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Diary: John Wall

04 June 2021


New rites of passage

I HAVE just spent a queasy half-hour ritually defacing my marriage registers. I gathered them, from my three churches, into a little pile and — feeling as if I was re-enacting something from the Dissolution of the Monasteries — systematically went through each one, putting a diagonal line through the next blank entry and sticking a label on the front: “This marriage register has been closed.”

This is all a studied exercise in desecration, in response to the new government legislation that has made all marriage registers redundant (News, 7 May). From 4 May, a single piece of paper (in place of the two registers, marriage certificate, and register-office return) is signed by all the main parties at a wedding, and then — rather perilously, bearing in mind it’s the only copy — popped in the post to the register office, which, for the appropriate fee, will issue the marriage certificate.

On the one hand, it’s sensible and simpler, with less to do for the clergy; on the other, I fear that registration at a wedding will now be a rather thin, rapid, and anaemic process. I will find out at my first weddings this month.


Labours lost

I AM slightly surprised at how bereaved I feel about all this. For years, I’ve hated filling in marriage registers and certificates (as legal documents, rectifying errors can be a nightmare); so I should feel relieved. But I don’t. I loved the fact that, as an Anglican cleric, I was a registrar: part of the warp and weft of English life.

I had hoped that the position would be expanded into non-church venues, which would have been pastorally and missionally useful. Instead, our role has diminished: part of the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of Matthew Arnold’s Sea of Faith, reflecting the part played by our Church in national life. An opportunity lost.


All sorts and conditions

ONE intriguing feature of the registers is the fictional world embodied by the sample marriage registrations at the front, intended to exemplify various possible problems encountered in the registration process.

Example A is straight out of Downton Abbey, and concerns the wedding of the Earl of Barford to the Dowager Marchioness of Chalfont (a hugely useful illustration, as you can imagine). The daughter of a humble Baronet, the Dowager — having lost her husband, the Marquis — is now, in her forties, embarking on a new life with a bachelor Earl; she from her address among the art galleries in Cork Street, and he from his country manor in Suffolk.

Example B is humbler, but, I feel, represents a snapshot of hope. Henry Harker, a lowly 37-year-old bank clerk from Croydon, is marrying 29-year-old Patricia Dawson, from Southport. (How, one wonders, did they meet?) He is a widower; she is a widow. A male relative witnesses for her. As I read further, I start to care.

But my favourite is Example C, which edges into folklore with the marriage of Emma Williams to David Jones. The bride is 25, a dressmaker from Brighton, the daughter of a railway guard. The groom, Davie, is a 28-year-old ship’s steward (did he, one wonders, have a locker?); as no father’s name is listed, he was presumably illegitimate. His witness is one Edward Jackson, an illiterate, as he is recorded by “X the mark of Edward Jackson”.

These are all characters who seem to have escaped from a novel by Dickens. Before they are consigned to archival oblivion, I’d love to know which fantasist dreamed them up, and when, in the dry offices of the Registrar General.


Starting over

I HAVE, over the past few months, been ruminating on a conversation that I had some 45 years ago. Aged 15, and already thinking about the possibility of ordination, I was talking to the wonderful Sydney Chapman, for some 25 years vicar of my home village of Walberton, near Chichester.

Sydney has always been my role-model: walking around the village in his clerical cloak, he was a priest at the heart of his community, and exemplified the style of priesthood which I have tried ever since to emulate. I asked him what he did all day. “Well,” he said, “after morning prayer, you spend the morning with your books” (I remember him opening his palms as if they were a precious tome); “and writing sermons” (a former Methodist, he was an excellent preacher); “then, in the afternoon, you go visiting, and, in the evening, there might be a PCC or some such occasional meeting. . .”

I compare this with my average day now: after morning prayer, there are emails to plough through (the record in one day is 63, relating to 25 different subjects), not to mention the various Facebook and WhatsApp groups that I interface with. Sermon preparation generally involves no books, but quite often requires Googling Wikipedia.

Afternoons are also spent largely in front of the computer, sorting out content for online services to be recorded and broadcast, orders of service to be put together, and PowerPoint presentations prepared. Wedding interviews and bereavement visits, over the past year and a half, have largely been on Zoom, or by phone; evenings have been a myriad of Zooming sessions, from deanery synod and deanery chapter to PCC and trustees’ meetings.

As we defrost from Covid isolation, I’m aware of the hamster wheel of activity beginning again, where the urgent can relentlessly push out the important. I feel the need to touch base with the bedrock of what I was called to be all those years ago; to push my personal “reset” button.

I remember hearing of a handwritten notice inside a vicarage front door: “Stress comes when your mouth says ‘Yes’ and your stomach says ‘Oh, no!’” I am, in these next few months, going to try to hold on to those wise words. I’m sure Sydney would approve — and I rather hope the Dowager Lady Chalfont would, too.

The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.

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