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‘Like a poll tax’: Church of England should stop charging couples for weddings, say vicars

Call for high fees to be scrapped as church marriages fall by half in England and Wales between 1999 and 2019

Traditional, but pricey: church weddings are under threat. Photograph: Rawpixel/Getty Images/iStockphoto

High fees are putting church weddings beyond the reach of many couples and should be scrapped or set at a nominal amount, according to clergy in one of the most deprived areas of England.

Marriage fees, which can be as high as £641, are a contributory factor to the decline in church weddings, they claim. A proposal to be debated this week at the Church of England’s ruling body, the General Synod, calls for fees to be abolished or reduced to a minimal amount “in order to demonstrate the church’s commitment to marriage and pastoral care”.

The C of E charges a £641 basic fee for couples getting married away from where they live, or £539 if they get married in their “home church”.

This covers the cost of the vicar, the church, calling the banns, a banns certificate, lighting and administration. Couples have to pay the local register office separately for a marriage certificate.

Optional extras are a verger to tidy the church ahead of the wedding and hand out orders of service and hymn books; an organist and bell-ringer; church flowers; and additional heating.

The diocese of Blackburn, which has put forward the motion, argues the C of E’s current fees structure is “economically unjust” and puts church weddings “beyond the reach of the poorest in our society”.

It says: “If we believe in marriage as we ought, we should ensure that finance is no bar to anyone who wishes to marry in church.”

Rev Tom Woolford, the vicar of All Saints in New Longton, Preston, said there was a “causal link” between church wedding fees and the sharp decline in church weddings, which was “especially acute” in poorer areas.

Churches in Blackpool reported a 79% fall in weddings between 2010 and 2018. In England and Wales, C of E weddings fell by 50% between 1999 and 2019, from 63,371 to 31,430.

Cost was not the only factor, Woolford said in a background paper to the motion. Competition in the wedding market from specialist venues offering all-in-one-place ceremonies and receptions, and increased secularisation, also contributed to the decline.

But “anecdotally, many clergy speak of couples making enquiries about getting married in their parish church, only to balk at the cost when informed”.

Fees had risen by almost 300% between 2000 and 2022, “vastly outstripping inflation over the same period”.

He added: “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.”

Many people are choosing all-in-one wedding venues, like this one at the Hilton Double Trees Hotel in Edinburgh. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Observer

The church may waive or reduce fees in cases of hardship, but this was a “suboptimal solution”, said Woolford.

“While people on low incomes are already reduced to dependency in so many areas of their lives, such as state benefits and food banks, it is regrettable that they should also be so for a rite of the church.”

The C of E said that parish fees were a significant source of income for the church, estimated at £59.8m in 2019. About 25% of the total was related to weddings. The sum helped meet the cost of clergy pay and pensions, housing and national insurance contributions.

“Many couples can afford to pay the fee, which represents a small proportion of the overall cost of their wedding,” said William Nye, the C of E’s general secretary in a briefing paper for the synod. The average cost of a wedding in 2022 was £18,400, according to one survey. “Reducing the fee for a marriage service would benefit all those who 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,” said Nye.

While acknowledging that the fees provided income for some parish churches, Woolford said: “In many places, that money is not coming in. It is far better to offer marriage for free than not at all, which is increasingly becoming the reality in many parishes.


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