Anglican share of Australian weddings in free-fall, funerals may be next

New research suggests church weddings may be a thing of the past

By Mark Brolly

February 3 2020The number of marriages in Anglican churches has collapsed in the past 12 years, with the Church's share of all weddings in Australia plummeting by 63 per cent between 2008 and 2018.

There was an average of only two weddings per Anglican parish in Australia in 2018 compared with about nine per parish in 1998 and five in 2008.

A leading Melbourne Anglican layman, Mr Colin Reilly, analysed marriage data issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2018 – the year after same-sex marriage was made legal, almost all of which are conducted by civil celebrants.

“Both marriage and divorce rates have been in decline in Australia in recent decades,” Mr Reilly wrote in a paper based on the ABS publication Marriage and Divorces, Australia 2008 and 2018. “Setting this to one side, marriage has increasingly become a secular institution with the majority of marriages conducted by civil celebrants since the beginning of the 21st century.”

Mr Reilly said the Anglican share of Christian marriage had declined by 32 per cent between 2008 and 2018 – from 7373 to 2743 over the period. The 63 per cent fall in the Anglican share of all weddings “is only partly explained by the fact that 5.5 per cent of all Australian weddings in 2018 were of same-gender couples”.

“The decline in Anglican marriages over the past decade is relatively uniform across the country so is unlikely to be attributable to theological debates on marriage in the various dioceses,” he said.

In Victoria, 9.8 per cent of marriages were performed by Anglican celebrants in 2008 but this had plummeted to 1.7 per cent in 2018 – lower than all states and territories except the Northern Territory (5.2 per cent down to 0.8 per cent).

The proportion of marriages conducted by all ministers of religion, including non-Christian ministers, remained above 90 per cent between 1908 and 1948 and was even 89.4 per cent in 1968. It dropped to 65.6 per cent in 1978 but was still just above 50 per cent in 1998. This century though that figure has plummeted to 35 per cent in 2008 and 20.3 per cent in 2018.

Anglican wedding services made up 11.3 per cent of the total in 1998 but this slumped to 6.2 per cent 10 years later and to 2.3 per cent in 2018.

Civil celebrants made up fewer than one in 10 celebrants until 1958 (11.1 per cent) but soared to 34.4 per cent 20 years later, 65 per cent in 2008 and 79.7 per cent in 2018.

Mr Reilly told TMA that while the Church “has got itself tied up in knots” over certain types of marriage, the world had largely turned its back on the churches as places in which to get married “and so I’m wondering whether we’re debating the right kind of question at all”.

He said another factor might be that civil celebrants have been marketing their services better, while for many churches “it was always a sideline”, apart from a few churches such as St John's Toorak, which has had a very conscious wedding ministry outreach.

A similar pattern was emerging with funerals.

“More and more funerals are being conducted away from churches,” Mr Reilly said. “Now that’s been attributable in part to the consolidation of the funeral industry ... it is a big business, and they’re maximising turnover and reducing costs. So, for them, it’s much cheaper to have a funeral on the premises, it’s their premises, and therefore generate extra revenue rather than the churches. So if a person’s first contact is with the funeral director, the funeral director’s not going to suggest, I would think, going to your local church.”

He added that family firms that once might have had links to particular churches were “in huge decline”.

With fewer Australians attending weddings and funerals in churches on top of the decline in Sunday attendances, there is a risk that most Australians will have no experience of Christian communities at worship.

Mr Reilly said another factor in the decline of church weddings might be the state of the buildings themselves.

“I was talking to one priest about this and he said, 'Well, I thought it was just about our churches getting a bit shabby'.

“One of the interesting phenomenons about the church compared to most other businesses is that it’s not been very good at refreshing and renewing our plant. Somebody told me the other day that there was only one air-conditioned church in Sydney – it’s Christ Church St Laurence – but the expectation of people is they would rather go to shopping malls because it’s air-conditioned, it’s comfortable in times of heat stress. So why aren’t we meeting what you might call community standards?

“The main observation I would make in terms of that is why aren’t we prepared to talk about these things openly amongst ourselves?”