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This chapter analyzes the three types of religious wedding that are explicitly mentioned in the Marriage Act 1949: Anglican, Quaker, and Jewish weddings. It explains why these three types of wedding are accorded special treatment and the legal requirements that apply to them. It also shows how formal recognition brings its own constraints. It discusses how Anglican clergy have a duty to conduct the marriages of any persons who qualify to be married in their parish, regardless of the individuals’ beliefs, unless specifically exempted from doing so. It then shows how Quaker and Jewish weddings must take place within a certain authority structure and conform to their usages; in addition, Jewish weddings are only available where both parties are Jewish. Finally, it shows how the special treatment of these weddings exists despite the differences in how they are celebrated: there is no common core that differentiates them from other forms of wedding and justifies their special treatment.

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This chapter explores how weddings law in England and Wales – in contrast to the position in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland – currently makes no provision for non-religious belief organizations to conduct weddings. It shows that the law was originally intended to allow for the expression of non-religious beliefs: there was (and is) no requirement that a ceremony in a registered place of worship be conducted according to any religious rites, still less those of the group that registered the building. It also shows how the concept of ‘worship’ was previously broad enough to allow non-religious belief organizations to register their buildings. While that option has since been removed by the courts’ adoption of a narrower definition of worship, the number of non-legally binding ceremonies conducted by celebrants affiliated to Humanists UK (previously the British Humanist Association) has grown. The chapter discusses how ‘personalization’ is key to Humanist ceremonies, drawing on a case study from the Nuffield Foundation-funded project. It also explores the relationship between Humanist beliefs and the choice of a Humanist ceremony, as discussed by participants in the study, and the extent to which a Humanist ceremony may also include reference to religious beliefs.

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The Evidence for Reforming Weddings Law

EPDF and EPUB available Open Access under CC-BY-NC-ND licence.

In principle, couples getting married in England and Wales can choose to do so in a way that reflects their beliefs. In practice, the possibility of doing so varies considerably depending on the religious or non-religious beliefs they hold.

To demonstrate this divergence, this book draws on the accounts of 170 individuals who had, or led, a wedding ceremony outside the legal framework. The authors examine what these ceremonies can tell us about how couples want to marry, and what aspects of the current law preclude them from doing so.

This new evidence shows how the current law does not reflect social understandings of what makes a wedding meaningful. As recommended by the Law Commission, reform is urgently needed.

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This chapter focuses on those who want a friend or family member to conduct their ceremony. This is an option that has not attracted much attention to date in England and Wales, in contrast to the position in the United States, where it is a common practice. The chapter first explores a number of examples from the Nuffield Foundation-funded project in which ceremonies were led by a friend or family member. In some cases, the person asked to lead the ceremony held a specific position or had experience in conducting ceremonies, but in a number of cases, they performed it as a one-off. The chapter goes on to explore how having a friend or family member lead the ceremony enabled some couples to have a ceremony that aligned with their religious beliefs in a way that might not otherwise have been possible. It concludes by showing how the Law Commission’s recommendations would accommodate the possibility of a legal wedding being led by a friend or family member in the presence of an authorized officiant.

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This chapter examines the position of couples who do not share the same faith or belief. It identifies two groups: ‘different-faith’ couples, where the individuals hold different religious beliefs, and ‘unshared-faith’ couples, where one person holds specific religious beliefs and the other is atheist or agnostic, or describes themself as holding no beliefs. After providing some context about the history and extent of intermarriage in England and Wales, the chapter analyzes the ways in which the law limits, both directly and indirectly, how different-faith couples can marry. It also shows how the choices made by different-faith couples sought to convey that their respective faiths were equally valued. It then shows that similar choices are faced by those couples where one holds religious beliefs and the other does not: whether to marry in a civil wedding without explicitly religious content (and if so, whether to have an additional non-legally binding religious ceremony) or in a religious wedding whose content assumes beliefs that one of them does not share.

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This chapter explains that the option of getting married in a registered place of worship was originally designed with Christian weddings in mind – specifically, the weddings of those Protestants who were classified as ‘Dissenters’ from the Anglican Church. It also shows how the legal framework established by the Marriage Act 1836 did not always work, even for Christian couples: those whose place of worship was not registered had to have a separate legal wedding in a register office or an Anglican church, and over the course of the 19th century, many Catholic couples complained about the prescribed words having to be repeated separately before a registrar. It concludes by drawing on the findings from the Nuffield Foundation-funded project to show how the prescribed words have largely been absorbed into Christian wedding ceremonies to the extent that they are no longer separately identifiable as the words prescribed by law. This encourages a sense that it is the Christian ceremony itself that is recognized by the law rather than such recognition resting on it being performed in accordance with the legal requirements.

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This concluding chapter draws together the evidence from the preceding chapters to show why it is important for couples to be able to make their legal commitment to each other in a way that reflects their beliefs. It observes that religious weddings are not simply motivated by tradition but also reflect beliefs that are important to the parties. It considers the importance of being able to satisfy legal and faith commitments in a single ceremony and how this could help address the issue of religious-only wedding ceremonies. It also discusses how enabling couples to marry in accordance with their beliefs sends a message about respect, equality, and inclusion, and gives additional weight and meaning to the vows being made by these couples.

Open access

This introductory chapter explains the aims of the book and its significance both to current policy debates and to broader global debates about the regulation of marriage. It then provides some context about weddings and beliefs (both religious and non-religious) in England and Wales today to show why the topic of belief in marriage is an important one despite the apparent decline in the number of religious weddings recorded as taking place. It describes the study that underpins the book. This was a Nuffield Foundation-funded qualitative research study that explored people’s reasons for going through non-legally binding wedding ceremonies and the role of those who conduct them. It involved 170 individuals who either had had at least one non-legally binding ceremony or had been involved in conducting such ceremonies. These ceremonies may have taken place instead of or in addition to a legal wedding. They included Bahá’í, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Humanist, interfaith, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, Sikh, and Zoroastrian ceremonies as well as ones led by independent celebrants and friends or family members. The chapter concludes by setting out the structure of the book.

Open access

This chapter shows how the option of getting married in a registered place of worship does not work well for Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist weddings. It explains the evolution of the law and how little thought was given to how to accommodate different religious traditions in earlier decades. It then sets out the key elements of wedding ceremonies within these different religious traditions and identifies the point at which those involved regard their marriage as coming into existence. It concludes by identifying the key constraints on Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist couples marrying in accordance with their beliefs: the limited number of registered places of worship, the difficulties in individuals becoming authorized and the intrusive role of the registrar, and the way in which the prescribed words are seen as an additional – and unwanted – civil ceremony.

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This chapter turns to the types of ceremonies for which the law in England and Wales makes no provision at present: outdoor Pagan ceremonies. While recent reforms allow couples to marry in the linked outdoor areas of approved premises, such weddings cannot be religious in nature. Similarly, while a building used as a place of worship by a Pagan group can be registered for weddings, most Pagan groups do not worship in dedicated buildings. The chapter provides an overview of the varied nature of Paganism and the number of its adherents in England and Wales. It shows how the desire to be married outdoors is not just about being outside a building but also about locations that hold particular significance for the couple in question. It also discusses the range of rituals that may be included in a Pagan ceremony and the importance that individuals attach to having a person who shares their spirituality conducting the ceremony.

Open access