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Despite all that is said today, marriage has a very important part in our lives.  Many couples who opt to 'live together', formerly called 'living in sin' often use the excuse that marriage is 'just a piece of paper'.  What they are actually referring to is the wedding certificate that is given once the wedding ceremony is over.  But what actually does take place prior to that 'piece of paper'?

Although wedding ceremonies are now being held in all sorts of places, from the sublime to the ridiculous, many wedding ceremonies are still being held in the Church.  The current law of the land says that, so long as there is no reason why a couple should not marry, then a couple can marry in their local Parish Church.  Each area throughout the land has its own Parish Church.  Churches are not obliged, however, to marry anyone who has been divorced.

So, using the 1977 Marriage Service as an example, what vows are taken once the couple have walked down the aisle?

First the minister is required to ask if anyone present knows a reason why these persons may not lawfully marry, to declare it.  Assuming nobody has any reasons, the ceremony continues.  The minister then says to the couple "The vows you are about to take are to be made in the name of God, who is judge of all and who knows all the secrets of our hearts: therefore if either of you knows a reason why you may not lawfully marry, you must declare it now."

Then addressing the man first, the minister asks "(...), will you take (...) to be your wife? Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?"  After saying "I will", the minister then asks the same of the woman about her soon-to-be husband.  The woman then says "I will."

The groom then declares "I, (...), take you,(...), to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, (or to love, cherish and worship) till death us do part, according to God's holy law; and this is my solemn vow."  The bride then makes the same declaration.

After some prayers, there is the exchanging of the wedding rings.  The groom again speaks first.  "I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage.  With my body I honour you, all that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you, within the love of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."  The bride again repeats the words the groom has just said.

The minister pronounces the couple husband and wife, and says that they are married in the eyes of the church.  At this point the tissues come out and the newly wedded couple go to sign the register for that 'piece of paper' followed by the photos to remember the day by.

What promises!  What commitments!  Two people, in front of all their friends and family and before God (for those who believe in Him and for those who don't) committing to stand by each other for the rest of their lives, no matter what life throws at them.

Not for them the unspoken fear that their partner might leave them for whatever reason at any time, leaving them to bring up any children without their father.  Not for them the fear that someone else will take their place in the arms of the one they love.  But a sense of trust, value, peace, security and companionship for the future.

Marriage is not just a piece of paper.  It is so much more than that.  For those who go into a marriage they have declared that there probably will be bad times as well as good.  Marriage is sharing our lives with someone who accepts us 'as we are'.  We do not have to pretend to be 'perfect' in the presence of our spouse.  They know us better than that.

Marriage is the ideal.  Sadly many marriages do fail.  Easy divorce has given many people an easy way out.  They no longer have to keep their marriage vows.  The broken promises do hurt or destroy the trust of the other party.  But still marriage is what the majority of us want for ourselves and our children.

But when a young couple walk down the aisle, what are they going to be bringing into that marriage?  Innocence, purity, good health?  Or is the marriage tainted before it begins?

When we look at what is being taught in schools regarding sex education, that 'so long as you use precautions (condom and/or the pill) it is your body to decide for yourself who you will have sex with', then innocence and purity is lost at an early age.  You may even be taking sexually transmitted diseases into the marriage bed.  You may be infertile due to a previous abortion or Chlamydia that you didn't even know you had.  You may be taking into the marriage the pain of previous relationships.

Surely our children deserve to be told about marriage.  Having read the above vows, isn't it sensible to wait until that special night - the wedding night - to give yourselves to each other?  Girls currently dress provocatively to attract a partner.  Yet what can be more romantic to a young man than to see his virgin bride walking down the aisle towards him, knowing that they have both waited until this time and have their futures ahead of them?

Courtship has gone out of fashion.  Gone are the days when chaperones were required and women dressed modestly.  Yet chastity before marriage and fidelity within marriage will actually go a long way to preventing sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancies and abortion, single parents or multi-family set-ups where children have different fathers, and all the other social ills that we are currently seeing.

Mistakes will still be made.  None of us are perfect.  But if we at least try to encourage our youngsters into knowing the difference between right and wrong and not letting them choose for themselves, then maybe, just maybe we will save a lot of future heartache.

For anyone who has already become sexually active, it is not too late to stop.  It may be easier said than done.  But it is your future.  You may already know the pain caused by the casual realationship(s) you have entered into.  You may already have had an abortion or a baby.  But having further casual sex will not take the pain away.  It will only get worse.  Sex can be fun and enjoyable.  After all, it was God who created us to procreate in that way.  But within a stable relationship.  Not in a secret manner down a back alley with someone whose name you may not even know, or someone you met at a nightclub or on holiday.

In 1 Corinthians 6 verse 18 it says "Flee from sexual immorality.  All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body."  God didn't make us to be sexually immoral, but to be part of loving relationship, with our spouse and with Him.

Now all we need is for love, marriage and commitment to be promoted in schools in preference to the sordid sex education that is currently promoted.

A leaflet, written by Dr ES Williams, former Director of Public Health, has been produced called Marriage and Cohabitation that explains the ten essential differences.  For further information please visit www.belmonthouse.co.uk.

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