside of marriage, rates of cohabitation before marriage increased significantly from the 1970s, and today there is such an acceptance of de-facto relationships that the majority live together before marriage (if they do marry). 76.6% of people marrying in 2013 indicated that they had cohabited prior to registering their marriage, compared to 16% in 1975 (ABS Statistics).

One of the most significant impacts on religious marriage celebration developed following the introduction of the broader civil celebrant program in 1973. In 1973 83.6% of marriages were undertaken by religious celebrants, but by 2007 when same-sex marriage began to be raised in a more public way, this had fallen to 37% (and this includes marriages from other faiths beside Christian). In 2016 the number of religious weddings had fallen further to 23.6% (ABS: 2017) and this trend does not look like stopping soon.

The impact of this change cannot be under-estimated, as marriage services were one of the two main times when nominal Christians connected with the church (the other was funerals), and had an opportunity to hear the Christian purpose of marriage declared. For those marrying, fewer and fewer have undertaken pre-marriage education courses and counselling that explained and endorsed the Christian understanding of marriage, relying more on popular presentations of marriage in the media and television.

The popular view of marriage centred around a stylised conception of love that promoted a view that the only real foundation for a marriage was love, and in this way people could be more readily persuaded that all love relationships could be marriages.


Secondly there have been significant changes within the churches in Australia.

While all major denominations and religious bodies still endorse marriage as being between a man and a woman, some individuals within most denominations have disinherited the established Christian understanding of marriage, failing to teach about the appropriate expression and context for sexual practice, and even becoming prominent in promoting the recognition of same sex unions, blessing ceremonies and finally same-sex marriage. One small denomination joined the early societal move toward same-sex marriage, holding a ceremony to join two men according to the marriage rites of the Religious Society of Friends (The Religion Report: 23 May 2007).  While of course this was not recognised by Australian law at the time, the two men were recognised as married by their denomination.

In the ten years since this event, considerable media coverage has been provided to the pro same-sex marriage campaign, especially when the overarching banner was moved under the ‘marriage equality’ slogan.

It will be interesting to see if the same media groups move to promote changes to the other foundations of marriage. One thing is certain, when you change one foundation, it is easier to consider change to the other foundations.

Peter Felix

Writer, Researcher, Pastor

Peter has had a varied involvement in the Church in Australia, undertaking contract research for over ten denominations and groups since 1987. He has also maintained an active ministry in a local congregation (along with his wife Colleen) and volunteers in a community church based care centre. At present he is also vitally involved in the confessing movement within the Uniting Church in Australia; the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC):, and has responsibility for co-ordinating visitation, pastoral support and contact with ACC members and congregations, as well as editing the ACC Magazine ACCatalyst. His research interests include the reporting of religion in the media, weddings and marriages in Australia, and the representation of religion in Australian film, and ethics and decision-making in contemporary Australia.