Yesterday I posted on the pressure placed on vicars in multicultural inner city parishes by the marriage act of 2005. What would happen if the law was changed so that the Church of England no longer acted in place of the state as civil registrar? What if couples wanting to marry in the CofE had to process their marriage through the civil registrar like everyone else?
For many churches the evangelistic or missional opportunity presented by marriage preparation and a good wedding service would make any change in the status quo difficult to envisage. The opportunities presented by weddings are so great that the Archbishop’s Council has established The Wedding Project which aims to attract more couples to choose a church wedding, build in the general public a growing sense that the Church of England is pro-marriage and care well for couples so that their experience leads them to being part of the church community. If separating church and state meant a move away from church weddings, it is unlikely that any change would take place for fear of losing missional opportunities.
The question is, then, would the separation of church and state lead to a decline in Church of England weddings? To answer that question we must ask on what grounds do people choose to marry somewhere?
Location, location, location.
It strikes me that for many couples today the setting of the church is the most important factor in the decision of where to be married. The choice is largely aesthetic. If a church building is in a pretty location with a pleasant internal ambiance and enough seats it will attract loads of wedding couples. If local competition, stately homes and hotels, fail to match the beauty of the church, the church wins.
Historic family connections also add weight to the decision. Where a family has had ties for generations, even if the ties to the local church are tentative at best, then the location wins.
Lastly, of course, if the vicar has a reputation in the community for conducting good services on the happy day, then the attraction is increased.
The next consideration is cost. How much will the day set me back? The cost of the church service is insignificant for most weddings today. I work hard where I am to keep costs to a minimum. But whether the church service is £260 or £400 once the dress, food, reception, gifts, band, honeymoon and so on are added to the bill, for most weddings the church fee is not significant. I’d like to see any research which compares the cost of a church wedding to that on other premises.
Marriage in the eyes of God
There is a belief amongst some couples that by being married in church God will somehow bless their marriage more than if they were married elsewhere. There is a feeling for some that their marriage is better for being conducted in the eyes of God. I’d want to point them to the fact that the marriage vows and prayers are derived from God’s word and it is His word that blesses when taken to heart (Psalm 1). There is something of a pull toward the church for those who are not thought-through secularists.
If it can be shown that pragmatism governs choice then the CofE needs to think about it’s fee income. Wedding fees help support clergy in posts. Would the separation of church and state significantly effect fee income? This is the second point of resistance to change.
The fees from church weddings are an important source of income for the church. If the registrar processes the legal documentation then the fee is around £100 which would be offset for the couple by the loss of the banns fee. When this is taken into consideration, the fee income for the Church of England (wedding + banns) would perhaps drop by around £100 per wedding.
What about the marriage certificate?
The marriage certificate would still be issued in the service but the process of issuing it would differ, involving the registrar. I don’t think that the source of the piece of green paper on which the marriage is registered will greatly influence a couple’s choice of where to marry. Whether it is processed by the church representative or the state, the fact that the process produces a marriage certificate would be sufficient.
For these reasons, I believe there is warrant in finding a way to stop the Church of England from being a soft touch for those who are living in the UK without permanent leave to remain. As long as the option is available, the reason to marry in church will always be complicated by a desire to live in the UK rather than for the sake of the marriage itself.
The law as it stands means that anyone living in my parish who has never been married has a legal right to marry at the church, regardless of what they believe. I could, therefore, be asked to marry two Sikhs or Hindus or whatever non-Christian belief system, in a Christian marriage service, for the sole reason of immigration. I am compelled by law to act as civil registrar in such a case and cannot remove the civil registrar’s hat.
The practice of removing this hat is not without precedent. For the remarriage of divorcees I already only act as a Christian minister. By not offering to act as civil registrar I make the choice clear for any couple wishing to remarry, as what is offered by the church is a Christian service of commitment (a wedding) without the green piece of paper (see also: Christian remarriage and eternal salvation). Perhaps the law could be change to reflect this practice. Anyone who does not satisfy the immigration laws used by the state cannot register their marriage in the Church of England although they could have a service of Christian commitment (a marriage) without any state recognition, though this would defeat the purpose for most illegal immigrants.