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General Synod digest: Church wedding fees to be scrapped in regional pilot

14 July 2023
Sam Atkins/Church Times

The Revd Dr Tom Woodford, who moved the motion

The Revd Dr Tom Woodford, who moved the motion

A PILOT project to trial scrapping church wedding fees was approved by the General Synod on Tuesday morning, after a lively debate on the place of marriage in the Church’s outreach.

A diocesan-synod motion from Blackburn called for the reduction, or abolition, of fees for marriages. The Revd Dr Tom Woolford (Blackburn) declared a personal interest in the motion: with five daughters who might one day get married, he stood to save £3000 pounds if it passed.

Such a “radical act of countercultural generosity” would be good for the mission of the Church, as it would lead to more weddings, therefore more potential church members, and would change public perception of the Church’s attitude to money.

Not all couples were well-off and able to spend large amounts on their wedding, he said, and while there was provision for fees to be reduced in special cases, having to ask for this could be demeaning for a couple.

A suggested donation, locally set, would be a better way to operate, he argued, and pointed out that this was how things were done in the Roman Catholic Church. Donations would ensure that the church would not be too much worse off financially, and it might end up being better off, he said.

Seeking to attract support from across the Synod, he called on Anglo-Catholics to vote for the motion on sacramental grounds, because it was “odious” to charge for a sacrament; Evangelicals should vote for the motion on “Evangelistic grounds”, as it would lead to greater contact with unbelievers.

“Liberals, please vote for this motion on social justice grounds: the fee structure is like a poll tax, inexpensive for the rich but prohibitive for the poor; Save the Parish, please vote for this motion on parochial grounds: let’s start rebuilding and strengthening the generational links between parishioners, their priests, and their church buildings.”

Finally, and to much laughter and applause, he addressed the Bishops, saying: “I can’t think of a reason why you should vote for it.”

After checking to see whether the House of Bishops was quorate, the Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Ven. Mark Ireland (Blackburn), moved his amendment, which would strike out the entire motion and replace it with a regional small-scale time-limited pilot to test the implications of abolishing wedding fees, then report back to the Synod.

He had voted against the original motion at the diocesan synod, but had now changed his mind. He had been concerned whether the Church could afford such a change, but now believed marriage was a “gift of God”, not just for Christians but humanity as a whole. The RC Church was right not to charge, and the C of E should follow their lead. His amendment was a “cautious” one to test the idea: to see if people would be more generous under grace than under law. To serve the whole community, the Church must be there for the poorest, as well as give the richer couples a chance to pay more, he said. “Let’s have the courage of our convictions — if this is good news for our society, let’s do it.” Even if the income or number of weddings did not rise, it would still demonstrate that the C of E believed in marriage.

Mr Woolford replied that some did worry that a donation-only system would cause a reduction in funds, but it was impossible to know for sure in advance. As such, a regional time-limited trial was a sensible idea. He accepted the amendment.

Canon Katrina Scott (Gloucester) backed the amendment, praising the focus and desire of the motion, but said that it might have been too ambitious. She had waived marriage fees several times through her ministry, but was aware that often the overall cost of the wedding meant that the church fees could be less than one per cent of total spending. Sometimes, even the florist was paid more than the Church, she said. A blanket reduction in fees may not be the best way forward, therefore.

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, supported the motion “vigorously” and the amendment slightly less so. The question, he said, was very simple: was marriage a good thing, and should rich and poor be equally able to access the ministry of the Church? If you answered yes to that, then clearly marriage should be as available as possible, and financial questions must come second. “Our money must be our servant, not our master.”

No fees were levied for baptism, the Eucharist or confirmation, and neither for ordination, so why charge for marriage, he argued. Why select this ministry to make it a fundraiser? Churches that put mission first usually find their financial concerns “melt away”, he said, and so do not vote this down because of “Project Fear” spread by some diocesan officials. “Let’s offer the ministry of the Church as free gift, and God will honour that courage.”

The Archbishop of York said that the concerns of diocesan officials were real and could lead to sleepless nights worrying about the effect reducing or abolitioning marriage fees would have on the dioceses’ ability to pay stipends. He supported the amendment, saying that, while it meant that the Church “won’t quite grab the headlines in the same way”, it was “a Godly and sensible way” forward.

“I’m afraid I’m here to play the role of Mr Grumpy,” said Carl Hughes (Southwark), who is the newly installed chair of the Archbishops’ Council’s finance committee. “There is considerable financial risk in this motion,” he said, and suggested that Dr Woolford had “overstated” the difficulty of a couple asking for fees to be waived.

The amendment was carried by a show of hands, and further motions were consequently lapsed.

Canon Rachel Firth (Leeds) was pleased that the amendment had been adopted, which enabled her to support the motion. She was “enthused by the generous spirit coming from the diocese of Blackburn”, but unconvinced that fees were the main barrier for occasional offices. Many couples would not even approach her for a wedding, presuming it would not be affordable given the even greater cost of secular venues in the town. She wanted the Church to shout louder about its offer and that it was “already cheap as chips — sorry, surprisingly budget-friendly!”.

The Revd Lis Goddard (London) said that her Grade-I listed building was in a beautiful place, the ideal city venue for weddings. Yet she had only conducted five weddings in 14 years there. She read banns constantly, but they were for middle-class professionals who went off to marry in pretty country villages. Most of her poorer parishioners did not get married, she said, citing figures from the Marriage Foundation. “It is not that marriage is going out of fashion,” she said. Other surveys showed that nine in ten young people, regardless of income, aspired to marry; but only the rich got round to tying the knot. How can the Church declare marriage to be “God’s gift”, then ask: “give us your money”. Meanwhile, couples looking for an affordable option were being told to get married in McDonalds.

Nigel Lea-Wilson (Liverpool) said how expensive weddings had become over the years, especially as most secular venues included the ceremony in the total amount. Reducing the fee to a minimal amount would throw “the door wide open to all”, so he backed the motion.

The Revd Rachel Webbley (Canterbury) said that a wedding was more than a couple buying a product; they were declaring their love and commitment in a sacred space, shared by the community. “People value this presence.” By reducing fees “carelessly”, we risk cheapening what we are offering: a beautiful building with space for everyone, and ongoing pastoral care in good times and bad. She would have “strongly opposed” the original motion, she said. People did not have church weddings because of cost, but because of the prejudice “church is weird”. Who did this motion speak to: the Archbishops’ Council and archdeacons, or the people the Church actually sought to serve? she asked.

Responding, Dr Woolford acknowledged that Mr Hughes had to resist the motion: “that’s your job”. The Archbishops’ Council would be funding the trial, “that’s why Carl doesn’t like it”, he said, so dioceses shouldn’t worry about the cost impact.

The motion was carried in counted vote by houses: Bishops, 15-4, with two recorded abstentions; Clergy, 104-19, with eight recorded abstentions; Laity, 118-17, with seven recorded abstentions.

 

That this Synod

  1. request the Archbishops’ Council to design, fund and implement a time-limited, regional trial of providing weddings free of all statutory fees, and
  2. report back to Synod on the impact it made on the number of weddings conducted, pastoral and missional contacts made, on charitable giving in connection with provision of wedding services, and on projected parochial and diocesan finances.

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