Religion and state in marriage, cohabitation and civil partnership: Examples, typologies and contestations from the United Kingdom

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I explore several case studies on the relationship between the state, marriage, cohabitation and civil partnership as points of intersection between religious tradition, personal belief and commitment, familial and social belonging, the conditions of modernity, and the structures and laws of modern bureaucratic states. The first example highlights the plurality of legal traditions that can exist within single polities by referencing the historic example of Greta Green in Scotland where, historically, young people under marriageable age in English law eloped and married under Scots law. The second is the controversy generated in the UK in 2007 when the then Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, explored whether some personal law aspects of the Muslim Shariah might be recognized within English law. Next I outline some of the principal meanings attributed to marriage particularly by Christianity in Europe, and where Christian views are generally ‘contractual,’ ‘companionate’ or ‘sacramental.’ In most societies informed by Christianity, the principal form has been monogamy between a man and a woman. There is sharp debate and controversy around emergent forms for the public recognition of relationships between individuals of homosexual and lesbian sexual orientation. What are often popularly called ‘gay marriages’ highlight the more general problematics involved in questions how ‘marriage,’ ‘cohabitation’ and ‘civil partnership’ are handled in relation to ‘religion, tradition and modernity.’ Most social, legal and state systems include elements of more than one model and it is unlikely that any one model will be suitable in all circumstances. At issue are how far the state can and/or should impose unitary legal and social policy frameworks and what exceptions and plural approaches can be accepted and implemented? I argue for the development of an appropriate ‘religious literacy’ among policy makers and civil servants who deal with the above issues. This is not on the basis that social policy and legal developments should necessarily endorse religious perspectives, but because democratic societies need to be capable of connecting with the perspectives and realities of those who organize their personal and social lives according to such perspectives.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Changing World Religion Map: Sacred Places, Identities, Practices and Politics
EditorsStanley Brunn
PublisherSpringer Verlag
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9789401793766
ISBN (Print)9789401793759
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015
Externally publishedYes
EventThe State and Religious Marriage: 5th International Conference of the Société, Droit et Religions de L’Université de Sherbrooke (SoDRUS) - Université de Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, Canada
Duration: 12 Feb 200913 Feb 2009


ConferenceThe State and Religious Marriage

Bibliographical note

This chapter is not available in Pure


  • Civil partnership
  • Cohabitation
  • Marriage
  • State law

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)


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