THE current system of marriage registration contains a clear and historic injustice. Only the couple’s fathers’ names are formally recorded when the marriage is registered. This practice, unchanged since 1837, means that mothers are systemically overlooked on a day that celebrates the creation of a new family.
We have, therefore, chosen to introduce identical Bills in the House of Lords and the House of Commons to ensure that mothers’ names are equally recognised when marriages are registered (News, 2 February). MPs from all main parties have supported calls for reform, and a 2014 petition asking the Government to include mothers’ names received more than 70,000 signatures.
Including mothers’ names on the marriage entry is not as a simple as printing new register books and certificate stock. Apart from the more than £3 million that it would cost, it would require primary legislation, and leave unaddressed a number of problems with the current system. As clergy and churchwardens will be aware, at present, correcting errors to the marriage entry is difficult, submitting quarterly returns is an administrative burden, and theft of certificate stock presents an opportunity for identity fraud.
Consequently, our Bills propose an update to the system as a whole. To be clear, we do not propose any changes to the marriage ceremony, or to the Church’s doctrine of marriage. Preliminaries to marriage will remain the same, as would the way in which marriages are solemnised. The Bills propose that each marriage would be recorded on a “marriage document”, which the parties, witnesses, and officiating minister would each sign immediately after the solemnisation of the marriage. The document would then be delivered to the local superintendent registrar for inclusion in a centrally held electronic register, which would serve as the legal record rather than the local books, which could be kept as a historical record. The couple would then obtain a marriage certificate from the superintendent registrar.
THESE changes would relieve the administrative burden currently placed on members of the clergy to maintain register books and complete quarterly returns, as well as allow register entries to celebrate the part played by parents without discrimination. A similar system has been in operation in Scotland and Northern Ireland for some time; so there has been the opportunity to resolve any practical issues, including those relating to the return of the marriage document after the service.
In 2015, the then secretary general of the Archbishops’ Council wrote a letter to the Dean of the Arches, copied to diocesan registrars and archdeacons, asking for feedback on government proposals for changes to the current system, and our Bills have been drafted in the light of this feedback. Under the proposed system, it is likely that the incumbent, or other member of the clergy concerned, would have access to a secure website from which he or she would download the marriage document, complete the details, and then print it off. Arrangements would, of course, be made for incumbents who did not wish to use an online system, and where there was a vacancy in a benefice.
Other Bills proposing changes to marriage registration have been introduced during this parliamentary session. In particular, the Government recently suggested that it might support an amendment to the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill, to include the entire text of our Bills as its first clause. None the less, we have chosen to continue with our Bills so that these necessary changes can be made in the quickest and most straightforward manner possible. One of our Bills [the Bishop of St Albans’s] has already received its Second Reading in the House of Lords, and the other is scheduled to receive its Second Reading in the House of Commons on 16 March.
THE main obstacle to our success will be a lack of parliamentary time. Although we understand that a significant portion of government energy is being taken up by Brexit, it would be a great shame if this small but significant change could not be made. Attempts to make this change in previous Parliaments have been unsuccessful because they have run out of time, but we hope that, by working together in the Commons and the Lords, we will be able to give the Government as many opportunities as possible to pass the Bill.
In the centenary year of women’s suffrage, it makes good sense that we should take this opportunity to correct a historic injustice, and to relieve the clergy of a considerable administrative burden. We would be grateful if all who feel that this change should be enacted would contact their MPs to express their support, and ask for the issue to be made a legislative priority.
We are confident that these changes to marriage registration will benefit couples and families around the country. Although the process may take many months, we hope that this Parliament will take action.
Dr Alan Smith is the Bishop of St Albans; and Dame Caroline Spelman MP is the Second Church Estates Commissioner.