WASHINGTON, Nov. 15 (RNS) -- In a rare joint statement, evangelical and mainlineProtestant religious leaders have joined with Roman Catholic Churchofficials to voice their concern on the state of marriage in America andthe need for churches to do more to support couples and to help reducethe divorce rate.

"Of all groups, we are convinced that Christians should be speakingout about marriage and establishing an understanding of what it is sothat we can, by God's grace, transform the culture and reverse the trendof rising divorces in the country," Bishop Kevin Mannoia, president ofthe National Association of Evangelicals, told a news conference Tuesdayat which the joint statement was released.

The joint statement, "A Christian Declaration on Marriage," was theresult of a task force Mannoia first convened early this year withofficials of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the NationalCouncil of Churches, and the Southern Baptist Convention.

"Our nation is threatened by a high divorce rate, a rise incohabitation, a rise in non-marital births, a decline in the marriagerate, and a diminishing interest in and readiness for marrying,especially among young people," the two-page declaration says.

"Therefore, as church leaders, we recognize an unprecedented needand responsibility to help couples begin, build, and sustain bettermarriages and to restore those threatened by divorce."

In addition to Mannoia, the declaration was initially signed byBishop Anthony O'Connell, chairman of the Catholic bishops' Committee onMarriage and Family Life; the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of theNational Council of Churches; and Richard Land, president of theSouthern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Mannoia said those organizing the declaration will call oncongregations in their faith groups to make dealing with marital issuesa higher priority and will encourage partnering with clergy of otherfaiths on the community level.

Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore said there already are examplesof cooperation among churches to encourage marriages.

"I am convinced that there is yet much untapped energy in churchesfor sharing ideas and resources as well as developing new modes ofcooperation," he said.

The religious leaders also hope to plan a "marriage summit" forbishops and other denominational leaders, but the time and date of sucha meeting has not yet been determined.

Although the chief endorsers said the statement was designed tospeak for heterosexual marriage rather than to specifically opposesame-sex unions, Land said: "We certainly don't shy away from assertingthat God ordained marriage and that God ordained marriage as between aman and a woman. It is a covenantal, lifetime relationship between oneman and one woman, not between two people of the same sex."

He also said he was concerned that he is a "statistical oddity"because he has been married close to 29 1/2 years to the same woman. The declaration, noting that clergy officiate at three-quarters ofweddings, calls for churches to offer practical resources to enhancemarriage and prevent divorce. It asks churches to encourage marriage,educate young people about the responsibilities of marriage, prepareengaged couples, offer pastoral care to couples "at all stages of theirrelationship," and help couples facing marital problems.

Mannoia told Religion News Service the marriage declaration is thefirst manifestation of his goal to help his evangelical organization tocooperate with others on key issues of concern that cross denominations.

"This is a major, major issue that we think is important and I thinkwhat you're seeing is the effort on the part of NAE to work togetherwith other groups," he said.

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