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

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

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

"Our nation is threatened by a high divorce rate, a rise in cohabitation, a rise in non-marital births, a decline in the marriage rate, 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 need and responsibility to help couples begin, build, and sustain better marriages and to restore those threatened by divorce."

In addition to Mannoia, the declaration was initially signed by Bishop Anthony O'Connell, chairman of the Catholic bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family Life; the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches; and Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Mannoia said those organizing the declaration will call on congregations in their faith groups to make dealing with marital issues a higher priority and will encourage partnering with clergy of other faiths on the community level.

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

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

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

Although the chief endorsers said the statement was designed to speak for heterosexual marriage rather than to specifically oppose same-sex unions, Land said: "We certainly don't shy away from asserting that God ordained marriage and that God ordained marriage as between a man and a woman. It is a covenantal, lifetime relationship between one man 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 of weddings, calls for churches to offer practical resources to enhance marriage and prevent divorce. It asks churches to encourage marriage, educate young people about the responsibilities of marriage, prepare engaged couples, offer pastoral care to couples "at all stages of their relationship," and help couples facing marital problems.

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

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

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