By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News
Enduring marriages may be becoming a thing of the past
Some 650 couples went to mass at the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral on Saturday to celebrate the 43,000 years of experience of marriage they have between them.
Several first made their vows more than 60 years ago.
But there was a more sombre purpose behind the event, organised by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.
He wanted to present an example of enduring marriage in order to warn of the dangers of letting it go.
Marriage is at its lowest level since records began, and people are getting divorced earlier.
'Society under threat'
About 40% of marriages now end in divorce, with the result that almost a quarter of children have experienced family break-up by the time they are 16.
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor describes it as a time-bomb threatening the integrity of British society.
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor says marriage breakdown 'is one of the greatest evils'
"The effects of the break up of marriage can be seen because of drugs and crime," he says.
"So many people are in prison...as the result of broken marriages. And it's a time bomb because the effects are insidious. It's starting now with divorce but its effects will go on and on."
Among the couples celebrating decades together were Tom and Kathleen O'Driscoll, childhood sweethearts who tied the knot 61 years ago, after Kathleen had waited three years for Tom to return from war.
A black-and-white photograph shows them - he in new pin-striped suit with a large carnation in his button-hole, she with a long veil swept back from her face - shyly embarking on this long journey.
They joined hands in Westminster Cathedral again to remake those difficult promises.
The Buckinghams knew marriage would be no piece of cake
The O'Driscolls blame the collapse in marriage on the unwillingness of people to work at their relationships when the going gets rough.
"When things go wrong it's no good just brushing things aside," says Kathleen. "Just speak about it. If you leave it, it will only get worse."
"Two little words," says Tom O'Driscoll cheekily. "Yes, dear"
The Buckinghams also knew - 50 years ago - that marriage would be no piece of cake.
They met while working in coffee and custard for a food company and acknowledge that since then they have been through ups and downs.
"I think people give up too easily," says Esther Buckingham. "They don't give and take and work at it really. It's not all sunshine and roses."
"And possibly they're afraid to commit themselves permanently," says Bert Buckingham. "And if they don't get married, they can see it's an easier way to break up if they have to."
But they are a dying breed, who formed their partnerships in an era when marriage was accepted as the bedrock of society.
Wedding numbers down
Since then divorce has become easier, and living in unmarried partnerships has lost the stigma it once had.
Indeed some marriage experts say the important thing is not marriage, but long-term, stable, monogamous relationships, both for bringing up children and for the integrity of society.
Public policies should be judged on the basis of whether they help family life or not
The Church has seen marriage decline, and its own share in among weddings falls away even faster.
But Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor denies that this is just a religious issue. He says church weddings, and marriages supported by church communities stand a better chance of being fruitful.
"Society must have some sort of infrastructure," he says. "There's an African saying...'you need a village to bring up a child'. Public policies should be judged on the basis of whether they help family life or not. If they do, they should be approved."
The Church is smarting from legislation - such as that providing for civil partnerships and outlawing discrimination against homosexual people - that it felt undermined family life and, by extension, the welfare of children. Others take an exactly opposite view.
Whatever the disagreements about how the modern family should be constituted, the Church insists it remains essential to family life. It says the consequences of losing it could be disastrous for us all.
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