On 4th May something very significant happened in the history of the Church of England. On that day all Marriage Registers were permanently closed and an entirely new system of registering marriages came into force. The centuries old right of every Rector or Vicar to hold his or her own Marriage Register came to an end, along with their right to issue marriage certificates. Like so many things that have crept up upon us in the last year, this has caused some alarm and confusion, and not just among those who are getting married. In reality, the new system is not complicated and will soon become part of what we like to call ‘normal’.
As well as being called Rector, or Vicar, or Curate, or Bishop, or whatever, members of the clergy also have the title Clerk in Holy Orders. This historic and rather arcane title is derived from their role in maintaining official records of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials – the forerunners of our modern-day Registration Service. This system of parish registration was put in place in the reign of Elizabeth I, and remained the way official records were collated until the Civil Registration Act, 1837. Despite this regularising of an increasingly haphazard system of record keeping, the centrality of the Church of England in the conduct of marriage ceremonies meant that the clergy assumed the role of Registrar of Marriages when they were ordained. On 4th May 2021 this came to an end.
After more than a year of uncertainty and fear, wedding couples are beginning to look to their futures with optimism and joy. As I speak to those who are planning to be married this year I am hearing stories of how they are now ‘thinking about the wedding’ again, of how they are talking to caterers and photographers, of how much they are looking forward to making that public lifelong commitment of Holy Matrimony.
The traditions associated with marriage have taken many twists and turns down the centuries. As with all aspects of human life, superstitions and folk tales abound. Did you know that the ‘luckiest’ day on which to get married is Wednesday, and not the ever-popular Saturday. In fact, according to folk lore, Saturday is the worst possible day on which couples could choose to get married. Ancient traditions would also have us believe that finding a spider on the wedding dress and lots of rain on the big day are the finest things that could happen to any ‘happy’ couple. Of course, long and happy marriage is not about good luck. The recipe for long and happy marriage is rooted in the centuries old words of the marriage vows, alongside an understanding of how those being married are transformed from two individuals into one married couple.
The words of the marriage vows are well known: to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part. But, today, their familiarity is largely rooted in the superficial world of film and television. This familiarity devalues the all-encompassing power of these words. This familiarity means that the true meaning which underlies the totality of what is being promised is turned into a ‘cute’ moment in a necessary preliminary to the big party.
I am sometimes asked about the possibility of couples writing their own vows. I am glad to say that this is not possible. My pleasure in being able to say ‘no’ to this request is not founded on my wanting to be awkward, rather it is rooted in my belief that they are simply incapable of coming up with anything better.
In modern times, as the human race has evolved, there has developed a greater understanding of how people interact with each other, and how they answer the need to come together in close union. Whether that sense of profound and lifelong partnership is expressed in marriage has become less important than it once was. However, the power of the marriage vows contain the ultimate formula for successful and loving co-existence. When they were written, hundreds of years ago, they were put together using the language of extremes. The marriage vows involve a promise of love and cherishing support no matter what ups and downs a partnership may encounter in its existence. Wouldn’t we all benefit from living our lives according to this well-known and well-loved formula, a formula rooted in God’s love for humanity. A formula played out in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.
Revd Stephen Buckman