May 20, 2021

Three couples gather to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary in JB Priestley’s When We Were Married, only to discover, to their horror, that they hadn’t actually been properly married. A clerical error had taken place, the paperwork wasn’t in order. Cue much Victorian hand wringing about their having been “living in sin” for 25 years (the play was written in 1934). Oh, what will the neighbours think?

It’s a comedy, of course. But the play isn’t just mocking the moral values of the time. It’s also satirising the idea that they weren’t properly married in the first place. After all, they had made their vows before God, they had lived faithfully together as husband and wife, and the priest had said: “That which God has joined together let no man put asunder”. From a theological perspective, they were married. No clerical error could change any of that.

Yet marriage has always been the site of a vexed tug of war between the church and the state. One of the accounts of the death of Bishop Valentine was that he was executed for carrying out ‘illegal’ marriages. Emperor Claudius believed that the reason he was having a hard time recruiting soldiers to the Roman army was because of the attachment of potential recruits to their wives and families. So he banned marriage. Valentine became a martyr to romance because he believed that the authority to marry came from God not from the Emperor, so he ignored Claudius’ instruction and, as a result, was beheaded. This may be an overly dramatic comparison, but the basic principle remains the same. As the preface to the Church of England marriage service puts it: “Marriage is a gift of God in creation” – not a gift of Claudius or the local Registrar.

The latest bone of contention in this longstanding tussle surrounds the issue of marriage registers. For generations, a Church of England wedding ceremony would conclude with the signing of the registers. Large green books would be laid out, a fancy fountain pen produced, and the priest, the happy couple and their witnesses would look up for the camera, flowers strategically placed in the background. Then I would hand over a certificate to the best man for him to keep safely. This was proof they had been married.

But from now on, I will print a form from the web, everyone will sign it, the couple will take it to the Register Office who load the marriage on their database and then issue proof of marriage. There are good things about the new law, long lobbied for by the church. These days, for example, it’s not just the bride and groom’s father who gets a mention on the official documentation, but both father and mother. But what is less welcome is the state’s increasing involvement in what is fundamentally a religious ceremony.

I do already have beef with the Register Office. It dates back to 2016, when the full consequences of the nasty 2014 Immigration Act were laid bare to me. From the Middle Ages onwards, the traditional legal preliminaries for getting married were the reading of banns. For three consecutive Sunday mornings, the priest would read out the names of those wanting to get married and declare “If any of you know cause or just impediment why these persons should not be joined together in holy matrimony, ye are to declare it.” The 2014 Act added a new stage for those who are non-EU nationals – in effect, and certainly in my parish, predominantly people of colour. They would have to go to the Register Office first to let them know they were going to get married.

This was why, on a Saturday morning in August 2014, one of my loveliest parishioners, resident here for 14 years, was turfed out of his bed by six Home Office heavies and dragged off to a detention centre in Dorset. It was several months before his immigration status could be sorted out, months which he spent languishing in a former prison, the Verne, notorious for its violence.

He is now married and happy, thank God, and still living in the parish. But I won’t ever forgive the system for turning me, his priest, into a Home Office informant. Last Sunday, the police turned up at my church, to check out our socially distanced after-church tea drinking. This new closer involvement of the Register Office in the sacrament feels even more intrusive.

So here’s a suggestion. Why doesn’t the state get out of the marriage business completely? The invention of Civil Partnerships makes this so much easier. Churches, mosques and synagogues could do the God bit — let’s call it “marriage”. And the state — through the Register Office — can do the Civil Partnerships bit. Those who get married in places of worship can apply for Civil Partnership status, if they so wish, and whatever tax or immigration/citizenship advantages the state wants to attach to marriage they can do so through Civil Partnerships. This way the state and the church (mosque, synagogue etc.) can happily co-exist without religious ideology affecting the state and vice versa.

I am generally a fan of the established church. The hybridity of church and state has several advantages for both parties – the Church of England having a representative role in the constitution that allows a valuable voice to speak into debates in Parliament, for example. And the Queen holds it all together. The coronation is the very epitome of the church/state alliance and the epicenter of our historic constitution.

But when parts of the establishment no longer work well for both parties, it is worth reviewing. In the United States, the separation of church and state was set up not to protect the state from the church – as is often presumed these days – but to protect the church from the state, to guarantee the freedom of religion. That is a principle worth protecting over here as well.

Fully separating marriage and civil partnerships in law would allow religious organisations to marry people according to their own values. And though I strongly believe that gay marriage should take place in churches, that is a decision that the church should make for itself.

Civil Partnerships would carry all of the moral, social and legal weight that marriage did in the past. And marriage would be a purely religious ceremony, without state involvement, which would concentrate the minds of those getting married on their union under God.

As things stand, these new arrangements continue the trend to turn marriage into a bureaucratic transaction, rather than a covenantal promise. The more the state gets involved, the more this glorious religious service feels as soulless as taking out a mortgage. It’s high time the clerics told the registrars what to do with their government spreadsheets. In the name of St Valentine and all that is holy, can we please have our ceremony back.