A MOTION noting “the growing complexity of the legal requirements imposed on members of the clergy who conduct weddings” and seeking the replacement of the current system with “universal civil preliminaries” on the model of the Scottish post-1977 system was rejected by the General Synod on Tuesday morning.
Moving a private member’s motion inviting the Archbishops’ Council to introduce legislation, the Revd Stephen Trott (Peterborough) described banns as “not an effective means of inquiry”.
They had been created, he said, by the Church to address the circumstances of 1215, “and the world has, to say the least, moved on since then. Eight hundred years ago, the publication of banns was heard by everyone in the community. It no longer does what it says on the tin.”
Since 2015, he said, non-EEA nationals had not been allowed to marry in church by banns or common licence; and clergy had to check the passports of couples before they could be married. He had attended a training day given by the Border Agency at which officials “admitted that they find it difficult” to detect forged passports.
“For the clergy, taking copies of passports is no safeguard against anything, other than to direct applicants to the register office if they do not hold an appropriate passport.”
This created a situation in which, “for the first time, there is a whole category of people against whom we must discriminate on account of their nationality, excluding them from banns or a common licence altogether,” he said. “Again, I find myself very uneasy at having to treat people differently on account of their passport.”
He described the motion as “an opportunity to simplify an ancient tradition by which we have become hidebound, and in the process to lift the burden of the law from wedding couples and from the clergy.
“It is time to hand over to Caesar the laws which Caesar has imposed — and to hand over our marriage preparation and celebration to God.”
Carol Wolstenholme (Newcastle) referred to the new report on the laity, Setting God’s People Free, and its call for a new culture. Could one of the solutions to the “heavy burden” on clergy be to encourage them to enrol skilled people in the administration of marriage? “Let’s leave reading of banns as they are, but use them as opportunity to develop discipleship and grow the Church.”
Dr Mike Todd (Truro) had written his Ph.D. thesis on the theology of marriage. He referred to the legacy of the 1753 Hardwick Act, which had first introduced universal registration, and related to rights, including property and what happened when a marriage came to an end. The Church’s interest was “surely very different. Are we not principally called to announce God’s grace?”
There was no indication that more people were married in church in this country than in France or Scotland, where the separation of the roles of Church and State was long established. He argued that the Church had “lost the ability to define for ourselves the boundaries of marriage, ceding it to the State, and we continue very much at the mercy of secular change.”
Its part in the regulation of marriage was “seriously impacting on our ability to carry out mission”. If the motion was carried, the Church could move from being an agent of the State to a focus on “helping people find God’s grace in their relationship throughout its existence, not just at the beginning”.
This “liberation” could “transform our theology of marriage and approach to many who have limited contact with the Church”. About half the number of children born were being born to unmarried parents. It was an opportunity to “welcome all people” regardless of the reasons that the Church had in the past provided obstacles to being married.
The Revd Neil Patterson (Hereford), moved an amendment designed to address points put forward by the General Secretary and Wedding Project team, agreed that marriage preliminaries were “too complicated and cumbersome and can and should be simplified”. Most couples lived together before marriage and had only one address, but, because many marriages were conducted under a qualifying connection, many banns were conducted in multiple places. “How often is that useful?”
There was also a case for a single rather than threefold reading. He also spoke of complicated cases, in which a licence was sought. He suggested that the current system perpetuated “the illusion we have about ourselves: that we own marriage, control marriage, permit it to those we consider worthy”. This illusion was “very deep-seated” in the history of the Church and was contributing to “the painful mess we will be in tomorrow”.
Mr Trott did not see how the amendment would “change things significantly to deal with the problems of both the administrative burden and the fact that we are perpetuating a system that is ineffective”. He resisted it.
Prudence Dailey (Oxford) said that only this amendment would allow her to vote in favour of the motion, as she wanted to reduce the administrative burden on the clergy while not losing the pastoral opportunities available through the reading of banns. “Not too much simplification, please,” she said.
Furthermore, if the Church of England still believed in being the Established Church, it should not seek to abolish things such as banns, which had symbolic significance beyond the simple trappings of administrative. Banns also allowed churches an opportunity to welcome and get to know a couple before their wedding, which increased the odds that they joined the congregation permanently.
The Bishop of Warrington, the Rt Revd Richard Blackburn (Northern Suffragans), supported the amendment as it allowed more time to reflect on how to move forward on this issue. As an archdeacon, he had on some occasions to tell couples who thought that they were married that they weren’t, because a clergyman had failed to meet the legal requirement for banns publication.
“The process around the calling of banns is unsatisfactory and risks serious pastoral and legal consequences,” he said. “We do need to grasp this nettle. Banns do not do what it they on the tin.”
Mr Trott’s motion could be best supported by backing the amendment.
Prebendary Stephen Lynas (Bath & Wells), said that the amendment offered a halfway house. The Synod must resist this and “go the whole hog”. “I see this motion unamended as a St Valentine’s Day gift to a lot of clergy and lay parish administrators who struggle with the system.”
Members should ignore the “scaremongering” about finances, as only about £50 per wedding would be lost in total. The Church of England did weddings much better than civil venues, with better preparation, and by bringing God into the life of the couple. None of this is was in danger from the motion, he said.
The Revd Kate Stacey (Oxford) said that she was “surprised and saddened” by even the amended motion, as the reading of banns was a vital tool for mission. “Don’t take this away, but reinvest in this life-events ministry,” she said, referring to the occasional offices.
The amendment was narrowly lost by 148 votes to 146, with 13 recorded abstentions.
Debate resumed on the unamended motion.
The Archdeacon of Rochdale, the Ven. Cherry Vann (Manchester), opposed the motion: the C of E’s 45,000 weddings a year put it in direct contact with 90,000 people, mainly aged between 18 and 45 — a key age group that the Church was trying to reach. The reading of banns enabled the Church to “demonstrate something of God’s love through our care and concern”, she said.
“Research shows that couples invited to church to hear their banns read respond positively and attend,” she said; and they welcomed hearing prayers said for them. Many chose a church wedding for the spiritual dimension, and hearing the prayers added to this. “All the research shows that contact with local clergy and experience of church services works positively towards drawing people deeper towards God and God’s people.”
Canon Sally Lodge (Chelmsford) spoke about Paula, who was in her sixties, had been baptised as a baby, but had rarely attended a church service since then. Nine years ago, she had come through the doors of her church to hear the banns being read for her son. She had been asked to do the flowers, and the reading of the banns had given her “permission to cross the door” so she that could count the number of pews.
“She came for the second and third reading, and the banns transformed Paula’s life,” she said. Paula has since been confirmed and is a PCC member and helps to lead Messy Church. “She is a natural evangelist. Her desire to share Jesus flows through her,” she said. “Paula’s story is not unique. There are others in the congregation who are there because they came to hear their banns, or banns for others.”
She said that the reading of banns was a burden, “but the experience of people like Paula make it a burden worth bearing.”
Carl Fender (Lincoln) said that the introduction of the 2015 Regulations had “imposed additional complexity” and introduced “a compliance culture which is not something clergy should be managing”.
The Revd Tiffer Robinson (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) described the current system as “unintentionally cumbersome”. Once Brexit had taken effect, “it is likely that we will have to send all non-Britons to the registrar.”
He said that the reading of banns was “complex” for couples who had to “find out what parish they live in, speak to the vicar or find a rural dean in cases of vacancies; and pay them some money to read their names out”.
In a vote by Houses, the motion was lost in all three. Bishops: 10 for, 16 against; Clergy: 74 for, 87 against; Laity: 79 for, 81 against, with seven recorded abstentions.