The Second Time of Asking

THERE IS NEVER a dull moment in the Church of England. Consider the following cautionary tale.

Some while ago a young couple approached me to arrange a wedding. They were adamant they must be married on a particular date, which, as circumstances would have it, was already occupied by another, previous couple. (I should explain that brides in these parts arrive up to an hour late for their nuptials, and that I have long since avoided the acrimony which this can cause to a second bride on the same day by rationing these events at one per Saturday). I accordingly offered them another date, which was refused, and they went their way.

Since neither bride nor groom lived in the parish (and would have been seeking a special license) I advised them to approach their own parish church. (Like 99% of couples in South London, they had been cohabiting for some time).

Six weeks later I answered my phone to the Reverend Julie Andrews. She, it appeared, was now, since the retirement of my old friend, Fr Conroy Lawrence, priest-in-charge of St Paul’s, Windy Ridge. Like a number of churches in the Archdeaconry (including my own) St Paul’s has been suffering from subsidence. It was declared a dangerous structure many months ago and Conroy arranged that his weddings would take place at St Stephen’s. The Revd Julie wondered whether this arrangement could continue. She had a young couple with her and it would be helpful if I could decide matter right away.

Quickly I weighed up the pros and cons. On one side there was the flak I might get from my PCC for allowing a woman ‘priest’ to function in St Stephen’s. On the other side was my desire to show that I was not prejudiced against women’s ministry, but rather sought to encourage it wherever legitimately exercised. The ministers of the sacrament in the case of a wedding, I reasoned, are couple in question. There could, then, be no harm in gaining a few brownie points in the deanery by being seen to be accommodating to Rev Julie (who is rightly well respected and well liked). So I said yes.

Only after a further conversation did it dawn on me that the couple in question were the couple who had previously approached me. Now, apparently, their fixation with the one particular Saturday had evaporated, and they were prepared to go ahead a week later than originally planned. Diaries were squared and arrangements made. I rejected Rev Julie’s kind suggestion that she send her male curate to perform the ceremony. ‘No, I insist; do it yourself,’ I magnanimously declared.

And so she did.

It turned out that the couple (the bride’s grandfather had been a regular communicant at St Stephen’s till the day of his death) now had some association with a local Pentecostal church, whose ‘music group’ they wanted to take a prominent place in the proposed ceremony. I arranged that Dave the verger would oversee the delivery of the several keyboards and vast speakers which this entailed, charged a fee on his behalf for janitorial services, and thanked my lucky stars that Julie, and not I, was the officiating minister!

It was after the colourful and eventful rehearsal that I offered Julie a drink in my garden – at the end of what had been, for her, a fraught day. And so it was that I discovered the bridegroom, Shaun, though only twenty-three, had already been married and divorced. Did I mind?, asked Julie.

Once more required to think on my feet, I once more assessed the possible damage. On the one side was the flak I would undoubtedly get from the PCC for allowing a divorcee to be married in the Church. On the other was the fact that the event was only days away, and that Julie, to whom I had given full permission to perform the rite, had obviously not even considered that the divorce might be a problem.

Casuistry ruled OK. Why, I asked myself, worry about a woman I suppose not to be a priest, conducting a ceremony I suppose not to be a wedding? ‘Imagine it’s just a concert letting,’ I said to myself. ‘No problem at all, Julie,’ I said to her. ‘You just go ahead.’

And so, to the generously amplified sounds of whoever, Shaun and Loretta were wed. The Revd Julie seemed delighted with the occasion, and I was just glad that it was all over.

It was three weeks later that my phone rang. The speaker had been a godparent at the baptism in the previous Sunday’s Parish Mass. Mercifully, I remembered her name.

‘Did you marry a couple called Shaun and Loretta a few weeks ago?’ she asked. ‘No, ‘ I truthfully replied; and told her the whole involved story.

She, as it turned out, was the former wife of Shaun, and a faithful communicant at a neighbouring Church. She had not long ago divorced Shaun for adultery with Loretta. Did the Church publicly condone such infidelity by offering its solemn rites to those who were guilty of it? She was in tears. It had never been like that back in the West Indies.

‘No, the Church of England does not do such things,’ I replied, fingers crossed, ‘the Canons forbid the remarriage of divorcees. I never do it. But the Revd Julie does. I did not marry them. You must speak to her.’

Did she, I wonder? And did the Revd Julie, I wonder, get straight on the blower to Michael Scott-Joynt? Better not ask.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark. This is a true story, only the names have been changed.