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No consultation on new system of marriage registration, says cleric

08 October 2021

Signing the marriage register is now a thing of the past

Signing the marriage register is now a thing of the past

A RETIRED cleric has questioned whether Anglican clergy should still properly be called registrars for marriage after discovering that the last couple he married had been refused a certificate because signatures on the marriage document now required were deemed by the local registration office to be illegible.

Since new procedures came in on 4 May (News, 7 May), marriages are no longer legally registered by writing in a marriage register in church. The couple, their witnesses, and, in the case of a Church of England wedding, the vicar, sign a schedule containing all the details of the marriage. Instead of getting a certificate on the day, the couple receive it later in the post, once, by means of the document, it has been registered in the national system by the local register office.

Canon Richard Williams, a former vicar of St James’s, Alveston, had conducted 150 weddings during his 40 years of ministry, and had what he described as “the good fortune” to officiate at his last in the parish three weeks before retirement. It was of a couple he had known since they were pupils at the church primary school, and so he was particularly incensed when he discovered the refusal of a certificate.

“Even if I, or another incumbent, should forget to send in the quarterly returns, the couple had proof that the wedding had taken place — both in their hands and in the church’s safe, where the two register books with all the details are safely stored,” he said.

“But now it is the local registry office who give the certificate. They’ve never met the couple; they have no idea whether or not these were the two people who stood before me to exchange solemn vows. A signature is a signature: in the illiterate past, an X sufficed. I have given many copy certificates where I could not read the signatures, but I could read the names.”

Canon Williams describes the outworking of the new system as “450 years of history swept aside without any consultation with the clergy whatsoever, or the registrars apparently, and creating a system ripe for abuse and error.”

A spokeswoman for the Home Office commented: “The General Register Office has provided the clergy with extensive guidance following the introduction of the marriage schedule system. In instances where signatures on a marriage document are not clear, the clergy are advised to make a note on the back of the document so that the registrar can correctly record the details in the marriage register.”

Opinion has it that, as the certificate is now issued by the register office on the basis of the marriage document, the marriage document is the proof, as witnessed by two witnesses and the officiating cleric. So legibility is irrelevant, since the signature was witnessed.

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