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Strategic Consultation on Marriage

ResPublica project exploring the nature of marriage in contemporary society

The value and purpose of relationships and commitment have become all the more pertinent in the context of the recent debates on marriage. However, as the Government prepares to respond to the Equal Civil Marriage consultation, there is little that has exposed the various underlying assumptions, or tapped into the central questions raised by proponents of all positions.

As part of our British Civic Life workstream, ResPublica will set out to move beyond existing polarised positions, which have so far been colonised by a discourse of rights, definition and discrimination. Instead, we seek to arouse a deeper debate about the nature and purpose of marriage itself. Has it changed over time, and does it vary between cultures? What is the relationship of marriage with the state, the church and broader society? It is only by examining these more essential, foundational questions about marriage that we can hold an informed and meaningful discussion about the position marriage in our contemporary society.

ResPublica is now pleased to announce a call for evidence, which will contribute toward our research and forthcoming outputs on marriage in the coming year. The call for evidence is aimed at academics, organisations, religious groups and all interested individuals who wish to contribute their research, analysis and insights to our consultation and be part of this ambitious examination of marriage in our society.

Submissions should take the form of data, research papers, case studies, written articles, legal arguments and position pieces relating to the following key themes of our consultation: 
a)    The meaning and purpose of marriage

b)    The relationship between the state, culture and religious institutions

c)    The role of marriage in the family and wider community

The consultation will build on our past work including a formal response to the Government’s Equal Civil Marriage consultation, and a popular fringe discussion at Conservative Party Conference 2012: ‘Marriage: Changing the terms of debate’. The video recording for this event, which welcomed Bishop Nazir-Ali, The Times’s Matthew Parris, Andrew Pierce from the Daily Mail, Conservative Home’s Tim Montgomerie and Phillip Blond, Director of ResPublica, is available here..

To participate in the Call for Evidence, or for further information, please contact Senior Researcher and Project Manager, Caroline Julian, at


Questions: Call for evidence

The Meaning and Purpose of Marriage

The meaning and purpose of marriage can differ between traditions, religious groups, cultures and across social and demographic divides. Within certain traditions, marriage can embody unchanging and inherent principles. For others, the meaning of marriage evolves with time and must respond to the age and context within which we live. For others again, marriage must be defined by an independent and neutral actor, or even, not at all.

Many of the differences in position, belief and opinion with regards to recent debates revolve around the differences in the meaning and purpose of marriage. In order to unearth such underpinning assumptions and beliefs, this first set of questions will ask the fundamental question: what is marriage? The questions intend to prompt a deeper exploration into the founding principles and core purpose of marriage. We encourage personal reflections and institutional beliefs, in addition to material or research that reflects the understanding of a wide range of groups.

  • What is marriage?
  • Is marriage an evolving institution? Does it have an objective and intrinsic nature?
  • Does it represent unchanging and inherent principles? What is the relationship between principles and practices?
  • What are the limits to the definition of marriage?
  • Does marriage mean the same thing to everybody, or does its meaning differ for different people? If marriage means different things to different people, how should society decide which of these meanings are acceptable, and which are not?
  • Have perceptions of marriage changed throughout society and particular groups across time? What does the institution of marriage mean across different religious and cultural bodies? How does this impact on the meaning of marriage?
  • What is the purpose of marriage? A public expression of commitment? A way of strengthening personal relationships? Or does it represent something more?
  • What does the term ‘equal marriage’ mean? Does it mean marriage for couples of the same sex, or does it have a wider application? What does the term ‘equal marriage’, which is deployed by government, suggest about fairness and hierarchy?


The Relationship between the State, Culture and Religious Institutions

Drawing on the above, this second set of questions explores the respective roles of the state, culture and religious institutions in defining, shaping and promoting marriage. Do they work independently or collaboratively? How effective are they? Does responsibility rest primarily with one actor, or many more? Do they all even have a role to play? The questions will also prompt an assessment of the impact on the rights and responsibilities of individuals, same sex partners and married couples and on constitutional arrangements with the established Church.

  • Historically, in what ways has marriage changed in your community and how do you feel it is changing in the present day?
  • If governments provide material incentives for marriage (such as recognition in the tax system), does this undermine the institution or strengthen it? Have different incentives encouraged or dissuaded couples to marry in the past? 
  • What roles do the state, culture, faith communities and the established Church have to play in defining, shaping and promoting marriage? Should the state be the primary vehicle in the defining, shaping and/ or promoting of marriage, or is it a matter for culture and religious groups – or a mixture of all?
  • What are the implications of this for the nature of the state and the law, and its relationship with other institutions, history, tradition and culture?
  • What impact will the introduction of same-sex marriage have on the established Church and its place within the constitution and the law?
  • What is the Church’s role in education surrounding marriage and civil partnerships, both on a broadly societal and specifically pre-marital basis?
  • What is the relationship between marriage and rights and responsibilities? Does marriage bring its own rights and responsibilities? Will the focus on equal rights for individuals promote or inhibit the purpose of marriage and successful familial relationships?
  • Will equal legal access to marriage encourage the institution to become more diverse and varied? Or will it instead negate existing differences between relationships and remove that which is distinctive about marriage itself?


Marriage, Family and Community

Social and civic institutions, such as marriage, the family and an established community, are often at the heart of agendas for social renewal. Marriage is championed by many as an institution that can prompt individual commitment and trust between two people, but that can also promote or inspire such virtues throughout communities and wider society.

This final set of questions asks to what extent, if any, marriage – in terms defined by a religious group, the state, academic literature, or an individual, such as you personally – can impact on the family, community and wider society. Does it promote virtue, reciprocity and association, or can/ has it play a negative role?

  • What role does marriage play in social flourishing and social justice? What is the role of marriage in prompting virtue and strengthening communities?
  • Is there a correlation between marriage and social capital across countries and/ or over time?
  • Does marriage encourage commitment and stability, or are other factors more important? Does marriage cause greater commitment, or do more committed couples tend to marry?
  • Does a preference for marriage and the stability of marriage run in certain families, a kind of micro-cultural norm?
  • What difference does marriage within a religious context make to the strength and sustainability of marriage within the UK and internationally? In countries where this may apply, what difference does a marriage within a religious context make to the strength and sustainability of same-sex marriage?
  • What is the role of marriage within the family unit? What are the roles of men and women respectively in marriage as presently defined within the UK and internationally?
  • Does marriage appeal to men and women equally, and across social and demographic divides? Does it appeal to people who do not see themselves as heterosexual, working class and middle class people, young people, different ethnic and religious groups, or people from different educational backgrounds? For any of the above, what are the driving forces behind this? For young people, does marriage appeal or not appeal because society has changed, or because they are young?
  • In countries where same-sex marriage has been introduced, what, if any, effect has this had on number of heterosexual marriages? How have same sex marriages and heterosexual marriages compared in these countries?
  • In countries where civil partnerships have been introduced, but where same sex marriage has not, what has been the experience of same-sex couples in terms of discrimination?


Comments on: Strategic Consultation on Marriage

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Gravatar Paul Handley 09 July 2012
It’s refreshing to see a proper grown up debate over this important issue. It seems to me the current scrap over "rights" and definition, only serves to further entrench the partisan interests of - what I would characterise as - the ‘liberal consensus’ and right wing reaction. As an ‘old socialist’ (of sorts), my own view is that the attempt to reconfigure the institution of marriage is part of a wider libertarian project to de-regulate all our institutions which are then colonised by liberal orthodoxy. Not only will it undermine the wider community interests of society as a whole, it is – paradoxically – deeply illiberal. As such; I’m against it. Well, you would be wouldn’t you! :)

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Detailed Summary

Date Published
22 May 2012

British Civic Life