How can God’s “Big Love” get through the admin of weddings?

Marriage Regulations hit the clergy

The regulations surrounding marriage have been in our news and blogosphere recently courtesy of the Churchmouse.

The existing rules, as exercised in my patch of the Diocese of Winchester have also filled a significant chunk on my ‘ministry’ during our vacancy. So today, when I noticed MUF had posted his own excellent cartoon on the subject, I thought I’d round up a few of the things I’ve learnt and note them down, as well as reflect a bit on all the admin involved.
Admin. Something I know I’m good with but prone to taking your eye off the ministerial ball. The important thing is probably to hold God in the conversation spaces (whether electronic, phone or personal) that exist around the various things that need doing to get a couple married – something I know I’ve tended to lose sight of in the endless round of ‘sorting out’ the little difficulties that come up. God, I’m afraid has often not got much of a mention. The Diocesan Registrar’s Office, a wonderfully helpful and responsive resource we share with Salisbury Diocese, has got lots of mention. I’ve possibly turned to them more often that to God. Sad, but necessarily true.
I’m not a vicar, not ordained, and haven’t therefore been to ‘vicar school’. However, from working with our neighbouring vicar (who is also our Surrogate – someone who acts on behalf of the Bishop with regard to swearing affidavits for  Common Licenses), I’m not sure how much of the legal stuff they teach at ‘vicar school’. If a training incumbent hasn’t had certain experiences of a ‘wedding nature’ then they simply don’t know where problems might occur, and therefore can’t teach their curates/ordinands/admin support what needs to be understood.

So in summary, what have I learnt so far (and I’ve no way of knowing if these are local rules, national rules, or about to change, so don’t use me as a reference point – though feel free to comment!):

  • The Marriage Act applies to both the Church of England (CofE) and the Church of Wales, so a church of Wales priest can officiate as registrar at a wedding in the CofE (useful when you’re in vacancy and the bride wants her Godmother to officiate!)
  • Anyone getting married in the CofE who lives in Scotland will need to marry under a Common License because the Scottish legal system doesn’t understand or use the banns system. this one caught us out, but we’re sorted in time for the couple’s big day. Down here in the south I don’t suppose it is common to get a couple coming all this way to marry under a Qualifying Connection!
  • With a Common License, it is not the posh bit of paper that comes from the Diocesan Registrar that is important, it is the affidavit sworn in front of the appropriate person (our Surrogate in this case). If there is not time for the certificate to arrive before the wedding (as in the case of couples travelling from Scotland only 2 days before their wedding), then the officiating priest must make sure the Surrogate gives permission for the wedding to proceed. This is simple when the officiating priest and the surrogate are one and the same person – they only have to talk to themselves 🙂
  • The Qualifying Connection (or is it only the fact there is one?) must be written in Banns of Marriage book when they are read, even if it is not read out. This one caught me out – we haven’t had as many weddings in recent years and our Banns of Marriage book pre-dates the Marriage Measure.
  • Banns of Marriage must be read in a ‘main service’ in a ‘consecrated church’, and therefore can’t (only) be read in the school hall of the planted congregation at which a couple are known and in which they came to faith, nor in the 8am congregation at which a parent regularly worships!

Now here’s a question. Who can read Banns of Marriage?

Some clergy I’ve known let any service leader (ordained, licensed laity or simply with local responsibility) read the Banns at the appropriate part of the service. Yes, at the beginning of our vacancy I was told it could only be an authorised person (priest, read or churchwarden). Now, I’ve recently been told it doesn’t matter!

Our dais at St. Peters Yateley after a recent wedding

Which takes me back to the beginning and my comments about admin. We’re a big parish, serving a community of approximately 14,000 with only one priest (when they arrive). We have no SSMs. We have one retired priest, with a reducing role in Sunday ministry due to ill-health. Yet we have 5 active Sunday congregations.

One priest is not going to know all these rules and regulations they might need to know for the various scenarios of parish life. Most won’t even have the time to ask the Diocesan Registrar the answer to the bits they know they don’t know, and exchange the endless emails that are involved with calming the understandably confused nerves of your average bride and groom who are totally bemused by all this! Some parishes don’t have an administrator, or don’t have some dafty (like me) who has taken a sad interest in the whole thing. All this constant contact with couples does indeed build useful relationships, but I’m not sure that it’s really sharing the Gospel or God’s “Big Love”!! Nor is it helping to grow marriage ministry through our parish churches!

So my experiences of recent months mean I can only agree with the Churchmouse when he states that: 

There may be advantages to the Church in taking the administrative elements out of the Church and putt them into the common framework.

Surely it is more important to place our focus on God’s role in the life of the couples that we as ministers are drawn to have dealings with, and the sacramental nature of the wedding and marriage itself?

The ‘advantage’ Mouse speaks of must surely be not only the appropriate application on a case by case basis of the laws and regulations that are obviously necessary. Perhaps more importantly to the church’s mission, is the advantage of the continued sanity of our clergy and the space need for God’s “Big Love” to be recognised and responded to!

(I note that on 1st April the Diocese of Winchester provided new notes on the marriage of foreign nationals to all clergy and extended notes to the Surrogates of the diocese. My fear is that they will now be superseded by the new restrictions, before the ink is barely dry, or the clergy have had the time to read them!)


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About ramtopsrac

Church of England Priest, child of God, daughter of the New Forest, wife and mother.
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