9 December 2011

Just how "religious" is marriage in Scotland?

Today is your last chance to contribute to the Scottish Government's consultation on same-sex marriage. To put you in the mood, I thought it might be of interest to pose a simple question: just what is the state of marriage in Scotland anyway? It is often suggested or implied that religions enjoy or ought to enjoy a sort of priority when it comes to defining marriage.  As I've remarks on a number of occasions, the basis for religious bodies making such claims are various. Some will seek authority by dint of divine command. Others will make their case based on their apprehensions of the content of the natural law.  Still others will speak about a Judeo-Christian leeching of the bride-and-bridegroom concept of marriage into Scotland's the general culture, which they contend should be jealously preserved, whether out of generic conservatism, or fears of social calamity if popular understandings of marriage are permitted to expand.  

None of this particularly heeds the simpler question. To press a rather worldly metaphor into service, just what sort of "market-share" in the marriage business do churches enjoy at the moment? How religious is marriage in Scotland now? All the data can be found on the General Register Office for Scotland website.  Rather than leaving you all to shuffle through the reams of data, a few colourful charts more briskly map contemporary Scotland's matrimonial shape and its changes over the last half century. Let's begin with the elementary stuff. How many marriages? In the period from 1946 to 2010, we can see that the largest number of marriages were entered into in the half-decade between 1966-70, with 42,832 marriages being conducted. Since, the number of marriages has generally been decreasing, slumping to its lowest ever figure in 2006-10, when just under 30,000 marriages took place - a fall of around 13,000 on the figures from the middle of the 1940s.


Civil partnerships were introduced in December 2005, limited to couples of the same-sex.  Over that period, the number of partnerships conducted in Scotland was as follows (the total number of partnerships, also being disaggregated by sex of the partners...)

But back to marriage.  We see from the overall totals that the number of marriages being entered into is falling. Mirroring that overall trend, how has the character of celebrants changed in Scotland since 1946? In line with general shifts in religious attitudes, and evaporating piety, we might expect religious celebrations to decrease and the number of civil marriages to expand. The next couple of charts plot the detail that confirms that hunch.  The first plots the total changing total number of marriages carried out by different denominations across the period from 1946 - 2010.  As the total number of marriages has decreased, only the number of civil and other religious marriages has increased, with Church of Scotland weddings in particular, plunging from over 25,000 in 1946-50 to just under 7,000 in 2006-10.

This second chart shows how the balance between the various different forms of marriage celebrations - Church of Scotland, Catholic, Civil and so on - has shifted over the years.  Although civil marriages constituted less than 20% of marriages in 1946-50, by 2006-10, they constitute a majority (51.5%) of all marriages conducted across the country.


That's a longer term historical picture. Now let's be a little more specific. Take 2010.  That year, some 28,480 marriages were conducted, of which the majority (just) were civil weddings.

It is also worth burrowing a little further into the category of "religious" marriages.  As you will all know, the Kirk's committees and the Catholic bishops and Cardinals have been particularly vocal about same-sex marriage. Just how many unions are either institution conducting anyway? "Religious" celebrants come from a bewildering array of denominations, many of them conducting only a very small number of ceremonies.  Some of the more unusual appearances in the full religious tables include the Salvation Army (43 weddings in 2010), the Spiritualist National Union (31 weddings), the Findhorn Foundation (30 weddings), the Pagan Network (15 weddings), and those salty sea-dogs, the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen (11 weddings).

As some of these minor celebrators of marriages suggest, an attentive look at the data shows that we should approach the language of "religious" weddings exceedingly gingerly. A single example eloquently demonstrates the point. In 2010, the second most common "religious" form of marriage in Scotland was Humanist, whose ceremonies numbered some 2,092 that year, or 15% of "religious" marriages and 7.3% of all marriages conducted that year.  To add a little surrounding context, Humanists actually conducted 316 more marriages than the third most active denomination - the Roman Catholic Church. (By the by, most of you will likely be thinking that to categorise Humanist marriage ceremonies as "religious" is madness. I agree. Describing their ideals, the Humanist Society of Scotland make clear that they are specifically non-religious in outlook).

So how does the category of "religious" marriages otherwise break down? How many Episcopalian weddings, Mormon unions and the like? There is such a profusion of data, to produce a readable graph, a certain degree of lumping together is indicated. For those curious about the full tableau of religious bodies conducting marriages, the fuller tables are here.  If we emphasise the "religious" bodies that are most active in conducting marriages in Scotland, the total "religious" figures break down like this:

So just how "religious" is marriage in Scotland anyway? Res ipsa loquitur... 


  1. I think it's disingenuous to count the Humanists as "religious", when they are expressly not so.

    I asked the Civil Servant at a consultation event this question, and he agreed, and said that at some point in the future the SG will stop categorising them as "civil" and "religious" and introduce a third category which would include bodies such as the humanists who fit into neither category.

    A breakdown of last year's marriages is interesting, but I'd like to see the trend of religious vs civil marriages over the years. I may do that at the weekend, if the information is available.

  2. I was just going to say the same as Grogipher. Humanist weddings are emphatically not religious.

    As it happens the past couple of weddings I have been to have been Humanist. The advantage of having a Humanist celebrant, over a registrar, is that - like having a religious celebrant - the marriage can take place anywhere, whereas civil ceremonies have to take place in an approved venue.

  3. Entirely agree with both of you on the daffiness of categorising Humanist ceremonies as "religious" when they are explicitly not so. I fear I may have overestimated the capacity of "scare-quotes" about the word, to make the point!

  4. It's actually quite interesting that the Humanists were able to become licensed to perform marriage ceremonies in Scotland with so little fuss. They aren't licensed to perform marriages in the rest of the UK, only in Scotland. And I believe Scotland is only one of 6 or 7 countries in the world where Humanist marriages are legal.

    It makes you think, as the Sunday Post used to say. Because actually I would have thought that Humanists represented a bigger threat to traditional Christian values than gay people since the Humanists have a distinct position on God i.e. he/she doesn't exist. Whereas religious or irreligious opinion among gay people is as likely to be as varied as it is in the general population.

  5. Interesting facts - especially when I mistook the colours in your chart and thought that Bathgate Community Church conducted 15% of all marriages in Scotland last year...

    I find it a little disingenuous that you write 'It is often suggested or implied that religions enjoy or ought to enjoy a sort of priority when it comes to defining marriage' when you are writing your blog in the context of the Scottish Executive's consultation on same-sex marriage,SSM, in which over half of the questions ask whether SSM should/could take place in religious premises and/or be conducted by religious celebrants. Hmm, should religious bodies have a say on whether SSM takes place in a religious context? I could end my comment exactly as you ended your blog but I am neither lawyerly nor Latin-loving so: yes.

  6. From a Catholic point of view, the statistics are unfortunate (because they do demonstrate a decline in affiliation to organized religion) but they don't have much relevance to the views of the Church on same sex marriage.

    From a natural law perspective, we're arguing about how society is organized to serve the purpose of human flourishing. The view of the Church, based on natural reason (as well as revelation) is that society is not well organized when the purpose of marriage as a child rearing institution is confused. Now, of course, that reasoning may be wrong (like any other philosophical view) but it isn't in any straightforward sense a religious argument. (Unless you assume that any argument from a religious institution is ipso facto a religious argument.)

  7. Enthralling stuff.

    My mum had a Humanist funeral several years ago and we've been to a Humanist marriage. I too reject the 'religious' umbrella and thanks to Grogipher for that info on the 'third' category. And thanks also to Indy for the info on legality.


    'Interesting facts - especially when I mistook the colours in your chart and thought that Bathgate Community Church conducted 15% of all marriages in Scotland last year...'

    Hence that Proclaimers song of course - 'Bathgate - No more!'

  8. As a practising traditional Christian, I find the argument that humanists are more of a threat to our values than homosexuals superficially attractive, but ultimately one that must be rejected. I'm not sure either are a great threat. In any case, what we are discussing here is same-sex marriage. It would, for example, be quite possible to be a humanist and to reject same-sex marriage. Such a position would be no dafter than the humanist outlook is in general. Humanism, as far as I understand it, celebrates secular human life, and has developed ceremonies to assist with that celebration, against the background of a conviction that human life is no more than a "contemptible cosmic bacterium", as one atheist (and I accept he wasn't a humanist!)logically put it. I can't understand why a non-believer, homosexual or otherwise, would think marriage matters a docken in the face of the impassive universe, and conversely, I can't think why a believing homosexual would perceive marriage as being for him, or her. With a god-free Weltanschauung, it seems to me that concepts such as love, honour and duty must be utterly pointless, let alone naming ceremonies, handfasting and consigning to the grave. And yet, humanists and homosexuals alike ape our values and our ceremonies. That is why they are no great threat - until they develop the consciousness of their condition demonstrated by the individual I quoted above!

  9. Am Firinn demanding the same rights in law is not "aping".

    Homosexuals have the right to provide for their loved ones and to be treated as equals under the law.
    Prisoners are denied some rights because they have committed crimes.

    The law has to be concerned with what happens when partnerships end. As they all must.

    Would you return to the situation when terminally ill gay men had to marry to secure pension rights for their partner? And go to the grave hoping the woman would honour the agreement.

  10. Pernicious religiosity and its vamping presumptions in all its mutant shades should be cast out of the body politic, civil, lest they cast the innocents into their perverted assumptions as to "Hades" them desiring of.

    Awa' with the zebra-striped clergy sanctimonious, and leave us all in universal peace.

    And the blaggard briefs

  11. Am Firinn sums up quite well what is at the heart of this - the assumption that the concept of marriage is intrinsically Christian. And clearly for some Christians that means that even if people reject formal Christianity or any other formal religion - which clearly the majority of people who actually get married in Scotland do - it still means that somehow religious organisations have a greater understanding of what marriage is than others and therefore can speak with more moral authority about it than others.

    And they may well have a point that the place that marriage has in society owes a lot to the place that religion has had in society in historical terms. But that was then and this is now. It’s quite a strange thing when you think about it that marriage has proved a stronger concept in a way than organised religion. But I think that’s where we are.

  12. Terrence, "aping" was a bit uncharitable of me. Perhaps I should rather have said that non-believers flatter us by adopting or homologating our practices. And I invite you to consider where the demanding of the same rights in law by practisers of formerly-illegal sexual activities might logically end. Indy - thank you for your courteous reply, but I wasn't suggesting marriage was intrinsically Christian. Clearly it isn't, as it has been around a great deal longer than Christianity has. Rather I am suggesting that marriage has always been essentially religious. And my point stands: why would the non-believer have any patience with the concept of marriage, between or among any combination of sexes, and conversely why would believing homosexuals perceive marriage as being something for them?

  13. I'm a Humanist (and have conducted funerals) and I oppose same-sex marriage, though I think I'm very much in the minority on that. I'm all in favour of equality before the law, and welcome the institution of civil partership - though I'd like to see the same protections extended to other long-term household arrangements, such as siblings or parent and child living in the same house.

    But returning to same-sex marriage, my concern is for the rights of the religious in this. My perception is that the homosexual lobby are way beyond being an oppressed minority and have become just one more aggressive and sometimes intolerant interest group. They lost me when they forced the closure of the Catholic adoption agencies. I'm concerned that religious individuals and institutions will be penalised for acting according to their beliefs in this matter.

    Registrars have found their job description changed retrospectively, and instead of understanding and an attempt to square the circle, those registrars with conscientious objections to civil partnerships were vilified and, as I recall, at least one person lost her job (not sure if that was in Scotland). It should be recognised that massive socio-cultural changes like this come with costs. I think those who have to pay the costs should be treated with consideration, not demonised.

  14. Am Firinn I pointed out it's only those who have committed crimes who are denied full rights.
    Homosexuality is no more of a crime now than is supporting universal suffrage.
    That homosexuals should expect the same rights in the same form as others is fair.
    Had they suggested some new form of regulated relationship the objections would be of the "who do they think they are ..." variety.
    "And I invite you to consider where the demanding of the same rights in law by practisers of formerly-illegal sexual activities might logically end".
    It might put a stop to discrimination and result in equality.
    A gay partnership is more than a sexual relationship.
    Also I wasn't aware that these sexual activities required pratice.
    But I'll take your word for it.

  15. I was never baptised or christened: my parents left the choice up to me, as I have done with my children.

    Regligion should never be forced upon anyone. Likewise, society and governments have no right to force religions to change their views or ceremonies.

    Homosexual marriage should be allowed. But it is up to individual religions as to whether the ceremony should be conducted on their premises.

    There are more important issues at stake these days, than debating whether a homosexual couple should be allowed to join in marriage.

    I really wish that some religions would show the tolerance that they preach.

  16. Congratulations on your Politics Show interview. You can bring clarity to the guff we hear so much of on these BBC new labour love ins.

    Keep up the good work.

  17. Caroline - couple of points. Firstly when you say "Catholic" adoption agencies it is important to be clear that these adoption agencies were not funded by the Catholic Church. They were funded by the public purse. And it is right that agencies funded by the public purse treat all members of the public equally.

    I think that's an important point because perhaps that situation ties in to the perception that churches could be forced to conduct same sex marriages - I've heard other people draw the same comparison. But it's not a real comparison.

    Essentially churches are private institutions. They are not public institutions. In most cases the taxpayer does not pay them to deliver a public service. Where churches are paid to deliver a public service however - as in the case of providing an adoption service - they are required to deliver that to the same standard as any other publicly funded service.

    Public services cannot be delivered in a way that discriminates on the grounds of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or personal or religious beliefs. That is the law and there can be no exceptions. Because if you make an exception in one case then you have to make an exception in others. Or, to put it another way, if you want to say that a Catholic can refuse to provide a public service to a gay person then other people could refuse to provide a public service to a Catholic. And that is the whole kind of situation that the law is intended to prevent.

    If an organisation refuses to comply with the law their funding would have to be withdrawn. I don't think any reasonable person could argue with that. But it does not affect the issue of same sex marriage directly because when churches marry people they are not providing a public service, they are acting as private organisations.

    As regards the issue of registrars I am really quite positive that there have been no objections from registrars in Scotland and nobody has lost their job. If you think otherwise perhaps you could provide a link?

  18. I think the vast majority of people (irrespective of sexuality) believe in marriage as an institution not because of religious beliefs but because of romantic beliefs essentially.

    Romance is a very powerful concept in western society in particular - think of the books we read, the films we watch, the music we listen to. I don't think this is just about social indoctrination or control. Rather, I think it is about the fact that humans are actually a naturally pair bonding species.

    I don't actually know very much about the science of this, though I am sure that there are probably some biologists or evolutionary psychologists out there who have studied it in depth. But it seems to me that there is actually no single explanation for why humans fall in love with other humans and I don't believe either that monogamy can only be enforced by marriage. It's not as though people who aren't married run amock sexually speaking. Most of them don't. And of course there are people who run amock and cheat within marriage - just as there are couples who are not married who don't cheat.

    It's all immensely complicated in one sense. But in another it is quite simple and sentimental. For whatever reason, most people want to fall in love and live happily ever after. That is something that comes from within people as well as coming from external, societal pressures. No religion could have invented that and imposed it on people if they fundamentally did not want to behave like that in the first place.

    Of course everyone is not the same and the fact that most people seek to form a monogamous permanent relationship doesn't mean that everyone will or that they should be expected to. But for those who do, marriage is seen as the main expression of that which is why same sex couples want to be able to get married.

  19. Observer - http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2011/07/21/christian-campaigners-claim-massive-support-for-compromises-for-anti-gay-workers/

    As far as the Catholic adoption agencies are concerned, you may well be right about the legal technicalities, but after all the whole argument is about changing the law. You can't argue for using the law as a weapon of social activism, then turn round and say x must happen because the law is sacrosanct. On that argument homosexuality would still be illegal.

  20. @ Indy

    'But it seems to me that there is actually no single explanation for why humans fall in love with other humans...'

    From a Darwinian point of view, I would have thought there was a pretty obvious reason why men and women fell in love!

  21. Lazarus - it's not that simple. If the survival of the species was the sole reason for human behaviour no woman over the age of 45 would ever have sex. If someone became ill, their partner would just leave them and move on to the next person. Severely disabled children would be abandoned at birth etc.

    Evolutionary imperatives are part of what drives people but only part.

    PS: Caroline - would you be happy if a publicly funded adoption agency refused to deal with prospective parents because they were Catholic? Or would you be happy if someone working for a publicly funded agency refused to provide a service for you because you were a humanist?

  22. @ Indy

    Never thought I'd be defending evolutionary psychology in a combox (my preferred explanation of absolutely any scientific problem is of course that God did it) but your examples would be easily disposed of by a proponent of that view. (Eg: broadly, there is no reason for any genetic trait determining behaviour after the menopause to be selected for or against as it is simply irrelevant to the survival of the gene. So the explanation of why women have sex past the menopause lies in the pre-menopausal effects of the genes which carry that trait.)

    Putting that aside -since clearly neither of us are dyed in the wool evolutionary psychologists- it is odd that in one area where Darwinian selection seems likely to provide a great deal of insight into human psychology -ie how we choose our mates- it is ignored by you because it doesn't fit in with an ideological commitment to downplay the role of procreation in human relationships.

    An interesting example of an area where both Pope and Dawkins might agree in being extremely disappointed at the analysis!

  23. I think the reason why women go on having sex after the menopause is because they like it, and that is also why men continue to marry them, but let's leave that to one side.

    I have no idea what evolutionary purpose gay people serve but there probably is one because same sex relationships are not confined to humans, there's a lot of it goes on in the animal kingdom as well.

    So it is natural behaviour - albeit very much a minority sport. There's nothing perverted about it though, in the true sense of the word. Indeed Christians must surely accept that God made a proportion of people gay just as he/she made a proportion of swans or giraffes or dolphins gay. I don't know why and I don't think it matters either.

  24. @ Indy

    No way I can give a short answer to the naturalness of homosexuality and how that fits into a theistic picture of the world. Quite apart from the science, in essence, it requires the drawing of a distinction between 'nature' as goal directed and serving a function, and 'nature' as whatever happens to be the case -and hence open to the possibility of being dysfunctional. (At base, the same sort of distinction that we draw when we note that some people are born (naturally) disabled.) But for another day I think...