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Weddings in fields, forests, and homes under proposed law reform for England and Wales

19 July 2022

But Anglican Churches would set their own rules on wedding venues

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WEDDINGS in England and Wales may no longer be restricted to churches and other licensed indoor venues, after sweeping new reforms were proposed by the Law Commission on Tuesday.

Under the proposals, the legal element of both civil and religious ceremonies could take place in any location — from fields and forests to village halls and private homes.

The rights of the Anglican clergy (the established Church of England and disestablished Church in Wales) would be protected, however. These clergy would qualify automatically as officiants and would not be obliged to solemnise a mariage according to the C of E rite at any venue other than a church building or its grounds, the report from the Commission says.

The Commission was instructed by the Government to review the marriage laws after a series of national lockdowns resulted in the postponement of thousands of weddings and an increase in the popularity of smaller and more affordable ceremonies and celebrations (Features, 21 August 2020).

Currently, in England and Wales, couples have a choice of a civil or religious ceremony, with an officiant and set wording. The legal part takes place either in a place of worship or a licensed venue. Anglican, Jewish, and Quaker weddings are governed by distinct rules. Other religious groups must comply with a single set of rules for registered places of worship.

This includes various preliminary and other legal requirements: for example, an Anglican wedding must have a priest to officiate and two witnesses.

In its 450-page report this week, the Commission states: “The law is ancient and, as the result of its incremental development, complex. The current law categorises weddings into five types, and then applies different rules to each, at different stages in the process of getting married. The result is a law that is inconsistent and complicated, inefficient, unfair, and needlessly restrictive.”

The Commission recommends a comprehensive overhaul of the system, moving from one based on the regulation of buildings to one based on the regulation of the officiant. This would mean that all couples and all religious groups could decide where a wedding might take place: from any outdoor location, such as forests, beaches, and parks, to community centres, village halls, and homes, or cruise ships registered to the UK.

“Under our recommendations, weddings will be able to take place in any type of location,” the report says. “That does not, however, mean that couples will have the right to get married wherever they choose.” The C of E, for example, would be able to retain or set rules determining where its own weddings took place, as would any other religious body.

In March, a Ministry of Justice consultation resulted in a move to abolish the law that requires weddings to be held indoors or in a permanent outdoor structure, meaning that, once the Act of Parliament is in place, weddings may be held in the grounds of a church; this possibility raised “no doctrinal questions for the Church” at the time, given that this had been common in medieval times (News, 25 March).

Marriage preliminaries would also be simplified, though the C of E and the Church in Wales would retain the reading of banns in the couple’s parish(es) of residence on preceding Sundays. An explanatory note states: “Couples will be able to give notice of their intended wedding online, and to choose the registration district where they are then interviewed by a registration officer. Anglican preliminaries (for example, banns) will be retained for Anglican weddings.”

The Commission also recommends that officiants who are not associated with a religious or other organisation would be able to gain permission from the Government to conduct civil weddings.

These changes would not only give couples a greater and more affordable choice, the Commission argues, but “would ensure fairer treatment for all beliefs, removing the anomalies of the current system, where different religions are bound by a multitude of different rules”. They would also result in fewer weddings conducted according to religious rites that were not legally binding, the Commission says.

The reforms may be a long way off implementation, however, as they have to be reviewed by the Government. This review will not begin until a new Prime Minister is in office in September, after Parliament returned from its recess.

A C of E spokesperson said on Tuesday: “We will not be commenting on the proposals until we have read in detail the final report of the Law Commission. It remains to be seen whether the Government will give Parliamentary time to these recommendations, and we shall consider any proposed legislation if and when it arises.

“A church wedding is a unique occasion in which a couple exchange time-honoured vows in a special and spiritual atmosphere. We know from research that many couples want this for their wedding day, whether they are regular churchgoers or not. The Church of England will continue to offer weddings which combine dignity and celebration, including those on a limited budget.”

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