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Marriage registry changes could lead to disestablishment, fears General Synod member
Changes to the way marriages are registered could lead to a devaluing of the Church of England's relationship with the state, according to a member of its General Synod.
New plans, set to come into force as soon as possible, for Church of England weddings could mean couples would not immediately get a wedding certificate at their service but would sign a wedding 'document', which they would then have to get converted into a certificate at a registry office.
The document for the ceremony would have to be prepared by the vicar and the responsibility would be on the couple to take it, or assign someone else to take it, to a registrar within seven days of the wedding.
The aim is to make the system more efficient and eventually make it more computer-based, but it has been criticised for being snuck-in without the consultation of clergy, worrying many church leaders that they would have to start preparing such documents this year despite having no training so far.
Rev Canon Jonathan Ford, vicar and member of the Church of England's governing body, told Premier: "Nobody knows anything about it...I mean, I've got weddings this year, people are beginning to ask me have I got to do this now? And there's no information. So, we just don't know when it's going to come and what we've got to do because all 20,000 of us have not been trained or informed or asked so it's a complete fog and the fact that it's been announced is causing anxiety, I'm pretty certain, to all the people who've got marriages booked for this summer."
He added that another of his concerns is the potential of it leading to the separation of the Church of England and the state, ending its current relationship as the official religious institution of the country.
"At the moment, I am a registrar, I conduct the wedding, I issue certificates and therefore, from that moment that the ink is dry on the certificate, they're married and they walk out as a married couple.
"Now, all I'm doing is letting them know I've conducted a marriage and they're really only legally married - far as we know - when they tell the registrar and he issues the certificate.
"So, that changes, in my opinion, the significant status of the Church and the priest, from being a fully fledged registrar to being somebody who's just really doing the preparatory work and because the Church of England is the state church - we've been doing doing marriages longer than the state has been doing them - it does begin to undermine the link between the Church and the state as an agent of the state."
Rev Ford explained that this could add another string to the bow of those who already wish to see an end of the relationship, such as those who want to end prayers in the Houses of Parliament and bishops of the House of Lords.
He explained: "We do weddings on behalf of the country, we do 60,000 plus of them, we do baptisms, we do funerals, all these things we do, and that's part of us being part of the establishment, so if one by one these disappear from our remit, are we the state church anymore? And the answer is probably no.
"When the act of disestablishment is produced, they'll say 'you don't do anything for us - we don't need you'. I have a funny feeling that this might be (because we don't know what it means) an eroding of that central relationship."
Addressing the changes, Rev Dr Malcolm Brown from the Church of England said: "We are in close discussions with the General Register Office, who are working hard to ensure that the change in the system of registering marriages is as smooth and seamless as possible.
"I want to reassure clergy and couples planning a marriage that we are absolutely committed to making the new system work within the context of a Church of England marriage service and the GRO has promised to provide training and comprehensive user-friendly information for clergy.
"We are currently in discussion with the GRO about the exact shape that will take and will update clergy as soon as the details have been finalised."
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