When is a wedding not a marriage? Exploring non-legally binding ceremonies

A guest post by Rajnaara Akhtar, Tania Barton, Sharon Blake, Rebecca Probert and Vishal Vora.

Why might couples in England and Wales today opt for a non-legally binding wedding ceremony in addition to their legally binding one?

One reason might be that they attend a place of worship that has not been registered for marriages. Such additional wedding ceremonies have a long history, as is demonstrated by the case of one of the very first couples to get married in a ‘civil’ ceremony under the Marriage Act 1836.

The couple were Francis Green and Lucy Hanks, who married at the office of the superintendent registrar in Northleach, Gloucestershire, early in July 1837. The Marriage Act 1836, which had introduced this option, had only come into force at the start of the month. But their choice of the register office was not because of any rejection of religion: Francis was the pastor of the Congregational Church in nearby Chedworth, and after the wedding he and his bride went through a religious ceremony in the Independent Wharf Road Chapel in Cirencester, conducted by the Reverend John Burder.

This dual celebration might seem surprising, given that the Marriage Act 1836 had also provided for weddings to take place in non-Anglican places of worship that were registered for marriages. As of 1 July 1837, however, neither the Chedworth Congregational Church nor the Wharf Road Chapel had been registered for marriages, and so the register office was the only option for Francis and Lucy if they did not want to be married in the Anglican church.

Their situation was not uncommon, given that only 90 non-Anglican places of worship had been registered for marriages nationwide in advance of the 1836 Act coming into force. While the number gradually increased, the legal prerequisites meant that some places of worship were simply not eligible to be registered. The criteria for registration – in particular the requirement that the building be a separate one – had been specifically designed to preclude weddings being conducted in the rooms, private houses, and barns where many Dissenters met for worship. Even some purpose-built chapels did not necessarily have the necessary minimum of 20 householders to certify that it was their usual place of worship. Small congregations might also be reluctant to pay the £3 registration fee, given the few marriages that they were likely to conduct.

Today, the requirement that a place of worship be a separate building has been abolished, and the registration fee is proportionately less than it was in 1837. But even so, not all places of worship are registered for marriage. The list held by the Registrar General gives details of around 29,500 certified places of worship, of which 22,500 are registered for marriages. While the non-registration of mosques has attracted particular attention, it is worth noting that in absolute terms most unregistered places of worship are Christian ones.

So what do couples who attend an unregistered place of worship do when they get married? Do they marry in a different place of worship? Or do they, like Francis and Lucy, marry in a register office (or, today, on ‘approved premises’) and have a separate ceremony that reflects their religious beliefs?

A Nuffield-funded project, led by Dr Rajnaara Akhtar, with Professor Rebecca Probert, Dr Vishal Vora, Sharon Blake and Tania Barton, is currently exploring all types of non-legally binding wedding ceremonies – whether entered into before, after, or instead of a legally recognised wedding. The aim is to inform the Law Commission’s project on potential reforms to weddings law. To this end, the team is conducting focus groups with those who conduct religious-only ceremonies, and interviews with individuals who have had such ceremonies between 2016 and 2021 in England or Wales, in order to learn more about how the current law works in practice and what impact the Commission’s provisional proposals might have

If you would be interested in participating in this research, which will be running until April 2021, full details can be found on the study website, When is a wedding not a marriage? Exploring non-legally binding ceremonies, or you can contact us directly at 07920 459064 or by e-mailing members of the team: (rajnaara.akhtar@dmu.ac.uk; tb369@exeter.ac.uk; s.f.blake@exeter.ac.uk; or R.J.Probert@exeter.ac.uk).

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Cite this article as: Rajnaara Akhtar, Tania Barton, Sharon Blake, Rebecca Probert and Vishal Vora, “When is a wedding not a marriage? Exploring non-legally binding ceremonies” in Law & Religion UK, 12 January 2021, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2021/01/12/when-is-a-wedding-not-a-marriage-exploring-non-legally-binding-ceremonies/

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