When it comes to marriage, we’re becoming more civil
Civil marriages are now well over a quarter of the total. What’s stopping them taking over?
It’ll be some weekend for a wedding. The children of Prague will be about the only ones who won’t get to enjoy the sunshine, their gaping necks instead gathering dust in a cupboard. Everywhere else, there will be the sight of large-whiskey faced men sweating it up in tight neckties; of guests needing to be forcibly herded inside for their dinner.
Recently, though, guests have been less likely to need to move far from the ceremony to the reception. Instead, the venue is often one and the same. Those who marry in a non-religious, civil ceremony – either at a registry office or a hotel – now form the vanguard of a trend towards an inevitable point at which the civil marriage becomes predominant.
The situation in Ireland is very different from that in England and Wales, where 60 per cent of first-time marriages are conducted as civil ceremonies. It might be stretching it to predict that within a generation civil marriages will be the majority in this country. But two generations seems a decent bet.
The General Registrar Office’s annual report, delivered to Cabinet this week showed that, last year, 29 per cent of all the 20,694 marriages (first and subsequent) in the Republic last year were civil ceremonies only. A further 429 civil partnerships were performed.
The trend has flattened in recent years, meaning that religious ceremonies are a long way from becoming as rare as sunny days, but the curve had risen sharply before that. It has levelled off because of very unromantic circumstances: there aren’t enough people to do them, and they don’t work weekends anyway.
The number of civil marriages has grown enormously since 1970, when just 121 took place. That was a measly half per cent of that year’s total. Even as recently in 1990, only 656 marriages (3.7 per cent) were civil marriages.
The decade just gone saw that figure bloom, so that even between 2007 and 2009 the number rose from 23 per cent of the total to 29 per cent.
First-time brides and grooms accounted for over 20 per cent of those. The reason was obvious – people had the choice. Laws allowing couples to marry outside of a church or registry office came into force at the end of 2007.
Choice, though, was not total. For starters, there is the ridiculous situation in which, because registrars were attached to the HSE, weekend civil weddings were not possible. If you wanted a civil marriage, you were restricted to the five days of the working week. Saturday and Sunday were, by default, held aside for tradition.
This has been further complicated by the regional variation of availability of registrars, and the problems of the recruitment freeze. There was to be substantial change this year when the go-ahead was given to allow humanist celebrants – except that as recently as May, the Central Registrar’s Office had accredited only one person.
The stasis in the statistics, then, reflects a stasis in the system. It is likely that the arrival of more celebrants from humanist and atheist backgrounds will see a surge upwards in that graph again. The notion of a civil marriage – once extraordinarily rare – has become commonplace, and greater choice is also likely to further erode the church wedding.
Those who opt for religious ceremonies do so for a variety of reasons, not always to do with faith. There is social conditioning; keeping their parents happy; the romance of a church aisle, of the light streaming through stained glass rather than the artificial light and office-like furnishings of a registry office.
However, choice matters more and more. Not simply in the availability of non-religious celebrants, but in the service itself. Compared with the greater freedom of a civil ceremony, in a religious ceremony a couple’s personality can be reflected only in the pre-prescribed texts from a book they don’t live their lives by anyway, and the words from a priest they may have met only recently – and may never meet again.
Just as parents bring their kids for their First Communion and leave trailing the question of when they’ll receive their second, there will be many couples this sunny weekend – and for the rest of the summer – who will walk back down the aisle to the sound of applause and camera shutters and the quiet thought that they have used the church primarily as a really impressive wedding venue.