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UK marriage rates and religious weddings at lowest levels on record

By Thomas Hornall, PA

Marriage rates for heterosexual couples are at their lowest level on record and the popularity of religious wedding ceremonies also fell to historic lows, according to new official data.

Fewer than one in four (23%) opposite-sex couples in England and Wales chose a place of worship for their big day in 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

There were 242,842 marriages registered in total in 2017 – a decrease of 2.8% from 2016 – driven largely by a decline of 9.5% in religious ceremonies from the previous year, it added.

Some 6,932 were between same-sex couples – 44% between male couples and 56% between females – a similar figure to 2016, when 7,019 were registered, the ONS added.

More than 1,000 couples converted their existing civil partnership into a marriage and 43 same-sex couples married through religious ceremonies in 2017.

It is the first time data for the year has been published and it continues a long-term trend in declining numbers of marriages between opposite-sex couples, with a 45% decrease since 1972.

The figures also illustrate an age gap among heterosexual couples, with more women than men marrying aged 30 or younger and more men than women marrying aged 30 or older.

This pattern reflects the fact that men tend to get into relationships with women younger than themselves on average, the ONS said.

The average age for men marrying in 2017 was 38 years, while for women it was 35.7 years among heterosexual couples.

In comparison, the average age at marriage for same-sex couples was slightly higher, at 40.1 years for men and 36.6 years for women, the figures show.

Over the past decade, there has been a steep drop in opposite-sex marriage rates between men and women younger than 20 (57% for men and 62% for women).

By contrast, marriage rates for those aged 65 years and over have increased, climbing 31% for men and 89% for women, the ONS said.

Alice Rogers, a solicitor with Hall Brown Family Law, said the figures appeared to show a gulf in how different age groups prioritise marriage.

She said: “Many younger couples find themselves still trying to clear their student debts, saving to get on the property ladder and starting careers, and so question the expense of a wedding, especially when they see many of their peers choosing to cohabit instead.

“On the other hand, individuals over the age of 55 seem to grasp more clearly the benefits of marriage, even if they’ve already been through the pain of divorce.

“The figures suggest that women are driving marriage in later life.

“For some, that will be down to their desire for a companion to enjoy retirement with but there are also those women who want the financial security and independence which goes with it.

“Being married offers partnership and some peace of mind in that respect.”

Marriage rates are the number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried men and women aged 16 years and over, with official records stretching back to 1862.

The full figures only become available around 26 months after the end of the reference year owing to delays in the submission of marriage entries by the clergy and other authorised persons, the ONS said.

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