Marriage revisited

The subject of marriage is once again in the spotlight after Lynne Featherstone, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Equalities (and not, as the Telegraph described her, ‘Equalities Minister’), used her speech to the Liberal Democrat Conference to announce:

We are a world leader for gay rights, but as this conference made clear last year with your call for equal marriage, there is still more that we must do.

That is why I am delighted to announce today that in March, this Government will begin a formal consultation on how to implement equal civil marriage for same sex couples.

And this would allow us to make any legislative changes necessary by the end of this Parliament.

Civil partnerships were a welcome first step – but as our constitution states, this party rejects prejudice and discrimination in all its forms.

And I believe that to deny one group of people the same opportunities offered to another is not only discrimination, but is not fair.

Predictably this idea has gone down like the preverbal lead balloon with the Christian religious traditionalists/fundamentalists* with commentators such as the likes of His Grace frothing at the mouth and saying that religious marriage is nothing to do with politicians. Strangely I agree with him, but not, I think, for the same reasons as I would go further and say that the State has no place in deciding who can – or indeed cannot – marry.

However, as with so much these days, we are starting from a point in the UK where what should be a simple contract between the involved parties has instead been heavily influenced by both religion and State for many hundreds of years.

Wikipedia tells us that:

A requirement for banns of marriage was introduced to England and Wales by the Church in 1215. This required a public announcement of a forthcoming marriage, in the couple’s parish church, for three Sundays prior to the wedding and gave an opportunity for any objections to the marriage to be voiced (for example, that one of the parties was already married), but a failure to call banns did not affect the validity of the marriage.

Marriage licenses were introduced in the 14th century, to allow the usual notice period under banns to be waived, on payment of a fee and accompanied by a sworn declaration, that there was no canonical impediment to the marriage. Licenses were usually granted by an archbishop, bishop or archdeacon. There could be a number of reasons for a couple to obtain a license: they might wish to marry quickly (and avoid the three weeks’ delay by the calling of banns); they might wish to marry in a parish away from their home parish; or, because a license required payment, they might choose to obtain one as a status symbol.

There were two kinds of marriage licenses that could be issued: the usual was known as a common license and named one or two parishes where the wedding could take place, within the jurisdiction of the person who issued the license. The other was the special license, which could only be granted by the Archbishop of Canterbury or his officials and allowed the marriage to take place in any church.

To obtain a marriage license, the couple or more usually the bridegroom, had to swear that there was no just cause or impediment why they should not marry. This was the marriage allegation. A bond was also lodged with the church authorities for a sum of money to be paid if it turned out that the marriage was contrary to Canon Law. The bishop kept the allegation and bond and issued the license to the groom, who then gave it to the vicar of the church, where they were to get married. There was no obligation, for the vicar to keep the license and many were simply destroyed. Hence, few historical examples of marriage licenses, in England and Wales, survive. However, the allegations and bonds were usually retained and are an important source for English genealogy.

Given the period of history in question, I suppose it is not a surprise that the Catholic Church attempted such a complete and total power grab. Prior to then marriage had been considered a private affair but once the Church had had its way it became a religious arrangement – the echos of which are still present today.

The Church though did not thoroughly subjugate the institution of marriage within England and Wales until 1753 when the State, perhaps pressured by the (by this time) Church of England (CoE), passed what is known as Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act. This conjoining of the country’s two most powerful bureaucracies of the age formalised the previous arrangements for everyone except Jews and Quakers (although it stopped short of ensuring the legality of their ceremonies).

(As an interesting footnote, because the Act was not binding in Scotland, the rise of Gretna Green as a place of elopement can be traced to this Act. That and the building of a toll road which passed nearby.)

For the CoE though this enshrining of its wishes into Law can also be considered the high water mark in terms of their control over the institution of marriage.

Less than 100 years later, the Marriage Act of 1836 restored the ability of people to get married outside of the influence of the CoE, legalising civil marriages and allowing ministers from other Christian denominations to conduct legal marriages. The then Bishop of Exeter was so outraged by this idea that he denounced the bill in quite strong terms:

…a disgrace to British legislation. (It) is pretended to be called for to prevent clandestine marriages, but I think it will greatly facilitate such proceedings. Not solemnised by the church of England, may be celebrated without entering into a consecrated building, may be contracted by anybody, and will be equally valid, whether it takes place in the house of God, or in the house of a registering clerk, one of the lowest functionaries of the state. The parties may take one another for better and for worse, without calling God to witness their plighted troth. No blessing sought; no solemn vows of mutual fidelity; no religious solemnity whatever…

The follow up act of 1949, reconfirmed much of what already existed but banned under 16s from getting married. Thus the state of play today is that:

…a couple has a choice between being married in the Anglican Church, after the calling of banns or obtaining a license or else, they can give “Notice of Marriage” to a civil registrar. In this latter case, the notice is publicly posted for 15 days, after which a civil marriage can take place. Marriages may take place in churches other than Anglican churches, but these are governed by civil marriage law and notice must be given to the civil registrar in the same way. The marriage may then take place without a registrar being present, if the church itself is registered for marriages and the minister or priest is an Authorised Person for marriages.

(As an aside, did you know that it is illegal in the UK to marry between 1800 hrs and 0800 hrs? The Freedom Bill (remember that?) will, if it ever passes, remove this restriction.)

And there you have it, an institution which, for all practical purposes, dates back to when the first caveman hit the first cavewoman over the head with a club and carried her back to his cave is now all neatly controlled by the State with a bit of a sweetener to keep the official Christian sect of the country happy.

It is thus possible to see why the CoE, having once joined forces with the State when it was the bigger beast, now complains bitterly when its secular successor announces changes to the civil side of the equation as they realise that their bone will be taken away next. If the CoE really wants to retain what little power it has left in the matter then it should be actively campaigning for disestablishment. This would allow it to revert back to its original status as an outsider. However their attachment to the State is so great that I can’t honestly see it happening – which means that they are condemned to suffer along with the rest of us. Quite ironic really.

Meanwhile the fact that the controlling monolith is considering (assuming this consultation is anything other than a formality) opening up the definition of marriage is to be applauded. That it will still retain control afterwards is not.

What it should do is get out of the game altogether and leave it up to the individual to marry in whatever combination of numbers and/or genders that takes their fancy under whichever rules they do so choose. Together with disestablishment this would leave the CoE, as a private organisation, free to impose its own restrictions on those who wish to use its facilities and membership. Then, if members of the CoE object to a particular policy (such as banning gays or lesbians from having a religious wedding service) they are free do what has happened every other time there has been a fundamental policy disagreement within the Christian Church: Schism.

* delete as you consider appropriate


  1. Angry Exile says:

    What it should do is get out of the game altogether and leave it up to the individual to marry in whatever combination of numbers and/or genders that takes their fancy under whichever rules they do so choose.

    Excellent post. I’ve been saying something similar off and on for ages. There’s no way to balance things to please everyone so the best thing the state can do is to stop trying altogether. No legal definition of marriage would mean anyone could do whatever they feel necessary to call themselves married and nobody else would be under any obligation to recognise it if it they felt that one or other partner was packing the wrong tackle or whatever. I’ve been meaning to blog about it properly one day, but I think I’ll cut a lot of corners and point here instead.

    • Misanthrope Girl says:

      Thank you.

      Such a position does of course mean that the laws regarding inheritance would also have to be re-written… which is no bad thing.