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Faith & Reason: There should be nothing holy about matrimony

THE TIME has come for marriage to be demoted. The Church should admit it got it wrong when, in the 13th century, it declared it to be a sacrament. The Church of England should quit saying marriage is a "way of life created and hallowed by God". It should take marriage down from its pedestal and rank it alongside magistrates' courts or the Houses of Parliament. It may be the backbone of our society but it is an institution made by man none the less.

This week church leaders in Birmingham accused a local radio station of reducing a "sacred and momentous decision to a media event". BRMB, an independent radio station, organised a competition called "Two Strangers and a Wedding". It was entered by about 100 men and 100 women who wanted to be married but hadn't got there via dating.

Psychologists and counsellors were brought in to assess which entrants were the most compatible with each other. The winners were rewarded with an all-expenses-paid wedding, a honeymoon in the Bahamas, a posh rent- free flat for a year and a snazzy car. When Carla Germaine and Greg Cordell married on Monday they had never seen each other before.

The clergy were right. It was a media event and BRMB was milking it. The idea of two people marrying before they met is so counter to modern Western culture that the nation was agog. But were the clerics right to say it was sacred?

Marriage has a grubby history which is easier to explain by saying it was designed by man for the benefit of blokes, than that it was created by our maker. In Old Testament times men were entitled to have several wives but women couldn't take their pick of husbands. In the days of the New Testament a man could divorce a woman but a woman couldn't divorce her man. Until relatively recently in the history of marriage, when a woman said "I do", she lost the right to her name, her body, her property and access to the law.

If the Church claims marriage is an "honourable estate instituted by God" then what does that state of affairs say about the God who instituted it? That He was the same jolly fella who thought up slavery? It would be less offensive to free marriage of the burden of sacramental status and recognise it as an evolving institution that changes over time to meet the challenges and demands of the day.

If the Church were prepared to think of marriage in a more ordinary way it would be better equipped to engage in the re-evaluation of marriage necessary for it to flourish in the coming century.

Greg and Carla's wedding was tacky of course, but aren't many weddings a chance to display tack in all its grossness? I don't find a pair of wedding rings inscribed BRMB 96.4FM much more distasteful than videoed vows, soft-focus photography and bridesmaids dressed up like blobs of blancmange. And just because it was a media event for BRMB it doesn't mean it was a publicity stunt for Greg and Carla. It's possible they were only in it for their 15 minutes of fame, but we don't know that. They might have been taking their vows as seriously as people who marry "because they love each other". Time will tell.

The remarkable aspect of the blind-date wedding was the conversations it sparked off in pubs and wine bars throughout Birmingham. BRMB had organised what it called "objective" means to find the most compatible couple - questionnaires, interviews, a group dynamics session, psychometric tests, lie detector tests, interviews with friends and family and horoscope analysis by Russell Grant.

All this got Caucasian Brummies thinking the unthinkable, namely that romance might not be the best basis for marriage after all. Perhaps, you could overhear them saying, there was more to the Asian culture of arranged marriages than they had previously assumed. When Central News conducted a phone-in poll, 54 per cent of its 8,000 callers said Greg and Carla had done the right thing.

The blind-date wedding was not making a mockery or marriage. It was making a mockery of romance. It was challenging the idea that chemistry and the giddy feeling that "you can't live without someone" are what marriage is about. It was saying ya-boo to the myth begun by the troubadours at the start of the millennium - namely that the overwhelming, all-encompassing emotion we call being "in" love is "true" love.

Today it's very useful for Westerners to separate marriage from romance. Too many of us marry because we fall in love, have affairs because we fall in love with someone else and divorce because we don't love each other any more. Perhaps if Prince Charles had been able to explain to his bride and to the nation that his was a dynastic rather than romantic liaison their marriage might have stood a better chance. It was our insatiable desire for romance that got in the way.

As we reach the end of the romantic millennium we need to rethink marriage just as we needed to in centuries before. The Church could use its considerable resources to help to do that and make the new millennium one of pragmatism - and of commitment.