The Rev’d Paul Thomas asks important questions about our legal and theological understanding of Christian marriage raised by recent reports of a private ‘back garden marriage’ three days before a couple were due to be married in church.
A couple gave an interview this week in which they revealed that ‘three days before our wedding we got married’. This marriage consisted of ‘just the three of them’, namely the bride, bridegroom, and the officiant who was to minister the sacrament of Holy Matrimony days later. The couple wanted to have their own moment, and so they telephoned the officiant and said, ‘Look, this thing, this spectacle, is for the world, but we want our union between us’.
The officiant paid them a visit, and the couple appear to have exchanged vows in his presence. These vows, we assume, were penned by the couple themselves, vows which are now wall-mounted and available for visitors to the couple’s home to read, we are informed.
The words of these vows are not known to us as they are private, and so too are the words spoken by the minister. But that the minister was present and spoke words in his capacity as a minister is certain, and that they were words of blessing is highly likely. Believing this to be a private matter, the minister had every reason to expect that a service consisting of ‘just the three of them’ would always remain between just the three of them.
This is a question-raising scenario.
The legal and canonical questions can be addressed quickly. This and any other private garden marriage is not a marriage. This may come as a genuine blow to the couple who sincerely appear to believe (and rather cherish) the fact that they were united in this exclusive and intimate way before the public ceremonies of their wedding day. There were no witnesses present as the law demands for validity, nor were registers signed to indicate the definitive legal reality of their union, nor were authorized vows used. In addition, the place where they were ‘married’ – their back garden – is not licensed for marriages under the law governing marriages in England and Wales, and the officiant was not acting with the authority and dispensation of the necessary Licence for it to be a marriage.
There is no question that what the couple has made public was not the contracting of a marriage as the law and the Church understand it. But that they believe they were married before their wedding day should be taken seriously, not least for pastoral reasons. The official comments made in the light of this news have focussed, necessarily perhaps, on the legal nullity of these garden nuptials, but the pastoral realities of this situation are serious.
There is good reason and ancient precedent that the liturgical rites and ceremonies of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony exist within a framework of law; marriage has a legal personality and the rites of Holy Matrimony in the Church of England and Church in Wales affect a change in the legal status of those being united in and through that sacrament – which is why these rites must be handled with very great care.
As well-meaning as a private garden service might have been at the time in order to meet the immediate pastoral needs of the couple, this private and informal liturgical act clearly gave the impression (and not unjustifiably) that in and through it a married union had come into being, albeit one that had yet to be legally registered and publicly witnessed. It is not in the pastoral best interests of this couple nor any couple to be given such an impression only for it later to be very publicly denied.
Then there is a question of precedent to be alert to. Now that the details of their private ‘marriage’ are very public, many among the parochial clergy can now expect to field a variety of unwelcome questions and requests for similar services. A situation which is already complicated, and at times conflictual, has been made more so by this very public precedent. The secular culture in which clergy are exercising marriage ministry too often sees little need for or relevance in the various requirements the clergy make: qualifications to be married in church; the importance of the consecrated building in which the marriage rite must be celebrated; the spiritual and pastoral preparation necessary; the Church’s legal preliminaries – all these things stand athwart the dominant culture.
This important ministry will now, we can expect, come under even greater pressure to give way to consumer demands, demands which would far prefer to see the clergy marryingcouples in the garden, or even the Garden Centre, according to the tastes and requirements of the couple. A culture which lauds self-fulfilment and self-assertion above all else hears the Gospel of self-as-gift with its careful liturgical and ritual expression with near incomprehension. This difficult situation has been made that more difficult by reports of backyard blessings.
Lastly, it appears that the couple in question were labouring under a common but dangerous misunderstanding in relation to marriage, namely that there is on one hand a ‘union between us’ made privately which is essential and greater, and on the other a public event or ‘spectacle’ performed in a chapel which although legally necessary is inferior.
It is crucial for the pastoral good of the couple as well as the common good of society for the minister to ensure that those entering the holy estate of matrimony have been prepared to understand that there is in the Christian doctrine of marriage no distinction to be made between the private union of two persons and its public character. There is compelling reason why weddings are not conducted clandestinely, because they are not lived clandestinely.
The character of Christian marriage is incarnated in the concrete realities of daily life in which a man and woman live out their mutual self-giving in relation not only to each other but to all others by being actively and christianly part of the human community. Self-gift in marriage does not require the couple to turn in upon one another to the exclusion of all, but rather to turn outward toward the world, so that united in mutual self-giving, they may offertheir marriage as a witness to it, for the world’s good, as a model of the world’s redemption in Christ.
Christian marriage is inescapably public, deeply personal, yes, but never private. To allow a separation to occur between the private and public in marriage rends asunder what God has joined together.
The Rev’d Paul Thomas is Vicar of St James’s Sussex Gardens & Area Dean of Paddington.