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Church of England Marriage Measure

Volume 701: debated on Wednesday 21 May 2008

rose to move, That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Church of England Marriage Measure be presented to Her Majesty for Royal Assent.

The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, I am very glad to be able to bring this short measure to your Lordships today. It will help the Church in its work of supporting and encouraging marriage; it will help the clergy to welcome couples who come to them to be married in the Church of England; and it will also help a good many couples by making it easer for them to marry in a parish with which at least one of them has a special connection.

I am also pleased to be able to assure your Lordships that the measure is essentially a simple and straightforward one even though, inevitably, there are some technical details. It applies only to marriages in the Church of England, and they, like all marriages in England, are of course governed by an Act of Parliament, the Marriage Act 1949. Under that Act, it is normally possible for a couple to marry in the Church of England in the parish church of a parish where at least one of them is living, or is a regular worshipper and has his or her name on the church electoral roll. Indeed, such a person has, in almost all circumstances, a right to marry there. However, in today's increasingly mobile society, there are significant numbers of couples who wish to be married in some other parish than that in which one or other of them resides; for example, the parish where one of them grew up and where her or his parents are still living. When they come to the parish priest and ask to be married there, the parish priest currently has to tell them that this is simply not possible under the 1949 Act for couples who live outside the parish unless at least one of them worships there regularly for six months and then has his or her name put on the church electoral roll, or unless they obtain an Archbishop of Canterbury’s special marriage licence.

The General Synod is very clear that it wants a parish priest to be able to welcome couples who come to the Church to be married. It certainly does not want the Church even to give the impression of putting a couple who have a clear connection with the parish through a legal obstacle course before they can be married there. The Synod gave careful thought over a number of years to the best ways of addressing this situation, and the result is set out in the measure before your Lordships tonight. It lists seven short and simple criteria—what the measure terms the “qualifying connections”—and provides that if one of the couple can show that he or she satisfies any one of those criteria, he or she will have the same right be married in the parish church, using a Church of England marriage service, as someone who lives in the parish.

I will run through these seven criteria briskly. They cover cases where the person concerned was baptised in the parish or was prepared for confirmation there; where this person has had her his or usual place of residence in the parish for at least six months, or has regularly attended public worship there for at least six months at any time in the past; where that person’s parent has had his or her usual place of residence in the parish for at least six months, or has regularly attended public worship there for at least six months now or at any time in the past, provided it is during the lifetime of the person who now wishes to marry in the parish; or, finally, that person’s parent or grandparent was married in the parish.

The reason why the Synod chose those seven criteria was, first, that they cover the most typical cases where the problem to which the measure is directed arises in practice and, secondly, because these seven are clear and straightforward, so that it will not normally be difficult for a person who falls within one of the criteria to show that to the parish priest’s satisfaction. The House of Bishops will be issuing guidance to the clergy on how to respond to approaches under the measure. That guidance will be made public. Arrangements are already being made to ensure that, when issued, it will be on the Church of England website. The House of Bishops hopes that it will also help couples by letting them know in advance how and to whom to submit their request to make use of the measure and what kind of information they will need to provide.

Of course, the General Synod recognises that there will always be some cases which fall outside those standard categories, but where one or both of the couple nevertheless have a genuine connection with the parish. However, the measure does not affect the special licence procedure, and it does not take that possibility away from anyone who could use it at present. It does not deprive anyone of any existing rights; it simply extends those rights to some additional categories of people, without amending the terms of the 1949 Act. The measure was finally approved by the Synod with only six voting against in a total vote of 258.

The Church of England sees it as not only a duty but a privilege to marry couples and to give them the preparation which will help them to make the best possible start to their married life together. This is a part of the church's ministry to the nation, to which it attaches great importance. In the House of Bishops document, Marriage, in 1999, among much else, we saw lifelong marriage as the bedrock of a rapidly changing society. By making a limited change in the law, the measure will help the church in carrying out that ministry. At the same time, it will be a practical help to a significant number of couples who want to commit to each other, in marriage, in a church with which they have a special connection. The measure was deemed expedient by the Ecclesiastical Committee. I therefore recommend it to your Lordships and ask the House to support the Motion that it should receive the Royal Assent. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Church of England Marriage Measure be presented to Her Majesty for Royal Assent.—(The Lord Bishop of Winchester.)

My Lords, the purpose of this short measure has been well explained by the right reverend Prelate and I do not wish to add to anything that he said. He was not able to be present himself at the Ecclesiastical Committee meeting when we considered the measure, but we had a full discussion there and many questions were asked. It seemed to me that all were satisfactorily answered by the legislative committee under the leadership of the right reverend Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, and the Dean of the Arches. In the end, we were satisfied that the measure is expedient and therefore I support the Motion proposed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester—that being the test, as I think we all know, that we have to apply.

I would add only that I am always impressed—I think I speak for all members of the Ecclesiastical Committee here—by the time spent and care taken by the legislative committee and the Synod, generally and in its various committees, in preparing measures for our consideration. I sometimes wish that Parliament was able to consider legislation with the same timescale and degree of care as they do. This short measure was a good example of that; it had only three substantive clauses, yet the comments and explanations extend to some 38 pages of type. We are grateful to the legislative committee for what it does. Meanwhile, I beg to support the Motion.

My Lords, this is indeed a good measure. As we have already heard, we were happy to support it under the superb leadership of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick. I am happy to serve on that committee. We found it expedient, and used that word, as the loosening up of those strict parochial boundaries of another time is to be welcomed for our increasingly mobile society. The consequent loss of community that that freedom brings often leads also to drift. It will be wonderful if families can gather somewhere other than in a hotel: somewhere where they can retain their roots, in a place that they can return to in good times and bad—one for the heart and memory to return to, with the possible comfort of a priest to confide in.

I thank the right reverend Nigel Stock, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, for his patience with us and the Dean of the Arches, Dr Sheila Cameron, who was always so magnificent. We should like to add our best wishes to Miss Ingrid Slaughter, who is retiring, for an active retirement. She guided me with great wisdom and humour through my years as chairman of the redundant church uses committee and, subsequently, the London diocesan advisory committee. We wish this measure well.

My Lords, I merely say: where angels fear to tread, so coming in as a Methodist—and a Welsh Methodist of a disestablished church at that—what can we do but welcome the measure from these Benches? However, it is largely a temporary measure, because we are living in an age of such rapid change. We all have to look at the ecumenical scene of joint ministries and buildings being used by more than one denomination. In keeping an eye on that changing scene, is this measure really flexible enough to meet the change of the present time and the years to come? I am sure that one of our great problems is how to have an attractive Christian marriage and not trivialise it. You can marry on a beach in Cyprus, or in a hotel, wherever—in Antarctica, perhaps. There are so many different places, and marriage is meaningful; yet sometimes I think of Las Vegas, where you can marry under all sorts of different circumstances. We pray that those marriages will also be successful.

Here, we see that people of faith will be able to marry in a wider area than they have in the past. I should like to see people of Christian faith being able to marry in any place of worship, but that is, perhaps, the next measure. If we have restrictions, then I know, in my own circumstances, of somebody wanting to marry in a certain church and area where the registrar would ask, “Sorry, do you live in that area?”, so they left a suitcase of clothes in their parents’ house to claim that they resided there when that, in truth, was not so. We should somehow have measures that encourage substantial marriage, of course—and encourage people to be totally clear about the situation they are in and where they live at that time.

On this measure, I do not intend to be pretentious—how dare I seem so?—in saying that it goes in the right direction, but that we are aware of a changing scene and of the measures that will, one day and perhaps quite soon, have to follow this.

My Lords, I support this Motion, as I share very much the views that the noble Lord has just expressed, although I am not a Welsh Methodist. This may be as far as it is right to go now, and perhaps the church may keep this question very much under review, without necessarily being involved in the same amount of detail and hard work that has taken place. Perhaps, one day, there will be an opportunity to go a little further, for the important thing is that people should be able to be married in a church of their own faith. If further difficulties arise, other than those covered by the seven criteria, I hope very much that the church will keep that under review. Subject to looking to the future I, too, support this measure.

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their remarks. We are consistently grateful, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, said, to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd. He has now had to go to a dinner engagement, for which he kindly made himself late so that he could fulfil his role at this moment. The committee does its business with great expedition and, generally, with considerable friendliness as well as a proper sharpness. It was, in that instance, sharp, friendly and expeditious and we are grateful for that.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness both for her general comments and her public appreciation of Miss Ingrid Slaughter, who is present this evening and who has indeed been, and in all kinds of ways continues to be, a remarkable servant of the Church of England. In an earlier incarnation, she was also of relevance to the power industry, given our previous debate. I was then interested in the comments of the final two speakers, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, who speaks so eloquently for the Welsh Methodist position and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn. I am grateful to them and respond in two ways. First, on the Ecclesiastical Committee, those who represented the General Synod noted that, yes, at a number of points the ways in which this measure worked out would need to be kept under review. Would particular or lovely churches be swamped? Would the Church of England be able to service the measure by providing marriage preparation at a distance, as it were, encouraging connections between clergy in one place where the marriage takes place and clergy in the church from which the people came? We noted that we needed to keep the measure under review in those respects. The question of the ecumenical scene and its changes was not raised on that occasion. That is a very important point. Clearly, if we make progress, whether on the Church of England-Methodist covenant or in other ways, aspects of the measure will need to be brought up to date as we do so.

Flexibility is extremely important, as is proper preparation. The really significant element—because this is the only one the Church of England can manage—is marriage by a rite of the Church of England. Of course, if that were in the context of a local ecumenical partnership, where a Church of England service was taking place in Methodist premises in a parish, it would be entered in the register books of the parish concerned and that would be relevant to the measure, as it would had the parents’ marriage been so solemnized, as it might have been. I appreciate the noble Lord’s point about suitcases. Among the main drivers for this measure is the desire to try to avoid clergy kindly agreeing to break the law, and couples pressing clergy to break the law, or breaking the law—technically speaking, the Marriage Act 1949—by being reduced to leaving suitcases and saying that that constitutes residence. It is precisely to make it easier for people with real qualifying connections to marry according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England that this measure has been brought forward. I am grateful for those two points—encouraging us to look at it carefully as time goes on and keep it under review, and to look for any further elements of flexibility that are within our power to adopt.

That concludes my response. It now falls to me to ask the House to approve the Motion.

On Question, Motion agreed to.