The Law Commission recently released a paper entitled ‘Getting Married: A Consultation on Wedding Law’. The document covers a wide range of topics that relate to weddings, most notably, location, ceremony and officiants.

The consultation notes that the current laws in England and Wales reflect customs and culture from the 18th century, when Anglican weddings were the norm and Jewish and Quaker weddings were the only exceptions. The aim of the consultation is to update wedding laws so that they are consistent with the rest of the UK and the world, in order to make getting married easier and more in line with the beliefs and traditions of the couple getting married. 

The proposed reforms aim to allow couples to have a legally binding ceremony tailored to their preferences in terms of location and vows without needing to have multiple ceremonies. Some of the quirkier aspects of the consultation mean that, if enacted, couples could legally get married on a cruise ship or an airplane if they so desired. Ultimately, the Government wants to ensure the legality of weddings in order to protect the legal rights of the couple, and updating weddings law is a step towards that goal.

The consultation is tailored to a wide range of religions and beliefs, which also applies to Christian denominations. One of the key changes is moving from registered buildings to registered officiants, as the current laws mean that people cannot legally be married in an unregistered building or outdoors unless the ceremony is Anglican, Jewish or Quaker . This is good news for churches that do not own their buildings or use rented buildings, as legally binding weddings could take place in these venues, or any other venue they choose to use for the ceremony. 

The consultation also proposes a system of universal civil preliminaries, rather than the current dual system that is in place. This is to simplify the process whilst ensuring that sham and illegal weddings are protected against. 

The Evangelical Alliance’s response

This consultation is about wedding ceremonies and the legal requirements of these and not about marriage in and of itself. The Evangelical Alliance will respond to many of the questions raised within the consultation but will also emphasise the need for churches to be able to continue to conduct wedding ceremonies that are in line with their beliefs around marriage and that this is not undermined by any of these proposed changes.

The Evangelical Alliance’s response will focus on the following points:

1. Location/​venue

The current laws mean religious weddings have to take place in registered buildings in order for the couple to be legally wed. Currently, there are no limits imposed on where Jewish or Quaker weddings can take place, while the locations for civil weddings are highly regulated. The reforms hope to create more consistency across different beliefs, whether couples are religious or not. 

2. Religious content in civil ceremonies

Legally, religious and civil weddings must be distinct from each other. This means that religious material is currently prohibited in civil weddings; the Law Commission is looking to change this. The change is in line with proposals to give couples more flexibility and creates the possibility of blessings being read and hymns being sung during civil ceremonies. 

3. Equality between denominations

Presently, it is much easier to register with the Anglican church than any other denomination, so the new reforms intend to create equality between different religious denominations when it comes to preliminaries and registering. 

4. Registration of officiants

One of the biggest changes proposed with this consultation is the move from registered buildings to registered officiants. Naturally, this may bring up further questions about who can be registered and how, as well as the procedures of registering an officiant. The Evangelical Alliance will be addressing all these questions in our response. 

We acknowledge the diversity in different denominations and the bodies they are accountable to and where authority lies, so we intend to raise this with the Law Commission. An example of this would be looking into the differences between registering with the Anglican church compared to an independent church. 

5. Dignity/​solemnity

The new reforms may cause concern for the dignity and solemnity of weddings and marriage. In reference to the previous point, couples would be able to legally get married in the majority of locations as long as they have a registered officiant. The diversity of locations might be a cause of concern regarding the dignity and solemnity of weddings, so we will cover this aspect in our response. We hope that this diversity is provided in a way that recognises the range of different places of worship for people with different beliefs. 

For the breadth of Christian traditions in the UK today, these proposals could provide a significant benefit in being able to hold legally binding wedding ceremonies within and among their church community. In doing this we recognise that this will mean an opening up of provision for couples wishing to marry in other faith traditions or in locations that are meaningful to them. We will also be pressing that the importance of marriage is not undermined through these changes.

The Evangelical Alliance will provide further information next month to help you respond to the consultation, which is open until 4 January 2021