Unease at timetable for clergy to adapt to new marriage formalities

09 August 2019

Clergy say that they feel unprepared for the marriage register reforms

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RESPONSIBILITY for issuing marriage certificates after church weddings in England and Wales could pass from priests to superintendent registrars by the end of this year, it was signalled this week. Under the proposals, the marriage registers with legal authority held in churches will be closed and become a thing of the past.

The Faculty Office of the Church of England has warned that just months remain to train more than 20,000 clergy in what constitutes a “significant change” to current practice. Online, many of the clergy — including the Bishop of Truro — commented that the Office’s note, issued on Monday, was the first that they had heard of the proposals.

On Friday, the Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the C of E, the Revd Dr Malcolm Brown, sought to reassure clergy that discussions were ongoing with the General Register Office and that there was “no firm date” yet for implementation. “This is in process,” he said. “Once it is agreed, a formal announcement will be made.”

Under the proposals, marriage registers and marriage certificates (currently issued at the time of the wedding) will be replaced with a marriage document, prepared by the officiating priest before the wedding. At the ceremony, the marriage document will be signed by the couple, their witnesses, and the officiating priest.

The Faculty Office explains: “The significant difference is that the couple will then need to ensure that the marriage document is deposited at the local Register Office within seven days of the date of the wedding and the local Superintendent Registrar will then record the details and issue the couple with a Marriage Certificate (for which there will be a fee). The couple can ask someone to lodge the Marriage Document on their behalf (as in many cases they will, of course, be on honeymoon!) but it is their responsibility NOT the officiating minister’s responsibility, to ensure that it is done.”

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The proposals follow the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019, which came into force on 26 May. Besides providing for opposite-sex couples to be able to enter into civil partnerships, it allows for mothers’ names to be included in marriage registers as well as, or in place of, fathers’. This change was championed by both the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, and the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Dame Caroline Spelman MP (News, 2 February 2018). It was combined with the Civil Partnerships provision in a private members bill put forward by the Conservative MP Tim Loughton. The Act requires the government to make and bring into force regulations to extend civil partnership to opposite-sex couples by the end of the year.

The Faculty Office note expresses concern about the timeline for the changes, stating that the General Register Office is under pressure from government ministers to make them by the end of the year, “despite our collective representations”. One of its arguments is that a simpler change would have been to revise the marriage registers and certificates to include the mother’s details.

It says: “A number of issues remain to be resolved, including the provision of a workable secure system to produce the new documentation and time to train the 20,000 plus clergy who are able to conduct weddings in both Churches [the Church of England and the Church in Wales].”

Some training will be provided by the General Register Office, and it is expected that a helpline will be made available and an aide-memoire for the vestry. But the burden for more in-depth training will fall to dioceses.

On Friday, the Diocesan Registrar of Blackburn, the Revd Paul Benfield, said that there remained uncertainty about exactly what would happen and when. “It is a pity there was not greater consultation,” he said.

His preference was for a previous proposal under which the couple would have completed all preliminary work with the civil registrar, before giving the form to the priest, and thus reducing the administrative burden on the priest. He also expressed concern about possible loss of the marriage document after the ceremony.

The Team Rector of St Wilfrid’s, Harrogate, the Revd Gary Waddington, was among many priests who said that they had learned of the proposals this week on Twitter.

“I do welcome the change,” he said on Friday. “The whole management of registers, entries, and certificates is something which many parish priests find stressful: this has the long-term potential of making the process much easier.

“That we’re not going to have to stress over filling in registers and certificates, deciphering entries for quarterly returns, or having to dig out old registers for copies of entries from fifty years ago is going to be, for many clergy, a huge relief.

“That the Government has legislated to include mothers’ names seems a small, yet significant, change, long overdue. If we eventually move to a unified marriage-preliminaries system, I’d welcome that as well.”

He had reservations about the lack of time to prepare, however: “We don’t as yet know how this is going to work, what the forms will look like, or if different information will be needed from what we currently collect. Like many churches, we already have a number of weddings in the diary for 2020 and beyond — all predicated on the current system. We’ll have to retrofit our admin to deal with the changes, and I suspect provide reassurance and guidance to couples who were expecting one thing, and now have to do something different.”

He continued: “Undoubtedly there’ll be some harrumphing about the ‘end of centuries of record-keeping’, or worries that this will end up ‘putting people off’, but I don’t think this is going to make the blindest bit of difference to most couples. If people want to marry in a church, they’ll do so, whether the marriage certificate is finally written out by someone in the register office or not.”

Concerns have been raised about couples’ failing to complete the registration process: there will be criminal penalties for those who fail to do so, as there are for failure to register births or deaths. Mr Waddington suggested that a period longer than seven days might be helpful.

Although there is a proposal for a new register book for marriages solemnised in Anglican churches (in the same way as baptisms, confirmations, and burials), it will not be the legal record of marriages.

The Faculty Office note explains: “The existing marriage register books held in churches will need to be closed and the incumbent will be responsible for closing the registers by striking through any unused entry spaces. One copy of the register will then need to be returned to the local Superintendent Registrar together with any unused marriage certificate stock. The other copy of the register is to be retained in the church until such time as it is to be deposited in the Diocesan Record Office.”

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It concludes: “These changes are significant, both for clergy and the couples and it essential that all clergy who conduct marriages are aware of them to ensure that the law is complied with and that couples’ marriages are validly conducted and properly registered.”

“We are in close discussions with the General Register Office, who are working hard to ensure that the change in the system of registering marriages is as smooth and seamless as possible,” Dr Brown said. “I want to reassure clergy and couples planning a marriage that we are absolutely committed to making the new system work within the context of a Church of England marriage service and the GRO has promised to provide training and comprehensive user-friendly information for clergy.

“We are currently in discussion with the GRO about the exact shape that will take and will update clergy as soon as the details have been finalised. Although no firm date has yet been set for the introduction of the new system we are aware of the desire to implement it as soon as possible.”

A spokesperson for the Church in Wales expressed hope that “in the long run this will reduce the administrative burden for clergy and eliminate some unfortunate incidents previously experienced, such as the key to the church safe breaking the night before a wedding with the registers locked inside.

“The Government plans to introduce an online portal for the production of the Marriage Document, which will allow the General Register Office automatically to cross-reference papers they receive from couples for registration. This would mean clergy no longer having to send in quarterly marriage returns — the GRO would only need to contact clergy where there was a discrepancy. Regrettably, it now appears that this will not be launched simultaneously with these reforms.

“We are working closely with the GRO and the Church of England to prepare any clergy who may take a wedding in the near future for these significant changes being introduced at an accelerated pace.”

Around 60,000 marriages take place in religious ceremonies every year in England and Wales.

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