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Marriage Ceremony (Prescribed Words) Bill

Volume 572: debated on Tuesday 21 May 1996

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10.18 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time,

The Bill is important in that it aims to allow for alternative forms of the prescribed words that are used in marriage ceremonies. I am grateful that Her Majesty's Government have signified that they have no objections to this Bill, the provisions of which are a logical consequence of one of the recommendations in the I990 White Paper Registration—proposals for change.

Your Lordships are familiar with the changes that have taken place in the liturgies of the Church of England over the past few decades. That process of liturgical revision, much of which has centred on the type of language that is used, has also taken place in the Roman Catholic and Free Churches. This Bill aims to bring into line with that process of revision those words which must be used within the marriage ceremonies other than those of the Church of England or the forms of usage of the Jewish community and the Society of Friends.

At the present time the specified words of declaration are,
"I do solemnly declare that I know not of any lawful impediment why I, AB, may not be joined in matrimony to CD",
and the specified words of contract are,
"I call upon these persons here present to witness that I. AB, do take thee, CD. to he my lawful wedded wife (or husband)",
or, if the marriage is solemnised in the presence of an authorised person without the presence of the registrar,
"I, AB, do take thee. CD, to be my wedded wife (or husband)".
The style, vocabulary and grammatical construction of these forms of words are increasingly found to be discordant with the rest of the rites now used in the Roman Catholic and Free Churches. In addition, they are seen to be alien to the natural mode of expression of the couple who must repeat them laboriously after the officient. An additional effect of this form of words for the declaration is that it appears to endow this part of the rite with greater weight than the altogether more important formula for the exchange of contract.

The Roman Catholics and the Free Churches consider themselves discriminated against in this regard in comparison with the Church of England, the Church in Wales, the Quakers and the Jews and in comparison with the churches in Scotland none of which is required to incorporate these formulae in their rites. The Church of England and the Ecumenical Joint Liturgical Group are fully in support of the removal of this discrimination.

The effect of the Bill will be to provide two alternative formulae to the existing words of declaration. The first modernises the statement so as to read:
"I declare that I know of no legal reason why I may not be joined in marriage to"—
the person concerned. The second takes the form of a question and answer, reading, "I am", in response to the question:
"Are you free lawfully to marry AB?".
This second form is particularly favoured by the Roman Catholics as it matches other questions and answers in their marriage rite. The Bill also provides that the shorter form of words of contract in the Act may be used, whether or not a registrar is present. The only change of wording is to substitute "you" for "thee". The Bill does not, of course, replace the existing statutory words; it simply provides alternative formulae.

Finally, I point to the fact that, although the primary purpose of the Bill is to permit alternative words in a marriage solemnised in a church, it also enables the alternative words to be used in a marriage in a register office and in certain other forms of civil ceremony, including marriages in approved premises under the Marriage Act 1994.

I hope that the House will give its support to the Bill which will tidy up something which is, on the one hand, minor but in the context of a ceremony, an irritating anachronism.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (The Lord Bishop of Southwark.)

10.22 p.m.

My Lords, as the wholly inadequate substitute for my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton, whose name appears upon the Speakers' List, may I say that the House will be grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark for introducing this Private Member's Bill.

First, perhaps I may say that I speak entirely for myself since, to use the words of the Bill,
"alternative words of declaration and contract",
is not, to my knowledge, an issue on which the Labour Party has yet adopted a fixed and declared policy position. I must also declare an interest as a vice-president of the Prayer Book Society, which exists to save and defend harmless the Book of Common Prayer against all the assaults of its enemies. However, I think I may say without fear of successful contradiction that the noble compilation of Cranmer and others stands in no particular or peculiar peril from the modest proposal contained in the Bill before us tonight.

The changes proposed in Clause 1 as an addition to Section 44(3) of the Marriage Act 1949 are not unreasonable in themselves but, as the author of the First Epistle to the Corinthians puts it in Chapter 6, verse 12 (and I quote him or her):
"all things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient".
May I ask the right reverend Prelate how great was the swell of unrest and protest against the words of the Marriage Act 1949 which made it necessary to bring in this Private Member's Bill? Was there any research? For example, was there a full survey of the registrars to ask their opinions? How were the views of the consumers of the service established and obtained?

Since this Bill, as is customary in another place, passed through all its stages without exciting very much discussion, I should be grateful if the right reverend Prelate could say a little more by way of explication about the benefits which the changes would bring and to whom those benefits would principally accrue, and what perils and dangers would await us all, in this world and the next, if by any chance, through the sundry and manifold changes of the world, the Bill were unfortunate enough not to secure its Second Reading here tonight?

10.25 p.m.

My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark on securing the introduction of the Bill, which has been considered and passed to this House from another place. I congratulate him also on the explanation he gave, which certainly helped with some of the queries I had in relation to the Bill. It was instructive to hear the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, in his beautiful use of English, raise queries on the Bill.

As the House heard, the purpose of the Bill is to introduce greater choice for people who are getting married by allowing the use of more modern language in the marriage ceremony for those couples who want it. As the right reverend Prelate said, the 1990 White Paper, Registration: Proposals for Change, recognised that there was a case for providing modern-day language alternatives which had substantially the same effect as the contracting and declaratory words prescribed in the Marriage Act 1949. The proposals in this Bill have broadly the same purpose.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, had a number of queries concerning the Bill, one of which related to its benefits. The benefits for his countrymen are that they will be able to be married in their own language and in their own chapels.

I have listened with interest to what has been said. I congratulate the Churches Main Committee on the work it carried out, and once again congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark on his work.

10.26 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for his encouraging words, the kindness of his remarks about the Churches Main Committee and the explanation of this Bill. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, for his animated intervention and his series of questions. I could expect nothing less from a vice-president of the Prayer Book Society, even at this late hour.

As I indicated in my speech, there has been a full discussion on this matter, with a Green Paper, but also in preparation for the White Paper, including the proposal that the words should be modernised. No single objection was raised. I cannot give an answer as to whether the registrars were fully consulted on what the score was at the end. I doubt whether anyone can.

I also indicated—and it is important that I repeat this for a vice-president of the Prayer Book Society—that the traditional Prayer Book words will not be replaced but an alternative will be provided. I do not know what the perils and dangers may be for those in this world and the next. I have never made a study of either the furniture of Heaven or the temperature of Hell, so I do not know those things.

Since we are in the business of quoting from St. Paul, I shall simply say: yes, he did say those words about certain things being expedient, but the same author in the same book said: "I would rather speak five words with understanding than ten thousand words in an unfamiliar tongue." So to those who are being married with these words, in these days, I rather think the tongue will be more familiar if the alternative words are used. Those matchless words of Cranmer are slightly out of date for the modern couple. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.