A CHURCH THAT LIKES TO SAY YES
General Synod got in a real muddle last week in its attempts to make it slightly less difficult for couples to marry in the church of their choice. There was an air of rose-tinted unreality about the whole debate, with stories about Hexham Abbey already having four weddings a Saturday and fears about how vicars of picturesque churches would survive if couples were given the freedom to marry anywhere in the country.
If only the population were so keen on a church wedding these days! The Hexham Abbey story sounded like an ‘urban myth’ to me, so after the debate I rang the rector to check the facts. In actual fact Hexham Abbey has just seven weddings (and two blessings) booked for the whole of 2007. My own experience is similar. I have just become the vicar of two beautiful churches – one a large civic church recently redecorated and reordered, and one a delightful village church on a farm. Yet I have only got five weddings booked for the main church for the whole of 2007, and just one for the village church.
My parish is part of Telford, new town, which has the lowest level of churchgoing in the diocese. In Telford for young couples to choose to get married at all is counter-cultural, and to choose to get married in church (rather than a local hotel) is doubly so. When a couple does ask about a church wedding they are often making a tentative step towards God. Since I moved into the parish I have had two requests for marriage, yet on both occasions I have had to tell the couple that they live either on the wrong side of the street or in the wrong street.
How do you explain that to a couple who have never had contact with church before, in a way that does not feel to them like rejection? I want to belong to a church that likes to say ‘yes’, not one that seems to delight in saying ‘no’. As the Apostle James said at the Council of Jerusalem, ‘We should not make it hard for those who are turning to God’ (Acts 15.19). If marriage is good for society as a whole, as we often argue in Synod, then the church should surely be promoting marriage, and helping couples to marry (with suitable preparation), not discouraging them.
The absurdity of the current rules was brought home to me after the Synod debate when a bishop came up to thank for me speaking out on this subject, and told me just how difficult it had been for him to obtain a special license to enable his daughter and fiancé, both returning from work overseas and both committed believers, to marry in the church one of them used to belong to before they went abroad.
From a mission perspective, we know that belonging usually comes before believing, yet we are turning many people away at the first hurdle. The number of Church of England weddings in Telford and Wrekin has more than halved since 1990 (down from 414 to 196 a year), now that hotels and other licensed premises are allowed to hold weddings. Non-conformist weddings in the district have fallen even more sharply – from 124 to 38. Today those who come to church for a wedding are less likely to be simply looking for a pretty location – there are plenty of attractive alternatives. They are much more likely to be wanting, however they might struggle to express it, to involve God in their relationship and seek his blessing.
Like British Gas in the early days of privatisation, we are still acting like monopoly providers, even though the market has been deregulated. By contrast, when I went to meet the Superintendent Registrar to hand over my quarterly return, she was all too aware how much market share register offices had lost to licensed premises. She was keen to tell me how register offices nationally are now fighting back and finding ways to improve their service – smartening up their premises, creating an aisle for brides to walk down, making the ceremony a bit longer and more personal, installing a CD player to allow couples to play music.
So what’s my message to the General Synod’s Revision Committee? Be bold!
If we want to be a church that likes to say ‘yes’, and if we want to promote marriage as good for society, let’s scrap all attempts to define a ‘qualifying connection’ (a recipe for bureaucracy if ever there was one) and simply allow couples to marry in any church they like with the permission of the incumbent, so long as they are willing to attend suitable marriage preparation at that church. This is actually what General Synod originally voted for (by a small overall majority) in 2004.This would give maximum flexibility to couples and provide a very real pastoral opportunity to prepare couples for marriage who currently (in secular venues) receive no preparation at all.
By allowing couples to choose any church for their wedding the Church of England has a golden opportunity to promote and encourage marriage, and in so doing to enrich society and strengthen community. In a world where life coaching is increasingly popular, offering a proper course of marriage preparation will be seen not as a hurdle to jump through but as part of the ‘added value’ of opting for a church wedding. Now that there are some excellent marriage courses around, there is also the possibility for couples to arrange with the incumbent to attend a marriage preparation course at a church nearer to where they live, thus creating another pastoral opportunity for follow-up afterwards.
And if we manage to increase the number of church weddings that will be great news for the Church as well. Dioceses will be able to ensure that this workload is reflected in their deployment strategy, and use the additional fee income to employ more clergy in rural areas. Any other organisation would regard a potential increase in demand for its services not as a problem but as an opportunity.