Friday 21 May 2021

Getting Married in the Church of England - Update

Remember the bad old days of weddings? Such old-fashioned, weird times before 4 May this year?  When the happy couple would sign two registers, the vicar would keep a copy to send the Registrar, and then give a copy to the Best Man to lose in hilarious circumstances about six hours later at the Reception? Weren't they complicated, clunky and traditional?

Well, don't worry. In the middle of a pandemic, when nobody had anything else to worry about, the Government has changed to a new, funky, digital, and exciting system.

Dave Walker has a great cartoon in the Church Times to advise clergy on how this particular bit of their admin (and a few others) is changing. But I do feel like he's being a bit kind to the new marriage system. I may have got some of this wrong. So feel free to correct me before any innocent clergy accidentally gets it all wrong. Here we go...

"It's Digital! (but you'll need a paper copy too)" is putting it mildly.

It's digital in the same way that this blog is. In that it exists on a computer. You don't submit it digitally. You don't process it digitally.  No. What you do is - you go onto a computer. You go to the right page (if you can work out what the right page is) and you can then type into the document you find on that page, just like an old-fashioned Word document. Because it's a Word document.

And then, just like an old-fashioned Word document, you can print it off. There you go. That was the digital bit done. Yeah. You would have thought there was more to it than that. No block chain or Time Lord technology or anything like that. Not even an up to date version of Word.

In case even that was too much digital for you (in which case I presume you're getting this blog post printed off for you by a more technical friend), you can print off a whole lot of blank copies as well for emergencies, and fill them in by hand. Forever. You need never go digital again.

Try and use nice paper though. You remember those lovely old wedding registers where everyone took the photos while people were signing them and then some vicars who didn't  understand stuff got all umpty and said you couldn't, as taking photographs of a register (which is a public document) would reveal people's name (which are their names) so it broke GDPR (which it didn't) or Child Protection or the Official Secrets Act or something. Them lovely old green ones. Which you signed with a lovely old fountain pen in lovely old special Registrar's ink. Well, they've gone.

Instead. Everyone signs a bit of A4 which came off the vicar's printer. Let's hope they've got a nice laser printer. As if the vicar's still using the dot-matrix they bought when they were the trendiest vicar on the block in 1988, you're gonna be signing something that looks like a prop in the original TV run of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. 

So use a lovely bit of textured, lovely paper. I would. And you still need the lovely old ink and pen.

At this point, you then get the good bit of the new system. You can enter both the happy couple's parents' names and jobs - mothers and fathers - so that's good. Big step forward.  And you can also enter up to two (but no more than two) of the parent's new significant others. Giving up to four people that you can put down. Still not enough for Adele, probably, but enough to cause some real heartache when the groom is debating which of his mother's three polyamorous partners to put down together with his father and his father's new civil partner.

And you can have up to six witnesses. Or eight. Or something. Two or more, at any rate. This is in case any of them die before you find out the wedding document never got to the Registry Office.Which will never happen of course.

So you print out the form. Get it signed by the bride, groom, and witnesses.  DO NOT give it to the Best Man to lose in hilarious circumstances in six hours's time. DO NOT give it to the Bride's mother or significant other to show the neighbour. DO NOT take a copy. This is very important. You will see why later.

You then post the signed document to the Registry Office. Don't use registered post. Don't track it. Don't worry. No important documents every go astray.

Because the system is so slick, churches no longer need registers. Which is why the churches have to buy a new book, in a lovely grey colour, with the words "Register of Marriage Services" on the cover. The Register of Marriage Services are like the old green books, only not so important. Also DO NOT get anyone to sign them except the clergy. That's not what they're for. I'm not sure what they're for, but never mind. Let's move on.


New, non-green, Register that isn't a Register

You will see that each entry in the new Register-which-isn't-a-Register has a serial number on it which should match the one you entered on the wedding document you just posted.

What do you mean? "Oh dear?" That's normally what the bride's mother says at a wedding.

It's a great thing, this serial number. You can use any serial numbering you like. Which means if you're a boring old vicar you can just start at number 1 and work up. Then when you're talking to the registrar about the wedding document that didn't turn up (which will never happen), they can ask you which parish it was in as you've sent them four number 6's this month. If you're a vicar who was formerly in IT, you're liable to overthink it, and try to develop some numbering scheme that accounts for, for instance, having two church in the same parish but only one book so you'd better have some kind of structured key except you remember from your Business Analyst training in 1988 that you DON'T PUT MEANING IN A KEY. So maybe you need another book to identify the link entity between marriages and churches. Or something. There's no obvious reason why the sequence numbers should be strictly sequential, by the way. They could frankly write the names of the books of the Bible in there, or only prime numbers, or ascending values of vulgar fractions. The scope for creativity appears to be huge.

Let's move on. You've realised you have duplicated the sequence number.  So you're going to need to go and hang around by the post box, and try and persuade the postperson to let you have the marriage document back and that's gonna be tricky. Not to mention probably illegal. Better wear your dog collar. And stop all that stress-dribbling.

You will have noticed that at no point in the process so far has the best man got a copy of the marriage certificate to lose six hours later in hilarious circumstances. The happy couple have to apply for this separately, by contacting the registry office, either before, after, or presumably even during the wedding ceremony. Perhaps there's an opportunity to make the liturgy include the phoning of the Registry Office just after the priest has declared them person and other person, or whatever the next gender-neutral marriage ceremony will say. However. Let's suppose, despite the Royal Mail never losing documents, that the arrival of the document at the registry office never happened. Now what?

Time for the other bit of good news. There is no need for the quarterly return.

The what, I hear you ask? Unless you're a clergy, in which case I hear gentle sobbing.

The quarterly return. The thing whereby the registrar could check they'd received all the copies of the wedding certificates from all the churches, chase down any that had gone missing, and spot fakes.

Because now all that happens after a wedding is that clergy sends in a sheet of A4, with the names of all the various possible combinations of parents and parentoids,  and the names and signatures of the happy couple and the various witnesses  and witnessoids, with a sequence number made up by the vicar based on anything at all they like, there's absolutely no way that the pieces of paper could go missing or be faked is there?

Oh, good point. Which has just been noticed.

So now the quarterly return has been scrapped on a national basis, individual registry offices need to reintroduce it on a local basis. Each with their own scheme. Each on their own design of digital medium (eg a Word document) to be posted, emailed or carrier-pigeoned back as clergy see fit. Or not sent back at all, as it's not a legal requirement, it's just a favour to the poor registrars who are desperately trying to get some control back into a process that's not fit for purpose.

And then you find out that one is missing. 

Do you remember that you aren't supposed to take a copy of the wedding document? Well, that's bad news. As you now have to print off another one. And get it signed. But one of the witnesses has gone back to Canada. One is dead. And one has legally changed their name to BX4989 and gone to live in a commune of people that are transforming themselves into cyborgs. But via email, fax, letter, seance, and invading the commune and beating BX4989 until they remember what their old name was, you get a perfect copy of the document, all ready to go back off to the registrar. 

But you're a bit busy. So you give it to the Best Man to post.

Six hours later, in hilarious circumstances...


  1. Well by gum, that all seems simple enough. What were they; as in those that came up with this, thinking?

    1. It was originally planned to be much simpler, but the C of E insisted that the clergy do the marriage preliminaries because that's 'missional' - so then we get a botched system.....

  2. Yes, nothing could ever go wrong!

    I believe the couple are able to entrust whoever they want with posting the document...😅

    1. No, the CLERGY can entrust whoever they want. And then get fined £1000 when the Bride's Mum's Yorkshire terrier eats the homework....

  3. As I said on the FB post that drew me here. You missed the ‘honest this is not a marriage certificate document’ that some of us are creating as a memory for them to take away. Which we then give to the Best Man and six hours later, in hilarious circumstances...

  4. Well and it was complicated enough when we got wed in 1982 - pre computers - cos we had a deed poll document as well as a marriage certificate and hardly anyone knew what to do with the deed poll document!!!! Hilarious and they call it progress?!?

  5. Our local Register Office advises against posting because it might go astray - so either I have to go into the City to deliver it every time I take a wedding (crying nostalgically for the day it was only a Quarterly Return I used to have to deal with) or I entrust it to the best man or someone else where the possibility of it going astray may actually be higher than it being lost in the post.

  6. Goodness me, that's quite aprocess. I'm quite interested to know what problem the powers-that-be were trying to solve?

    1. As there is no official marriage register held by the church and no copy of the register (marriage certificate) issued by the CofE vicar; I question whether the vicar is still a registrar! Why not just go the whole hog and have separate civil and church marriages -- like in France, Germany, etc.?

  7. And if I, a generally honest retired Vicar, can see how to defraud the system, how many bogus registrations will be generated?

  8. The Church of England, as well as creating a Register-that-is-not-a-Register has also created a Marriage-Certificate-that-is-not-a-Marriage-Certificate because, well, people who are just married want a reminder of what they did less than six hours ago

  9. Is this just C of E or does it apply to all church weddings? I ask because Old Ben who's been the Registrar's Rep at our (Catholic) church's weddings since circa 1983 is getting on a bit, wobbly too now, and anyway we haven't had a wedding since that shotgun episode in 2002. Plenty of funerals, mind! But I don't think he'd cope (the parish priest refuses to become a Registrar in case he's asked to bless a LGBT couple).

  10. What happened to the maxim, "If it ain't seriuously broken -- don't fix it?

  11. And in the next edition Archdruid Eileeen will be explaining what you do with the old green books and certificates. I think it has something to do with a lack of sunshine.

  12. my numbering sequence is this: 1701-A, 1701-B etc. the registrar lives next door and is a trek nerd. She will love it


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