By the time couples reach the altar in the Rev Peter Brown's church in West Winch, Norfolk, they will know a great deal about each other. As part of his pre-marriage preparation, he insists that partners complete a six-page questionnaire and discuss their responses, candidly and eye-to-eye.

'Romantically, love can sometimes be a dangerous thing,' he says. 'It can veil problems. What you try to do is to get them to move aside that veil.'

Pre-marital counselling has always been part of the clergy's job. But a recent report has shown that Church of England clergy spend less time on couples intending to marry than any other denomination, even though they perform most weddings. This failure on the part of the church to look at how it could reduce the number of failed marriages had already struck Peter Brown. The questionnaire is, he says, an extremely efficient way of gathering information about the state of a relationship.

It is structured in the form of statements, about which couples can express degrees of agreement and disagreement. The statements include: 'I am happy with my partner's sexual drive'; 'I am very satisfied with the amount of affection I receive from my partner'; 'We disagree on whether the husband's occupation should be a top priority in where we live'; and 'I expect some of our romantic love will fade after marriage.'

The couples' responses are then computer-processed and compared for the number of joint, or 'positive', agreements and disagreements in each of the 11 sections. One or two positive agreements in each section make it a 'growth' area; seven or more produce a 'strength' area. 'It's people with several 'growth' areas who are more likely to have an unsuccessful relationship,' Mr Brown explains.

He first discovered the technique when he was teaching textiles at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. In the early Eighties he decided to become ordained, and during his training to prepare couples for marriage he was introduced to the questionnaire, designed in the Sixties by social scientist and fellow academic David Olson. So far it has been used around the world by 750,000 couples, adopted by Relate and other secular organisations.

Mr Brown has been using it for two-and-a-half years at St Mary's parish church, where he marries only about 15 couples a year and can afford to put aside a week of evenings to counsel each couple. He is aware that busier parishes cannot provide such personal attention. And whatever the results thrown up by the questionnaire, he is still obliged by law - like every Church of England clergyman - to marry anyone who wishes.

Over the past five years, research in America among more than 1,000 couples showed that those who presented nine or 10 'growth' areas are either now divorced or 'very unhappy', while those with comparable 'strength areas' are still happily married. More than 10 per cent of couples decided against marriage after they had discussed issues on the questionnaire that were drawn to their attention.

So should some couples be advised not to go ahead with their marriage? 'I would never say, 'This is a terrible thing. Don't go ahead with it',' Mr Brown says. 'Those with bad results may end up happy because they start talking.'

The questionnaire's sections have American-sounding titles; conflict resolution, realistic expectations, role relationship. But Mr Brown does not give it the hard American sell. 'I don't want to come across as some kind of zealot,' he says. 'But I know from experience how failing to address the seeds of a problem can be a recipe for disaster.'

Now into his second marriage, Mr Brown, 55, has a personal insight into what can happen when issues are left undiscussed. 'If you push things back, they become an insurmountable burden to your relationship,' he says. 'I really would have welcomed something like this.'

Couples never see each other's results or the final analysis, which allows them greater freedom for honesty. Rather than confront 'growth' areas head on, Mr Brown gently 'guides' them into discussion.

'It's done in a way that doesn't hurt anybody's feelings,' says police sergeant Tony Smith, 38, who married Louise, 32, a legal secretary, last year. Both had been divorced. One area that came to light was Louise's difficulty in expressing her feelings. Eventually, she admitted that she felt pressurised by Tony when it came to her career.

'I'm naturally ambitious,' says Tony, 'and wanted her to achieve too. I pushed her to fulfil her potential.' Now Louise is training to be a driving instructor and, in response, he has 'adapted' his behaviour. 'I just let Louise get on with it in her own time,' says Tony, who appreciated the 'pragmatic approach' of the questions. 'It forced us to discuss issues that could have taken four to five years to emerge through trial and error.'

The couple felt comfortable talking about their relationship with Mr Brown. The prospect of exploring highly personal areas with your nearest and dearest can be daunting for some. 'They think it's some kind of test that you can either pass or fail,' says Mr Brown.

'When I said, 'How do you think we're getting on?', he wouldn't tell us anything,' says Rachel Stewart, 21, a secretary who is marrying Robert Hildon, a 29-year-old forklift engineer, this August.

Initially, the couple did not want to complete the questionnaire because they were so sure about each other's feelings. 'He didn't say he wouldn't marry us,' says Rachel, 'but it sounded as if he'd be a bit funny about it if we didn't agree.'

Robert eventually conceded, 'because I was curious', but still felt it was unneccessary. 'We always discuss things,' he says. 'When Rachel wants to talk, we talk.'

But Mr Brown thinks the questionnaire should benefit a strong relationship as well, helping to 'put things into context'. And for those with several weak areas, his technique can be an effective preventive measure. 'With a bit of lubrication from me they can work things out in a reasonable way. I've had letters from all parts of country asking to use the questionnaire. There's a real hunger for something like this.'

(Photograph omitted)