Marriage between straight couples is at its lowest in 150 years – so it's nice to see Ed Sheeran bucking the trend
The only age group where marriage is booming is among the silver splitters: men over 65 and women over 55. Nothing wrong with that, but the decline of marriage in Sheeran’s age group is a cause for concern, because the institution of marriage protects both parties in the event of a split
The news that Ed Sheeran plans to construct a traditional chapel on his estate in rural Suffolk brought a little warm glow to my chilly day. That’s probably a first for a pop star – usually they’re busy adding nail bars, spas and tanning salons to their properties – but Ed has opted for a gloriously conventional little building constructed in flint, with a pitched roof and a round tower in the “Saxon style”.
Ed’s chapel looks just like thousands of other places of worship – except that this one will probably have under-floor heating and a great sound system. According to the planning application, it will be used for “celebrating key life and family milestones” and will be “strictly non-denominational”. Unlike Jesus, Ed has no plans to share his good fortune with the rich and the poor: his chapel will not be open to the public.
He’s following a long tradition – in the 19th century, no self-respecting member of the landed gentry would have considered their swanky country estate complete without a purpose-built chapel, and these buildings were regularly used for weddings, funerals and weekly worship. As Ed’s chapel is private, he’ll need to apply for a licence to marry his fiancée there – but I’m sure he’ll be able have a blessing.
Sheeran has proved brilliant at tapping into popular taste. He was the bestselling musician in the UK last year, and the most streamed artist on Spotify, with 6.3 billion downloads. Now, he has gone against a growing social trend by wearing an engagement ring and planning to get married, not to mention building the perfect place to celebrate.
New figures published this week show that marriage between heterosexual couples couldn’t be more unfashionable: only 239,020 weddings took place in England and Wales in 2015, 3.4 per cent less than the year before. The long decline in marriage started in the 1970s, and there’s no sign of the trend reversing. The group who seem most determined to stay single are in their twenties – Ed is 27 and his fiancée Cherry Seaborn is 24.
The number of people choosing to marry (who are free to do so) is at the lowest level since records began in 1862 – and the average age for a woman to marry is now 35.1 years old. Out of every 1,000 unmarried men, just 21.7 chose to get married in 2015, a third of the number recorded in 1972. Ed and Cherry are certainly going against popular taste, although they are living together (nine out of 10 couples do so before marriage these days) on his estate in Framlingham, Suffolk.
Sheeran told his 18 million followers on Instagram: “I’m really secure … when you have cats, that’s kind of it.”
The only age group where marriage is booming is among the silver splitters: men over 65 and women over 55. Perhaps I’m cynical, but surely these late marriages are more about companionship and financial practicalities than the hot flush of romantic love. Nothing wrong with that, but the decline of marriage in Sheeran’s age group is a cause for concern, because – as I have said many times – the institution of marriage protects both parties and their property in the event of a split. It is a practical framework that allows for shared access to children and division of assets without spending unnecessary amounts on legal assistance.
Ed Sheeran is not only a smart musician, but he’s admirably unafraid to make a commitment that most of his generation baulk at. It’s claimed that the decline in marriage has to lot to do with the housing shortage – sure, but when I married for the first time I was living in a council flat with no savings. What’s so different now?
The Anglican and Catholic churches ought to be extremely concerned by these latest statistics: not only has marriage lost its appeal, but ever since the granting of licences to stately homes, football grounds, hotels and so on, even fewer people choose to exchange their vows in a church. Only 45,000 marriages took place in an Anglican Church between 2015 and 2016, with overall attendance falling between 10 and 15 per cent, according to its own statistics.
In a few churches (about one in 10, usually evangelical), attendance has actually grown slightly, but that increase means the number worshipping in the rest of England’s churches has dropped even more. Evangelical worship doesn’t require special old buildings – in fact, some of the most popular weekend services take place on industrial estates in huge warehouses, where the proceedings are recorded and transmitted live to other locations.
It’s the same story of decline for the Catholic church in England and Wales – the number of marriage ceremonies has plummeted by two thirds (to 7,000 in 2015) since 1990. What’s going to happen to the vast amount of empty property owned by the religious establishment? The Archbishop of Canterbury has been whining about the middle classes with empty bedrooms and second homes in the country – it cuts no ice with me. Put your own houses in order, I say. Turn the bulk of your churches into housing for those in need. Put vicars in medical centres, motorway service stations, hospital waiting rooms – let them come to us, rather than us having to go to them. Why don’t supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s offer marriage ceremonies at the checkout, complete with loyalty points?
Most people can’t copy Ed Sheeran and build their own chapel, but they might be attracted to marriage if it could be a no-fuss appointment (like getting your eyes tested) at the local superstore and came with a few discount coupons.