AFTER a long and uncertain wait, the clergy of the Church of England have finally been told: from Tuesday (4 May), marriage registers shall be no more (News, 5 March). From the Reformation until the early 19th century, the Church of England held record of births (noted by baptism), deaths (noted by burial), and marriages for the nation. Civil registration took the first two from us long ago, but, with pride, we retained the legal registers of marriage. For some, it will feel a wrench to lose them.
The new form of registration, with a form to complete and send off, does not change the fundamental position. The C of E retains the privilege of conducting legal weddings, validated by correct rendition of our marriage liturgy. Although clergy are hastily having to watch training material provided by the General Register Office, the new system is, in many ways, simpler. It also relieves clergy of several responsibilities, including the depressing production of copy certificates for couples in advance of divorce.
The end of an era should be marked, and my thought is that the natural way for the C of E would be in prayer and liturgy. The old registers, prepared as required for closure, with blank entries crossed through, could be laid out at the front of church this Sunday. Prayers would be said, thanking God for the marriages of the past and the duty of record, and, after the books are physically closed, for the many couples of the future who will come to marry in the parish.
I understand that some words that I have proposed will be made available by the national Life Events Team soon; but parishes are, of course, at liberty to improve on them.
WHAT have we to say, though, to those whom we would have marry in church in the years to come? I am a Surrogate for Marriage Licences, often sought by clergy seeking advice on process. Lockdown has revealed to me the archaic inconvenience of the current legal preliminaries for church weddings. Especially frustrating is the situation of those many couples who planned to establish a qualifying connection with a parish through regular attendance, but, because services were cancelled, have been unable to attend. And the Common Licence procedure is, frankly, rather strange. One party alone is required to swear.
All these complexities of procedure stand against the backdrop that the proportion of marriages which take place in church is in steady decline. Lack of national figures makes it difficult to provide a current percentage, but weddings in church fell below one fifth of the total in 2015, and the downward trend in overall numbers has continued. Most people in their twenties who are living together are not married, even if many plan or hope to be in the future.
There are, of course, other factors in the decline of church weddings besides the cumbersome and restrictive forms of permission required to marry anywhere other than one’s parish church. Those with no vestige of Christian faith do not see any need to invoke God in support of their commitment, and it would be hypocritical of us to expect them to. But for some who would wish to, church weddings, with the persistent custom of giving away the bride, can still speak of patriarchal assumptions from an era when marriage meant the near-extinction of a woman’s legal personality.
We also have to face the painful fact that church weddings are widely thought to be grander occasions, with more formality, meaning more clothes, guests, and expense. There have been excellent initiatives by some churches to provide simple weddings, including onsite buffet receptions prepared by local volunteers.
But there can also be collusion with a busy commercial industry eager to advise (especially) brides on all the necessities for their “perfect day.” This is particularly so when churches charge extra fees without transparency about their being optional, whether notionally, for the use of the church, or (I have heard) for extras such as “opening the great west doors”.
HOW are we to respond? It is probably time for a grand simplification of marriage preliminaries. A move in the General Synod, in 2017, to make it necessary to read banns only once, in the parish of the wedding, fell (News, 24 February 2017).
That should be worth trying again, combined with the freedom to marry in any parish. A good archdeacon somewhere should bring a well-sustained complaint against a parish priest charging extra fees, and make them an example to end that abuse.
And, above all, from Living in Love and Faith, a healthy understanding of relationships needs to emerge which will enable us to commend marriage as a life-giving model to a world in need of hope and purpose.
The Revd Neil Patterson is the Director of Vocations and Director of Ordinands in the diocese of Hereford.