In response to the Prime Minister’s 23 March announcement of sweeping restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote to all Church of England clergy informing them that church buildings must be closed not only for public worship, but for private prayer as well, including the priest or lay person offering prayer in church on their own. Similar measures were introduced by the Church in Wales.
As a consequence there have been no marriages in church buildings since then; although an end to the restrictions is now in prospect in England following Prime Minister’s announcement on 23 June, and relaxations already in place in Wales, the absence of public worship already has impacted on marriage by banns and on couples who wish to claim a “qualifying connection” to their preferred wedding venue.
Marriage by Banns
As noted in our post Banns of marriage – their development and future, the reading of the Banns is the most commonly used “ecclesiastical preliminary” in Anglican church weddings in England and Wales; in England this is governed by sections 6 to 14 Marriage Act 1949, and section 13 of the Act applies in Wales as it does in England as a result of section 78 (Interpretation). A request for the calling of banns must be made to the minister of each parish where banns are to be called, which should be seven days in advance of the Sunday when it is anticipated that the reading of the banns will be commenced (section 8).
Banns must be called on three Sundays prior to the wedding at either the principal service or both the principal service and another service (section 7); the principal service is defined as that which, in the opinion of the clergyman or other person who, under section 9 of this Act, has the responsibility for publishing banns of matrimony, the greatest number of persons who habitually attend public worship are likely to attend, (section 7(1A)). Given that no public worship has been taking place since the start of lockdown, it has not been possible to call the Banns; the Faculty Office explains “Banns cannot be called via a ‘live-streamed’ or ‘virtual service’ to a wider digital community but with no congregation physically present nor by any form of ‘public notice’ on the door of a parish church”.
It is not necessary to call the Banns on three consecutive Sundays, and only the date of the third calling is of importance in the present context; where a marriage is not solemnized within three months after the completion of the publication of the banns (i.e. calling for the third time), “that publication shall be void and no clergyman shall solemnize the marriage on the authority thereof”, s12(2). That situation has now been reached, and when marriage is again permitted (as in Wales), there will be the regulatory minimum of four weeks between the notification of the clergyperson and the third reading of the Banns.
The Church of England Marriage Measure 2008, as amended, extends the existing legal right to be married in a parish using a Church of England marriage service, to cases where one or both of the couple can establish a “Qualifying Connection” with the parish. Section 1(3)(a) to (e) of the Measure defines the criteria for establishing a Qualifying Connection, some of which are time-specific:
(b) that person has at any time had his or her usual place of residence in that parish for a period of not less than six months;
(c) that person has at any time habitually attended public worship in that parish for a period of not less than six months.
The equivalent measure in Wales is s2 Church in Wales, Marriage (Wales) Act 2010. In either case, where one or both of the couple are non-UK/EEA/Swiss Nationals, the Superintendent Registrar’s Certificate (SRC) is the only marriage preliminary available. However there is normally a 28-day Notice period between the giving of Notice of Intended Marriage and the issue of an SRC; once issued, an SRC is valid for twelve months from the date on which Notice was given.
Faculty Office guidance states [emphasis added]:
“Now that services have been suspended for a season, many couples who have not been able to attend for six months already will be concerned that they are unable to complete their ‘qualifying attendance’. However, where they have already started to attend and are only prevented from maintaining attendance due to the suspension of services, provided that couples resume as soon as services are able to resume, the ‘gap’ will still be capable of counting towards their ‘habitual attendance at public worship for six months or more’.
Where couples have been prevented from starting their attendance period due to the suspension of services, the situation is quite different as the six month period can only start from the date of the first actual attendance at public worship. If there is then insufficient time for couples to create the qualifying connection between services resuming and their intended wedding date, an Archbishop of Canterbury’s Special Marriage Licence is likely to be required. Whilst every application for a Special Licence is considered on its own merits, the Faculty Office will be very sympathetic where couples have shown a willingness and commitment to create a qualifying connection with their chosen church and have been prevented from doing so solely due to the suspension of public worship.
Although ‘attendance’ at any virtual or live streamed acts of worship cannot be said to be attending public worship sufficient to count towards a qualifying connection, couples are encouraged to participate in such services as are available in the parish through social media or other channels.”
Other ecclesiastical preliminaries
“Marriage by banns” is only one form by which, traditionally, marriage has been solemnized in the Church of England. Currently, four such routes are permissible under s 5 (Methods of authorising marriages) Marriage Act 1949:
- after the publication of banns;
- on the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s special licence;
- on the authority of a common licence; or
- on the authority a superintendent registrar’s certificate.
The Church of England document COVID-19 Advice for clergy conducting weddings, v2 3 June (“Guidance to Clergy”) suggests that with regard to the banns being read, and on the necessity for attendance to establish a connection if this was required, “[a] Common Licence or a Special Licence may be appropriate in some cases, or a postponement of the wedding for others”.
With regard to emergency weddings in hospital, hospice or at home, the Faculty Office indicates that it will continue to facilitate the issue of a Special Marriage Licence for a Church of England/Church in Wales wedding to proceed in a hospital, hospice or at home where one of the parties is terminally ill (whether through Covid-19 or otherwise). Any decision to proceed with a wedding in these circumstances will be one for the clergy and parties and will need to be based upon medical advice and with social distancing policies and guidance applied as regard the officiant and witnesses. The permission of the hospital or hospice authorities will always be required in writing. Clergy or others enquiring about a wedding in these circumstances are invited to use the contact form in the first instance for further advice.
Marriage in church
The wedding ceremony involves a minimum of five people; this exceeds the numbers which the Government restrictions currently permit to gather together in one place, although the maximum number will be raised to 30 on 4 July. It is not currently possible under English law for a wedding to take place using video conferencing technology without the couple, priest and witnesses being physically present. In addition, the Guidance to Clergy observes:
“On a legal point: if anyone wishes to lodge an objection to the wedding, they are legally entitled to do so, and provision must be made to enable them to make their point while observing physical distancing. While this is likely to be a very rare event, it emphasises the importance of having some control over access to the building during the service”.
- As from 11.00 pm on 7th June 2020, The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Amendment No. 5) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 SR 2020/96 provided for the conducting marriage and civil partnership ceremonies outdoors in Northern Ireland, subject to conditions. However, the Church of Ireland Marriage Regulations state: “Marriages shall NOT be solemnised at any place other than a church or chapel of the Church of Ireland duly consecrated for public worship unless the circumstances are wholly exceptional and the prior approval of the relevant bishop has been obtained”.
- In our round-up on 21 June, we noted that in response to a Written Question (56103) about extending the fiancé(e) visa for people unable to give notice to marry or to have a wedding ceremony during the COVID-19 outbreak, the Home Office indicated that it had put in place a range of measures to support those affected by the COVID-19 outbreak; a fiancé, fiancée or proposed civil partner whose wedding or civil partnership is delayed due to COVID-19 can request an extension until 31 July by updating their records with the Coronavirus Immigration Team. The family Immigration Rules allow for an extension of leave if there is good reason for a wedding or civil partnership not taking place during the initial six-month period of leave to enter. Restrictions on giving notice to marry or delay to a wedding or civil partnership due to Covid-19 will be considered a good reason under this policy. They may otherwise be eligible to remain on the basis of exceptional circumstances.