PAROCHIAL fees for church weddings could be reduced or scrapped under proposals being brought by Blackburn diocese to the General Synod, which meets in York next week.
The motion, which would be debated under contingency business only if time allows during the five-day meeting, asks the Synod “to amend the Parochial Fees and Scheduled Matters Amending Order 2019 so that the fees relating to marriages are set at nil or at a minimal amount in order to demonstrate the Church’s commitment to marriage and pastoral care”.
Instead, the motion proposes that PCCs should move to a voluntary donation system whereby a couple can donate whatever they can afford (which might also be Gift Aided), while the PCC could continue to collect fees for additional expenses such as music, bells, and flowers.
The main motivation for the motion, given in the accompanying paper by the Revd Dr Tom Woolford, published on Thursday of last week, is that increasingly expensive fees are putting couples off church weddings.
“There is a correlation between the rising level of Church of England wedding fees and the sharp decline in recent years in numbers of church weddings, which trend appears to be especially acute in poorer areas,” the paper says. “The current fees structure is economically unjust, putting church weddings beyond the reach of the poorest in our society.”
This was acute in Blackpool deanery, where the motion had originally been passed in 2019. Weddings across six churches there had reduced by almost 80 per cent between 2010 and 2018, the paper says. Nationally, in the 20 years from 1999 to 2019, church weddings had fallen by 50 per cent to 31,430.
While the paper acknowledges that cost is not the only factor (it mentions secularisation and more venue choices, including outdoors), it argues that the base price — currently £480, which does not include extras or reading banns — was prohibitive for many.
“The statutory fees charged by the Church of England have increased steeply over the last two decades: from £162 in 2000, to £306 in 2010, and £480 in 2022,” it says. “This represents almost a 300 per cent rise in 22 years, vastly outstripping inflation over the same period (53 per cent).”
Although it is already possible, under the Parochial Fees and Scheduled Matters Amending Order 2019, for the PCC to waive their portion of the wedding fee (£262) in case of hardship, and also to petition the archdeacon to waive the Diocesan Board of Finance portion (£218), this was a “suboptimal solution”, the paper says. Couples were not aware of this option, and it was hard for the priest to consider this “without undermining the dignity of low-income couples”.
Theologically, the paper reasons, “it is grossly inappropriate that the Church should levy prohibitively expensive fees for a gift of God”. Missionally, all couples who choose not to marry in church because of these fees represented a missed opportunity for evangelism, future pastoral care, and ministry. It continues: “Having fees ‘set at nil or at a minimal amount’ would also improve the perception of the Church’s relationship with money.”
In 2019, the Church received a total of £59.8 million in parochial fees, of which about one quarter related to marriages. In that year, five per cent of marriage fees were waived. A further background paper accompanying the motion suggests that, if the marriage fee was scrapped, “it is possible that the net income lost to the Church would be less than the £15.7m identified . . . as some couples may choose to make a donation in lieu of the fee.”