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So who wants to marry a perk?
If marriage is so wonderful, why is the prime suspect in any murder case always the spouse? The entire legal machine, from the highest judge to the lowliest plod, knows that a spouse never needs a motive. The bare fact that they were married to the victim is motive enough. Nobody has better reasons for killing you than the person who loves you most. This rule applies equally to couples who live together, without the benefit of bell, book and candle.
Similarly, people who live "in sin" will assure you a split is just as painful without a piece of paper or the legal palaver of a divorce. Living in sin is now so unremarkable that the Right Rev Gavin Reid, Bishop of Maidstone, did not turn a hair when one of his adult children elected to live with a partner.
This, however, has not stopped the Church of England's rearguard action against the declining power of a proper, old-fashioned marriage. Last week, Dr John Habgood, Archbishop of York, celebrated St Valentine's Day by asking the government to provide tax incentives to prod couples towards the altar. Recent legislation, he claimed, tended to treat cohabiting couples as if they were married. "And society seems to be saying, through the tax system, that it doesn't matter."
Habgood means well, but he ended up implying that the state of marriage is so dreadful, nobody in their right minds would do it unless you paid them. Denise Knowles, of Relate, complained: "This pulls the rug from under the feet of love. The responsibility for making a relationship last lies with the couple, not with the government. Marrying for tax incentives would be like marrying for money."
Our church leaders do have a way of putting their feet in their mouths, and Habgood caused more annoyance than pleasure - particularly among cohabiting couples, who were deeply nettled by the hint that they decided not to get married because they did a few sums on the back of an envelope and worked out that there was no financial point.
This old horse bolted ages ago, and waving a fiscal carrot is unlikely to tempt it back into the stable. Over the years, the government has been chipping away at the differences between the married and the single. Since 1979, the real value of tax relief for married couples has been nearly halved; and couples who shacked up together after 1988 can no longer claim two helpings of mortgage tax relief.
There is, however, a great deal more to it than money. In the bad old days, children born outside wedlock were stigmatised, and deserted paramours had little legal redress. The powers that be deserve nothing but praise for equalising the rights of the unmarried and their families. The numbers are so huge, there was really no choice.
This summer, the Church of England is expected to publish a report which, though not finalised, is unlikely to condemn cohabitation - and that will amount to the church condoning "living in sin". When the report comes before the General Synod in November, traditionalists will make the usual fuss about the sanctity of Christian marriage, but any such resolution will probably be defeated - another victory for the trendy liberals.
Is it kind, or even Christian, to try to discourage divorce? Before the laws were liberalised, millions of people were shackled to partners who made them miserable. Being divorced in spirit is still a divorce, and creating any obstacle, legal or financial, is sheer cruelty. If Habgood really wants to lower the divorce rate, he should make couples live together for at least a year before allowing them near the altar.
There is another solution that would encourage the stability of marriage and provide useful extra revenue for the government. The archbishop made his remarks last week in response to a survey carried out by BBC Wales, which revealed that one in eight men and one in 16 women admitted to being unfaithful to their partners.
An infidelity tax, applied equally to married and cohabiting couples, would make the profits from North Sea oil look like chicken feed. And the church could take comfort from the fact that though we may not get married for financial gain, we are less likely to misbehave if it means financial loss.
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