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Marriage registers go digital — apart from the paper. And the register

04 May 2021


Signing the Marriage Register, print of an 1896 painting by James Charles (detail)

Signing the Marriage Register, print of an 1896 painting by James Charles (detail)

MARRIAGE registers, a legal requirement for churches since 1837, closed for ever on Tuesday, as new regulations came into force, replacing them with a single electronic register (News, 16 August 2019).

Clergy no longer have responsibility for registering marriages in church, but are required to complete a marriage document and return it to the registrar, who will enter it on a digital database. Canon law dictates, however, that clergy must also continue to keep a physical register of marriages.

Uncertainty about the new process was reflected in the 800 questions submitted to an online webinar run by Church House’s life-events team last week — not least about the potential for fines of clergy. The head of the team, Canon Sandra Millar, said on Tuesday that 3000 people had attended two webinars; feedback suggested that “many, many people have been reassured.”

She acknowledged, however: “Because it’s a new system, there will always be things that come up in practice that had not been thought about.” An online Frequently Asked Questions page will be regularly updated.

A Home Office statement issued on Tuesday said that the new system was “simpler and more efficient . . . eliminating the need for data to be extracted from hard copies.” It is not paperless, however. Clergy will complete a marriage document before the service — they are encouraged to check the details with the couple at the rehearsal. It must be signed during the service — by the couple, their witnesses, and the officiant — and returned to the register office within 21 days.

Regulations under the Marriage Act 1949 dictate that a priest who solemnises a marriage must also record certain details in a “Register of Marriage Services”. This will ensure that a historical record is maintained, which can be searched by future generations. This regulation remains in force, but the new, simpler register may be completed by the priest after the service. A newly designed hardback book for the purpose is now available from Church House Publishing, although churches may print their own. Existing registers must be sent to the register office, with one copy kept in the safe.

In last week’s webinar, Canon Millar reported that her team’s research had highlighted the entrance and exit from the church and the exchanging of vows as the “memorable moments” remembered by couples. Couples might have expectations about the signing of the register, however, based on conversations with friends and family. She encouraged clergy to “make a moment” of the signing of the marriage document during the service.

The document is portrait-shaped rather than landscape, and smaller than the previous certificate. Only one set of signatures is required. Clergy are encouraged to use registrar’s ink, and Church House has made available for purchase a “keepsake celebration card” to offer to couples to take away with them from the service.

The responsibility for ensuring that the document is returned to the register office within 21 days rests with the cleric, but he or she can delegate this to another person: for example, a churchwarden or a member of the bridal party. This can be done by sending it through the ordinary post. A duplicate should not be kept. Once the registrar has entered the details from the document in the electronic register, a marriage certificate will be issued to the couple.

Among the concerns raised by those attending the webinar was the potential for fraud: although the marriage document can be accessed only through a password-protected website, the chief clerk at the Faculty Office, Neil Turpin, acknowledged that this was a “potential issue”, but said: “Ultimately, the registration of marriage is the responsibility of the GRO [General Register Office].”

In response to concerns that clergy who failed to ensure delivery of the marriage document within 21 days might be fined, a GRO spokeswoman clarified that a number of stages would precede this: a registrar might issue a notice asking for it to be delivered within a further eight days; if it was still not returned, then the registrar might require the cleric to attend in person, either to deliver it or explain why this was not possible. Failure to attend would be an offence liable to a fine.

Another change that came into effect on Tuesday is that the names of mothers of the couple may now be recorded on the marriage document and certificate, as well as stepparents. In theory, up to eight parents could be listed on the document. The proposal concerning mothers’ names was first brought to Parliament by the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, as a Private Member’s Bill in 2018 (Comment, 2 March 2018). He told the Lords that the existing practice was “archaic and unchanged since Victorian times, where children were seen as fathers’ property, and little consideration was given to mothers’ roles in raising children”.

The director of mission and public affairs for the Archbishops’ Council, Canon Malcolm Brown, said on Tuesday: “Changing practices that go back many years is never straightforward, but we believe the new system changes as little as possible in terms of the couple’s experience of their church wedding, and that the clergy will find the new regulations become second nature very quickly.”

The Priest-in-Charge of the Pocklington Wold Benefice, in the diocese of York, the Revd Dr Jacob Belder, said on Tuesday that the new system would make things easier: “There is less paperwork to do, and it takes a lot of responsibility out of my hands. Especially with oversight of nine churches, keeping tabs on each set of registers and making sure they were all correct always felt daunting.

“The new system will make it much easier to centralise the paperwork for a wedding, and I have already been working out with our benefice administrators and churchwardens how we can efficiently process everything. I suppose I also have the advantage of having been ordained more recently — I don’t feel like I am so entrenched in the old system that I’m giving up something very familiar to me.”

Being able to give the couple sight of the marriage document before the service was helpful, he said. “Our plan is to find a nice folder to put the document in, so that visually it will be more in keeping with the kind of formality you’d expect at a wedding. All of the couples I have spoken with so far have had no problems with the changes, and were glad to know there would still be the opportunity to sit and sign something.” The appearance of the document, however, could be improved, he said.

Church House, Westminster, has published suggested prayers to mark the closing of the old registers, as proposed by the director of vocations and director of ordinands in the diocese of Hereford, the Revd Neil Patterson (Comment, 30 April).

An introduction to the prayers notes that the Church has been “closely involved in witnessing and solemnising marriages since the 11th century . . . for centuries it has been our privilege as a church, entrusted to us by the state, to keep these legal records of marriages to welcome couples to marry here, and pray that God will bless and support them in their unions. Today we give thanks for the duty of record that has been ours.”

For the webinar, FAQs, and prayers for the closing of the old registers, and further information and resources for download, visit churchsupporthub.org/marriage-registration-changes.

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