Marriage in the Church of England is fast becoming a joke.
This is not a why-oh-why outburst – really – but one based on a prolonged reflection of the pointless cul-de-sac that is the offering of a marriage ceremony in church.
I should also point out that it would be a shame for me personally because, like many clergy, I do not often get the chance to officiate at such an occasion. When I do, I usually enjoy it but, given the state of affairs we are in, maybe that should not be counted as a plus. I should also add I deal with more enquiries than with services that actually occur.
How did we get to the state we’re in? The first response is easy: we confuse the social with the theological and then pretend we are being ‘pastoral’, using the bald tyre of ‘meeting people where they are’. We aspire to doing good instead of admitting that we are continuing what was always a cashing in on the sub-legal and cultural aspects of times past. We further disorient ourselves in that by doing this we are somehow traditional and worthy.
Attempts to keep a toe in the water by the General Synod of the Church of England are often portrayed as keeping the church in touch with people’s needs. To see the full horror of this, go to the church’s own official website. Its opening on marriage in the Life Events section should sound alarm bells for parish clergy:
‘Congratulations! You're welcome to marry in church whatever your beliefs, whether or not you are baptised and whether or not you go to church. And, marrying in church has never been easier thanks to a change in the law which means you now have more churches to choose from.’
It gets worse. The page then refers the web enquirer to another specific website, http://www.yourchurchwedding.org. It seems to suggest that there is an open market for couples to choose where they would like to wed. If only that were true, we might not be in the mess we are in.
The most recent changes allowing Qualifying Connections for marriage services in church are frankly ridiculous. There may still be pockets of England where someone will recall whether the grandparents or parents of one of the couple seeking to marry in a church were active worshippers, but they are far from the norm. It would seem from my parochial experience that it is now a softer, and arguably more honest, form of the old pretence that one of the couple still resides at their parents’ house. Why bother to qualify at all? Why not just have a set price for all this? Let people get married where they want, if the clergy will officiate. That is the veiled truth in some parts of the country.
After all, what the church wants is cash. That is the only justification for the calling of banns. Any pretence otherwise should be dismissed. Does anybody really believe anyone inside the gathered worshipping congregation knows the relationship history behind the names being called on three consecutive Sundays? Who keeps the precious pieces of paper that are produced anyway?
One good is coming out of all this, at least in the parish I serve. I find many couples wanting to take up the offer of a series of meetings to prepare them for marriage, not just the wedding service. The three sessions involved aim to get the couple to consider some of the practicalities of marriage and why a religious service may have importance. It surprises me how many couples are still willing to sail into a service – two of which I know recently cost almost £20,000 – without considering the life that follows it. That is only overshadowed by the number of parish clergy who seem content with not offering any preparation before taking the cash, having the joyful event recorded in their registers and never seeing the couple again.
There are also the complications of foreign nationals wanting to wed in church. This is confused by contradictory advice. Good practice in the London diocese has been to ask those involved to sort out their matters with the Home Office. But the loophole in the law which allows church weddings to take place without such bureaucracy is well known. It is up to individual clergy to rule on the matter. That regular churchgoers get preferential treatment is probably the worst solution.
The same can be applied to second and third weddings. Clergy have the right as registrars to waive church teaching on this. It is one that should not be exercised lightly. After all, the only consistent teaching of Jesus on sexuality was that those marrying if their first spouses are still alive are entering into adulterous liaisons.
This also glosses over an even a bigger problem. The church really has no worked out theology on the marriage event. From our source book, admittedly from someone who does not consider himself a Biblical scholar, the ‘solemnisation’ of such a rite is untenable: penile penetration of a virgin female (no such requirement on the masculine of the species) seems to be the only marking of marriage. The celebrations before the initial sex act (if one looks at the Ian McEwan’s wonderful novella On Chesil Beach, we get a particularly useful English angle on this) are thus more than religious and bacchanalian prurience.
How can we solve these dilemmas? Simple. Stop all church weddings that involve registration. Adopt something like the French model where all the legal preliminaries and officialdom are dealt with by the local authority. Then, if people want a religious aspect to their partnership the church can respond to them: be it the first time, a resurrection moment after a failed relationship, foreigners or even people of the same sex. Now that really would be pastoral.
© Kevin Scully, an Anglican priest, is Rector of St Matthew's, Bethnal Green (www.st-matthews.co.uk), in London's East End. A member of the Society of Catholic Priests (SCP), he is also a widely published author and playwright. Kevin has additionally worked as a professional actor, journalist and broadcaster, and has been actively involved in theological training and the preparation of ordinands. He is a supporter of Leyton Orient Football Club.
Kevin Scully contributed a chapter to Ekklesia’s book Consuming Passion (Darton, Longman and Todd) in 2005 - http://tinyurl.com/ydognrb.
His books include Into Your Hands (http://shop.ekklesia.co.uk/christian-bookshop/into_your_hands_1099857.html) and Five Impossible Things to Believe Before Christmas (http://shop.ekklesia.co.uk/christian-bookshop/five_impossible_things_to_...).