On Tuesday 11 July 2023, the General Synod of the Church of England is scheduled to discuss the Diocesan Synod Motion proposed by The Revd Dr Tom Woolford (Blackburn):
“That this Synod call on the Archbishops’ Council to introduce an order to amend the Parochial Fees and Scheduled Matters Amending Order 2019 so that the fees relating to marriages are set at nil or at a minimal amount in order to demonstrate the Church’s commitment to marriage and pastoral care.”
Papers associated with this motion are:
The DSM was brought by the Blackpool Deanery Synod and asserts that there is a causal link between the level at which Church of England wedding fees are set and the sharp decline in recent years in church weddings nationally. This appears to be especially acute in poorer areas such as Blackpool; a 79% reduction between 2010 and 2018 across the six Blackpool churches that submitted figures for snapshot research. Following debate, the motion for wedding fees to be “set at nil or at a minimal amount” was passed by Blackpool Deanery Synod unanimously on 29 January 2019 and carried by a majority at Blackburn Diocesan Synod on 16 July 2019.
Arguments by DSM: GS 2282A
The financial arguments note “cost is by no means the only factor behind the decline in the number of church weddings”, although the cost of a church wedding “seems also to be a key factor”. It suggests that “the high level of fees … effectively acts like a poll tax, disproportionately deterring poorer couples from marrying in church. Changing the level of fees is therefore a matter of economic justice”.
The power of a PCC to waive its portion “is a suboptimal solution. Couples are unlikely to be aware of the option at the point of enquiry, and it is difficult for a parish priest to judge whether, when, and how to raise the possibility (and act on it) without undermining the dignity of low-income couples”. The motion concedes that wedding fees still provide an important income stream for some parish churches, and concluded:
“In crude terms, it is hard to see any reason to keep marriage fees as they are ‘because we need the money.’ In many places, that money is not coming in anyway. It is far better in our view to offer marriage for free than not at all, which is increasingly becoming the reality in many parishes”.
The DSM also includes a theological and a missional argument.
Secretary General’s Assessment: GS 2282B
The Secretary General’s note provides the policy background on how parochial fees are set and an illustration of the potential financial implications if parochial fees were to be set at nil or at a minimal amount as stated in the motion from the Blackburn Diocesan Synod.
The principles for setting the level of parochial fees were contained in GS 1813 and approved by the General Synod in 2011. The Ecclesiastical Fees Measure 1986 provides for the parochial fees payable to Diocesan Boards of Finance (DBFs) and Parochial Church Councils (PCCs) to be prescribed by a Parochial Fees Order for up to five years. Increases within the period covered by a Fees Order can be prescribed by reference to a published index of price or earnings increases. The present level of parochial fees are determined by the Parochial Fees and Scheduled Matters Amending Order 2019 which was debated by the General 2019 Synod in February.
The fee levels have been increased annually in line with the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) as also stipulated in the Order, although for 2023 (and 2024) the Synod approved the Parochial Fees (Amendment) Order 2023 (GS 2288) which limited the annual increase to a maximum of 5%. The current fee for a marriage service in Church is £505: £276 of this is payable to the Parochial Church Council of the church in which the service takes place and the remaining £229 is payable to the Diocesan Board of Finance.
These fee levels are calculated to include:
- a clergy element (derived from the Central Stipend Authority’s ‘cost of clergy calculation’ and the Ministry Development Team’s methodology for arriving at the cost of clergy training);
- a church maintenance element (taken from the Data Team’s figures derived from parish returns); and
- a secretarial rate (derived from publicly available information).
The potential impact of reducing marriage fees to nil or a minimal amount
Parochial fees are a significant source of income for all dioceses and many PCCs. In 2019 it is estimated that income across the Church from parochial fees totalled £59.8M of which £37.3M was received by PCCs and £22.5M by DBFs. It is estimated that around a quarter of these fees related to marriages.
Based upon the assumptions in  and , the note states that if the number of church marriage services were to return to 2019 levels and fees were waived for 5% of services, then with the current level of, this would result a total income of £16.5M, of which £9.7M would be payable to PCCs and £6.8M to DBFs. These figures correspond to 0.9% of the aggregate 2019 PCC income and 1.4% of aggregate 2019 DBF income .
“If the marriage fee was reduced to nil, it is possible that the net income lost to the Church would be less than the £16.5M identified above (i.e. with a 5% reduction) as some couples may choose to make a donation in lieu of the fee. Clearly if the fee was reduced to a ‘minimal level’ the income loss would be reduced. For example, if the fee was reduced to £100, just under 20% of the current level, on the assumptions above the income loss to the Church is estimated at £13.2M: £7.7M for PCCs and £5.5M for DBFs” .
The parochial fee for a marriage service in the context of total expenditure on weddings
“It is suggested that a wholescale elimination or reduction of the fee would be a poorly targeted intervention as many couples can afford to pay the fee which represents a small proportion of the overall cost of their wedding. The income lost from setting the fee to nil or a nominal amount reduces the resource available to fund ministry, including in the poorest areas – at a time when many dioceses and PCCs are facing deficits” .
“Whilst there is wide variation in the total cost of a wedding depending on a myriad of personal choices and financial circumstances, it is clear that in a large majority of cases the fee for the marriage service represents a small proportion of the total costs. Reducing the fee for a marriage service would benefit all those who would currently opt to have a marriage service in church, many of whom are well able to afford the fee in the context of the total cost of their wedding” .
“The Ecclesiastical Fees Measure 1986 includes a provision for an incumbent / priest in charge (or where there is no such person, the rural dean) to waive or reduce the fee payable to the DBF ‘in a particular case’. The Archbishops’ Council recommends that in considering whether to waive or reduce the fee the incumbent/priest in charge should have regard to any diocesan guidelines on the matter. As stated in GS 2282A, in some cases this will mean seeking the Archdeacon’s permission for the waiver” .
“The incumbent/priest in charge (or where there is no such person, the rural dean) also has a right, after consulting the churchwardens of the parish, to waive any fee payable to the PCC ‘in a particular case’. The Archbishops’ Council’s advice is that the power to waive fees should only be exercised in cases of clear financial hardship” .
- In a Comment on this post, Russell Dewhurst raised the possibility of an unintended consequence of reducing or abolishing the fee for a wedding whereby retired clergy would no longer receive a fee for this ministry, v infra.
- The Blackburn Document considers the financial, theological and missional issues associated with wedding fees, it is dated June 2022 and is based upon a Diocesan Synod motion in 2019. The Secretary General’s document addresses parochial fees in general and was revised in June 2023.
- Links to changes to the Church’s Parochial Fees and related issues are summarized here.
Update: On Tuesday 11 July 2023, following a debate on the reduction of marriage fees brought by Blackburn Diocesan Synod, the General Synod of the Church of England supported a regional trial for providing “weddings free of all statutory fees”. See Synod backs trial of dropping wedding fees.