By the Rev. Kim Murray.
Diocese of British Columbia

One of the items passed by our General Synod when it met in St.Catharines, Ontario, this spring was an amendment to the marriage canon which opens the door to having marriages solemnized using the rites of the Anglican Church of Canada, in places other than church buildings.

I have to say that I am not at all in support of this change.

A very public wedding at Christ Church,Vancouver, 1908 (Vancouver Public Library)

Some of you may wonder why I have trouble with this relaxation in our church's position regarding the location of wedding ceremonies. It may seem to you that I am simply being a conservatively minded curmudgeon in this matter - and to some extent it is possible that this is so - but, as I shall argue in this article, only partially so.

This change to our church's marriage canon substantially ignores a most significant legal and traditional understanding of marriage, and by virtue of this threatens to erode the foundations upon which the institution of marriage stands.

The church, until the late middle ages, was not truly in the business of solemnising marriages, at least not in the way that has become part of our church and culture since the English Reformation.

In the time of the early church marriage was a civil contract. When Christians married in places like Corinth or Thessalonica in the time of St. Paul, the actual wedding ceremony was conducted by a magistrate, in the local courthouse. The couple then would, on the next Sunday, have their union blessed by the celebrant at the Eucharist.

What is significant here is that both actions happened in public places, the courthouse and the church. This represented an understanding that, because matrimony involved a community far greater than simply the principals and their families, it required both the tacit approval and witness of the community.

When the infrastructure of the Roman Empire crumbled in the 4th-5th centuries, the courthouse became, in many communities, the meeting place for the church, so that both civil and ecclesial functions happened in the same building. Even during this time, however, a clear distinction was kept between the two public events which established a couple in the state of holy matrimony.

It is also clear that matrimony, while generally acknowledged as the accepted norm by all sectors of society, became, during the medieval period, much more a matter of informal action witnessed by the community. It was really just those couples whose social or economic status meant that there was land or other property to be passed on to legally recognised heirs who took the step of having their unions legally witnessed and registered. Most folks exchanged vows before members of their local community and then went to the church to have their unions blessed, and that usually took place, not at the altar step, but in the porch of the church building.

It was not, in fact, until the publication of Thomas Cranmer's first prayer book in 1549 that the two components of Matrimony, the civil contract and the blessing of the union, were actually joined together in one liturgy and were choreographed as taking place in the same location, that being the chancel or altar step of the parish church.

It is also clear, both from Cranmer's rubrics on the subject and from subsequent practice until well into the last decades of the 17th century, that the day on which matrimony was to be solemnized was Sunday, between the hours of 8 am and noon, when people were going to be in the church for divine service and the Lord's Supper.

Marriage was understood to be a public event, and the creation of a new household in the community to be something in which everyone had a legitimate interest, not least because an inappropriate or mismatched marriage might create social and economic problems for the community if it came to grief in later years.

So called "clandestine marriages" which were solemnized in places other than the parish church and at times other than on Sunday mornings, were generally afforded legal status, but were regarded as an aberrant and irregular phenomenon to be vigorously discouraged.

Much has changed, to say the least, from the 1680s to the present time. Matrimony, while it still is solemnized in churches after the style created by Cranmer in a significant number of instances, is fast becoming a civil rather than a religious event. Most clergy of my acquaintance are doing fewer and fewer marriages, mostly because couples who are not lively Christians are choosing not to be married in church.

That is sad, in one sense, but in another it has an appealing flavour of integrity about it. Christian marriage should, after all, be something entered into by those who believe and practise the faith, and is best not confused with the secular version of matrimony as it is entered into and lived by the unchurched.

But this development ought to alert us to the pressing need for the church to maintain, indeed to emphasise the distinction between Christian marriage - holy matrimony - and the secular unions which are simply a matter of legal registration by the state. Christian marriage is by definition something which is begun "in the sight of God and of this congregation" - in the usual public meeting place of the church, and in the presence of all who wish to attend as witnesses from the community in which the proposed new household will be established.

Secular marriage may choose to ignore this aspect, conducting civil marriage ceremonies in private places like back gardens of private homes, beaches or bungee-jumping platforms, but it does so at the peril of making a public institution into a private matter.

I cannot help but think that our church has made a great mistake in authorizing this amendment to the marriage canon, and hope that we might see the discussion of this matter reopened at our next General Synod with a view to serious reconsideration.

A church historian specializing in the Reformation period of Anglican history, Dr. Murray is rector of the Parish of Salt Spring Island, Diocese of British Columbia. He is also a member of the General Synod's committee on Faith, Worship and Ministry. This article first appeared in the Diocesan Post, the newspaper of the Diocese of BC.

Bishop Michael Ingham still requires his approval for marriages outside a church

Canon XXI was also amended with respect to the location of wedding ceremonies. The new Canon now reads:

12. Place of Marriage

a) Marriage is a public act and shall be solemnized in the face of the community and of the friends and neighbours of the couple.

b) Every marriage shall be solemnized in the presence of at least two witnesses in addition to the officiating minister.

c) The body of the church is the appropriate place for the solemnization of a marriage but a marriage may be solemnized in another location if the incumbent, after consultation with the bishop, is satisfied that the solemnity and public nature of the occasion will be preserved and that the service will be conducted with dignity in godly and decent order.

My expectation is that weddings in church will continue to be the norm in the Diocese, and that other locations will be the exception. For the time being, I require that I be consulted before any commitment is made to a couple about a non-church location. Please note that the Canon stresses the public nature of the sacrament, which means the public must have access to it. This rules out private homes, back gardens, boats etc. Equally important is the emphasis on dignity and solemnity. Bungee jumpers take note.

- Bishop Michael Ingham, Memorandum to the Clergy, June 10, 2004

One Bridge’s Dream – a church wedding

Marni Bergen and Eric Campbell

By Marni Bergen

I've always dreamed of getting married in a beautiful historic church, with wood beams and stained glass windows, wooden pews and all. I've pictured my father walking me down the church aisle, arms linked. I want to ring the church bells and hear the music of the organ on my special day

My parents, grandparents, and great grandparents were all married in beautiful historic churches, I want to follow in their footsteps. It's sentimental, but it's important to me.

But, even more important, I want to be in God's house when I take those sacred vows. I want the spiritual and sacred ceremony, the religious experience and romance of a traditional church wedding.

My religious and spiritual journey started in a church, and many major steps in that journey took place in church. I was baptised in church, I took communion classes there. I joined the Anglican Church as an adult in a church when I was confirmed and I had my first communion in a church.

My next step in my spiritual journey is marriage, when I will join my life to my new husband Eric in a sacred, spiritual, and public ceremony, in the beautiful historic church of St. Helen's, Surrey. I could not dream of doing it anywhere else.

Marni Bergen is comptroller for the Diocese of New Westminster. She and Eric Campbell will be married at St. Helen's on November 13.

Have you a view on this or other diocesan matters? The letters column of TOPIC is open. Email the editor, Neale Adams,