By Tim Maby
For the first time in Britain, wedding ceremonies in all religions could be legally recognised under new proposals, the family law commissioner Professor Nick Hopkins told a web briefing held by the Religion Media Centre.
The Rev Bruce Thompson, chairman of the Methodist Church’s Lincolnshire district, welcomed the Law Commission’s proposals to allow weddings in a wide variety of venues, even beaches and mountainsides. He said many people had turned away from church weddings, because churches had not been welcoming.
Professor Hopkins said the Law Commission also proposed modifying civil marriage ceremonies to allow them to include religious content, be it music or verbal. But the core of the ceremony would have to remain purely legal and registrars would not be expected to conduct a religious ceremony.
Mr Thompson commented that “we have a secular church in a spiritual age”. Previous reforms have allowed marriages in a much wider range of buildings, and in 2016, the Office for National Statistics said only 24 per cent of marriages were in religious settings.
Dr Lois Lee, a sociologist from Kent University, said the civil marriage ceremony had become the most popular form since 1977, and so reform of the law was long overdue, but many people would like to have some religious content. She believed that secularisation had not led to decline in marriage and that the ceremony was “extraordinarily buoyant”.
Professor Hopkins explained that the original law about weddings dated from 1836 and its piecemeal modifications had left it full of anomalies. It formally recognised only Anglican, Jewish, Quaker and civil ceremonies and was not coherent. Many marriages took place outdoors, but had no legal backing.
Usama Hassan reported that no Islamic marriage now had legal registration and could take place anywhere. He had even conducted them in hotel rooms, and on occasion alongside a Christian priest. He also welcomed the proposals and would make a submission to have them extended for the protection of women in particular. He pointed out that in virtually none of Britain’s 2,000 mosques had a marriage taken place between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man.
Mr Copson said he would like to have humanist weddings recognised straight away, which would require the government only to lay an order in council, since they had the draft details already.
He was, however, concerned that the proposals allowed for independent marriage officiants to evolve, as they had in the United States. This would allow the commercialisation of marriage. Professor Hopkins said the proposals would restrict independent officiants being allowed to tie a marriage ceremony to other commercial services such as hotels and meals. Officiants would have to be licensed and regulated, he said.
In conclusion, he said the Law Commission wanted couples to have weddings in places that were meaningful to them. It should not matter where a ceremony took place as long as it was “safe and dignified”.