Marriage rates in England and Wales have steadily fallen over decades
Marriage rates in England and Wales have fallen for a fourth year to reach their lowest level since records began.
A total of 232,990 couples wed in 2008, down 1% on the year before, Office for National Statistics figures showed.
For every 1,000 adult men, 21.8 married in 2008, compared with 22.4 in 2007. For women aged over 16 it was 19.6 per 1,000, down from 20.2 the year before.
The Church of England said marriage was now seen as the crown of a relationship rather than a gateway to adulthood.
A spokesman said: "We have found that marriage is regarded as a serious commitment and something people aspire to, even those already living together.
"Making a positive public decision to a committed, life-long relationship changes behaviour - especially for men.
"We have found that men coming for weddings are as interested in their relationship and the quality of it as in the day itself."
The marriage rate, calculated by the number of marriages per head of population, is now at its lowest level since records began in 1862.
The long-term trend in recent decades has been downward, although a rise was observed between 2002 and 2004.
Jill Kirby, from the Centre for Policy Studies, told the BBC the fall was worrying because of the strong links between marriage and family stability.
She said cohabitation was increasingly common but often short-lived.
"The public and private commitment involved in getting married makes a real difference to the longevity of relationships, so public policy needs to support and encourage marriage," she said.
"Otherwise we shall just see more family break up, which is hard for children and bad for society."
The think tank Civitas said that despite the drop in marriage rates, more than 60% of young unmarried parents surveyed in 2007 actually wanted to marry.
It said young people wanted certain things in place before saying "I do", with the top three being a partner to whom they wanted to commit, financial stability and home ownership.
A spokesperson said: "The question is, will people who want to marry succeed in doing so? Or are high rates of unmarried parenting indicators of thwarted aspirations?"
Resolution, a group of family lawyers, said the legal benefits of tying the knot should be extended to cohabiting but unmarried couples.
Vice-chairman David Allison said: "The majority of people don't understand that living together does not give them any financial protection should the relationship end."
The number of religious weddings has also fallen, but the Church of England said its share had remained stable at 24%.
"Many churches are inviting parishioners to celebrate marriage on Sunday at special services using new liturgy for Valentine's Day," a spokesman said.