Jonathan Redvers Harris alerts fellow clergy to a recent circular about marriage registers and takes grave exception to its muddled and ill thought-out attempt to effect social change by decree

Extract from General Register Office
Circular GRO 16A/2005:

The Civil Partnership Act 2004 comes into operation on 5 December 2005 to enable same-sex couples to register a civil partnership in the United Kingdom… Civil partnership will be a lawful impediment to marriage, just as marriage will be a lawful impediment to civil partnership. As a consequence, we have to include civil partnership status as well as marital status in the description of a person’s ‘condition’ in marriage registers.
The current terms for a person who has never been married, ‘Bachelor’ and ‘Spinster’, do not include those who have never formed a civil partnership. ‘Spinster’ has been opposed in the past by those who consider it to be outdated and derogatory…
…from 5 December 2005, a person who has never been married and who has never formed a civil partnership should be shown in the marriage register as ‘Single’ and the terms ‘Bachelor’ and ‘Spinster’ should no longer be used. This will be the case even if the person had given notice of marriage prior to 5 December as a ‘Bachelor’ or ‘Spinster’. The Registration of Marriages Regulations 1986 and the Marriage (Authorised Persons) Regulations 1952 have been amended accordingly…


The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
The teaching of our Lord affirmed by the Church of England is expressed and maintained in the Form of Solemnization of Matrimony contained in the Book of Common Prayer.
It shall be the duty of the minister, when application is made to him for matrimony to be solemnized in the church of which he is the minister, to explain to the two persons who desire to be married the Church’s doctrine of marriage as herein set forth, and the need of God’s grace in order that they may discharge aright their obligations as married persons.

In November all clergy of the Church of England and Church in Wales received (or should have received, for some counties have been slow to act) Circular 16A/2005 from the General Register Office, telling us that changes in terminology in marriage registers were now necessary following the advent of civil partnerships. Because being in a civil partnership is a lawful impediment to marriage then ‘civil partnership status as well as marital status,’ we were told, needed to be included in the ‘condition’ column in marriage registers. This means that, whereas previously – in the case of someone not married before – we entered the terms ‘Bachelor’ or ‘Spinster’, we are now required to use the word ‘Single’.

A flawed alteration

Just in case this apparent requirement had been dreamed up by a clerk in the General Register Office, I checked the Registration of Marriages Regulations 1986, to which the Circular referred, and this statutory instrument has indeed been amended. In a word, the law does explicitly require us to use the term ‘Single’ as a person’s ‘condition’ at registration.

At a stroke – by an amendment to these Regulations laid before the Chancellor of the Exchequer – the dignified, precise, and time-honoured terms ‘Bachelor’ and ‘Spinster’, if slightly quaint, are now consigned to the dustbin of history, and clerks in Holy Orders now pick up their registrars’ pens in a brave new world of language policing. So that’s that.

Or is it? I consider this latest intrusive, controlling requirement from Her Majesty’s Government to be both flawed and also at odds with the Church’s canonical position on marriage. It is flawed on its own terms. Because the ‘condition’ column in the marriage register means marital condition; not only is that self-evident, but the Registrar General’s Suggestions for the Guidance of Clergy (in the registration of marriages) make this abundantly clear. Condition means marital condition. The term ‘Single’ – setting aside its meaning in common parlance as ‘unattached at the moment’ – now effectively means, in law, ‘neither already married nor in a civil partnership.’

I understand, of course, that being in a civil partnership is a legal impediment to marriage. But so too is being within the prohibited degrees of affinity or of consanguinity, and we do not include this on the marriage register. Questions about legal impediments are dealt with at the time of application, at the completing of the banns form, and that, surely, is the point at which the cleric should ask the couple about any civil partnership, just as, from April this year, he or she should perhaps ask a question about acquired gender (given that under the Gender Recognition Act 2004, we are not obliged to solemnise a marriage where we ‘reasonably believe’ a person to have acquired a different gender under the Act, and that reasonable belief or otherwise may be helped by a question on the banns form).

Government agents

There is, presumably, a political point being made here. We, as clerics, are being required to use the word ‘Single’ to help bolster the notion that a civil partnership is equivalent to marriage, which manifestly it cannot possibly be, given that one of the principal and non-negotiable purposes of marriage – the union for life between one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others – is procreation.

I therefore advance the proposition that by insisting that we write ‘Single’ (with its new legal meaning) in the marital condition column of the register, we are being told to abandon the Church of England’s expression of our Lord’s teaching on marriage as set out in the Book of Common Prayer (Canon B30.2). I know that a parliamentary Act, and a statutory instrument made, or amended, under it, have higher legal authority than a mere canon, but behind some canons lie divine law, and it will be interesting to see how many clerics will stand up and refuse to work the State’s single agenda.