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Speech

3rd National Marriage Education Conference

Issue date: 
Friday, 15 August 1997
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Karanga mai, mihi mai, aku rangatira, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

In my salad days, when I spoke at a friend's wedding, I would quote a saying I had come across, that 'Marriage is like a birdcage.' The birds outside are flapping against the side trying to get in, while the birds inside are flapping against the side trying to get out. At the time I thought that was quite funny. Now I am not so sure.

For the sad reality is that the number flapping to get in has decreased quite considerably, while the number actually getting out has increased alarmingly. And for many young people, the latter is the cause of, or at least the excuse for, the former. If marriage is such a fragile thing, some of them ask, if the pain of its disintegration such a likelihood, why expose ourselves to the risk? At the same time, social attitudes give no discouragement. De facto relationships, even the bearing and rearing of children out of wedlock, are becoming quite acceptable lifestyles: so much so that now married people often receive invitations addressed to Mr or Mrs So-and-So and Partner. Even I receive them, and so does my wife.

What is truly chilling is the belief that seems to have spread, that marriage is just another contract. And as with any other contract, there is nothing intrinsically sacred about it: there is nothing about marriage that has a special moral status. So, just as with any other contract, if you're prepared to pay the forfeit, then go ahead, break the agreement's terms. This is the attitude embedded in something that was reported to have been said at a wedding a few years ago, somewhere in the eastern United States. A guest, a friend of the groom's parents, is supposed to have remarked after looking over the bride, that the groom had 'done quite well' - that he'd made quite a 'good first marriage'. What a bleak statement, expressing as it does, a near certainty that the groom would one day have a second, or a third, or who knows how many, marriages.

But at what a cost? Because what costs there can be for children! And what costs there can be to the community at large - even for supposedly innocent bystanders!

Between 1986 and 1991, the number of people in de facto relationships increased by 40% - to almost 162,000. The majority were between 25 and 34 years of age. In the same period, the number of separated couples rose by over 20 % and the number of people divorced by over 30% - there were 10,000 divorces in 1996. That's approximately half of the number of marriages. In 1966, 12% of all births were ex-nuptial. In 1996 it was 42%; almost 24,000 children. In 1995, there were 13,650 abortions. 220 cases were girls under 16, and 2,416 young women between 16 and 19. In 1995, 5000 women and 8000 children sought the safety of women's refuges. Last year there were 104,000 sole parents on the DPB.

These are distressing and depressing figures. If you accept the premise - and most people did until quite recently - if you accept that the family is the basic unit of society; that society's health depends on healthy family life; and that healthy family life is best assured by a loving permanent relationship between husband and wife, then there is something, plainly, that has gone dreadfully wrong in New Zealand society. It is no consolation whatsoever to know that other western societies are in a similar predicament.

Well, we cannot do anything about similar problems in other parts of the world. The circumstances that we might be able to influence are here, in our own New Zealand homes.

You know, here in New Zealand, we have a real enigma. For this is a vigorous, innovative, vital society. We have great skills and enormous talent in every sphere of activity. And there is a vast amount of dedicated, loving service being done, usually quietly, and unsung. How is it then, that we have let the traditional values of home and family life slip so badly? How is it that there is so much violence in the home, so much physical and sexual abuse? How is it that so many fathers abandon their families, or take little interest in them, or fail to see how essential it is that they share in the nurturing of their children?

These are fundamental questions that should be troubling the souls of all conscientious New Zealanders. As a society, we need to address them urgently.

We spend enormous effort, and millions of dollars, in endeavouring to patch up casualties and to pick up pieces. But it is 'ambulance and hearse at the bottom of the cliff' stuff. At the top of the cliff, we need to bring about a basic change of attitude. Laurie O'Reilly, the Commissioner for Children, who I expect many of you will know, is endeavouring to do that with the programme he launched in conjunction with the Save the Children Fund, just days after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer - a tragedy not just for his family but for New Zealand. The programme is called "Fathers who Care: Partners in Parenting," and it is intended as an early intervention strategy for use by agencies working with families experiencing early signs of difficulty.

Marriage education, and marriage and relationship counselling services generally, are immensely important. Yet the agencies that provide assistance in these areas serve, mostly, people whose attitudes have already been formed, by their own upbringing, and by prevailing social mores. Do we not, as a society, have to start further back than that?, so that the influences of upbringing, of home, school and social environment, are wholesome and positive, directing us from early childhood on, towards, and not away from, those attitudes of personal, family and social responsibility that are so essential.

I suppose the media always come in for a bashing on occasions such as this, but can one escape the fact that so much of what is on television, and even in the daily papers, is anything but wholesome and positive? The prurient attention given recently to the rather sordid private lives of certain prominent personalities is hardly encouraging of the values that we must so desperately cultivate. And I for one need no statistics or scientific proof to satisfy me that the constant diet of violence on the screen creates a culture of violence among the impressionable, and, even, an indifference to it among a wider section of the community. Almost as harmful are the false expectations that are created. Advertising, the worlds of fashion and the body beautiful, give the message that fulfilment can be bought, that the "meaningful" relationship depends simply on suave actions and outward appearances - above all, that sex is great sport, the all-important objective and the ultimate satisfaction. I suggest that those who control the media need to examine ethical standards with much more care than has been their practice in recent years.

To be sure, television executives, for example, will say that their programming is simply responding to viewers' demands. That may be so, to some extent at least. But is it not the case that in a truly civilised society, everyone, including people in positions of influence in the media, has a duty to provide not followership only, but also leadership?

Somewhere behind all this, one significant contributor to much of what worries us, is the reluctance of many educators to associate moral values with instruction, sexual instruction in particular. I am assuming of course that there is some sex instruction, although the statistics cause one to wonder at the extent of it. It's all very well to talk about safe sex, and although I for myself believe that it is an important message, it's another 'ambulance at the bottom of the cliff' message. Far better, surely, to teach the advantages, better yet the virtue, of modesty and self restraint, and that the whole truth about sexual intimacy may be found only within a loving, committed and permanent relationship. Can putting condoms in schools advance that truth?

This reluctance to teach moral standards is itself a manifestation of a more general and I think quite disastrous philosophy, one that I believe has impoverished us. To put a label on it, it's the philosophy of moral relativism and privatised morality. It asserts that what is good and right is a matter of private taste and individual opinion only. Therefore, we cannot be judgmental: we cannot, and should never, assert anything about what is right and what is wrong. Listen to this rather grotesque but true account:

At a New Jersey high school, a female student found $1,000 in a purse and turned it in. The next day, a guidance counsellor led a discussion of the incident with a group of students. The counsellor asked them what they thought of the girl's action. They concluded that the girl had been foolish to turn in the money. The students then asked the counsellor what he thought of the girl's action. He told them that he believed the girl had done the right thing, but added that "he would not try to force his values on them" He later commented, "If I come from the position of what is right and what is wrong, then I am not their counsellor."

That may be an extreme example, but I think it's a valid one nonetheless. It is true, is it not, that in the heady days of the mid-1980s, we produced the Me Generation? - rights without responsibilities, assertive self fulfilment, instant gratification - the Instant Kiwi complex. The sense of community upon which so much of New Zealand society was built, has become pretty thin; as has the acceptance that we have duties to others, that there is an obligation to help others in need, to contribute time and resources to the greater good.

I am sure that much of the answer to the concerns we have about our society today lies not in providing more money, but in teaching and insisting on, sound moral values. We must as a society insist that there are certain values - virtues is the more forceful word - that are essential for community well-being. These are enduring values, because they are intimately linked with what it is to be a true person, and a worthwhile citizen: the virtues of truth, justice, respect, courage, willingness to work, self-discipline, service to others, compassion. These are, and have to be seen to be, good whether they suit our interests or not; true whether we agree willingly or not; values we must serve and that do not serve us. They are virtues that must be taught, but above all that must be practised. Too often, elevating talk is belied by actions; actions which always speak louder than the preceding words.

This is why it is so important that the lead in marriage education and in relationship counselling, is taken by Christian people. It is not that they can make any special claim to being virtuous, but rather that they understand the source of virtue and the authority upon which it is based. In a recent speech in the House of Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury put it this way: "Rules which make life worthwhile and keep relationships faithful and true are inextricably linked to the deepest things we believe about God and the values which transcend us all."

May I therefore commend those who have arranged this Conference, and who have brought together such a range of speakers and facilitators. The programme is a very interesting and very full one, and you will all be working very hard: I see that even the traditional happy hour has been reduced by 50%. I pray every blessing on you this weekend, and on the work you will do when you go down again from this mountain top.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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