Monday, June 8, 2009

Wedding Etiquette: Marriage Law (Part I)

There are many ways, civil and religious, of taking the all-important step of getting married. This post deals with them mainly from the legal aspect.


In England and Wales a marriage can take place by means of (a) a ceremony performed in accordance with the rites of the Church of England, (b) a civil ceremony, or (c) a ceremony performed in accordance with the rites of a religious denomination other than the Church of England.


A marriage in accordance with the rites of the Church of England may be contracted in one of four ways:

  1. By publication of banns.
  2. By common license (ordinary license).
  3. By special license.
  4. On the authority of a certificate issued by a Superintendent Registrar.
Generally, only one party to the marriage will be required to be a member of the Church of England and at least one of them should live in the parish of the church where the marriage is to take place (although certain residence exceptions may be made, for example, in the case of marriage by special license or sometimes if a person is an established member of a church outside his or her home parish and has his or her name entered on the electoral roll of that parish).

Although divorced people may remarry under civil law in the presence of a registrar, the Church does not allow the remarriage of divorced people in church. Nevertheless, some ministers will agree to conduct a church wedding given these circumstances, but the normal procedure, if the couple really want the blessing of the Church, is to have a civil wedding with just a few close friends and relatives in attendance, followed by a Service of Blessing in church, possibly attended by many more family and friends. In this way the ceremony and sense of occasion are maintained.

2. Publication of Banns: This is the method traditionally preferred by most people. The first thing to do is to call upon the minister of the church in which the marriage is to be solemnized and to ask him or her to allow the ceremony to take place in their church. If you would like another minister to officiate at the wedding (an old friend of the family, for example) that should also be discussed. When all the preliminaries have been satisfactorily completed, the minister will proceed to publish the banns.

The banns are published by being read aloud in church on three successive Sundays preceding the ceremony. They are usually read at the main church service. It is usual for the couple to be in church on at least one of the three occasions when the banns are' read.

When the couple do not live in the same parish, the banns must be read in duplicate (a) in the man's parish and (b) in the woman's parish. A certificate should be obtained from the minister whose church is not being used to give to the minister in whose church the ceremony is to take place. This certificate states that the banns have been legally called; without it the officiating minister cannot proceed with the wedding service.

Once the banns have been published, the wedding may be solemnized on any day within the three following months. It is best not to leave it too late. Marriages sometimes have to be delayed, and if there is insufficient time to arrange an alternative date within the three months the banns will have to be called again.

Since the system of marriage by banns has been devised to give publicity to the forthcoming wedding, it is fraudulent to substitute misleading names for the proper ones. When a person is generally known by a name which is not the one shown on his or her birth certificate, the banns should give the name more generally known, or should include both.

2. Common License (Ordinary License): The advantages of being married by common license are that banns are unnecessary and only one clear day's notice is needed before the license to marry is issued. It is therefore a much quicker procedure, and especially useful when for some reason the banns have not been properly published.

Common licenses may be obtained from one of the Surrogates who grant licenses in the diocese. The minister at the church where the wedding is to take place may hold this title; if he or she does not, they will be able to tell you where you can obtain the license.

In applying at any of the above offices, it is necessary that one of the parties to the marriage should appear in person. The person making the application is required to sign a declaration stating that there is no legal reason why the marriage cannot properly take place and that either the man or the woman, or both, have lived for at least 15 days prior to the application within the area served by the church that is to be used for the ceremony.

3. Special License: Special licenses are issued only on the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury from The Registrar of the Court of Faculties, 1 The Sanctuary, Westminster, London SW1P 3JT, telephone 0171 222 5381, and in cases when there is some special and urgent reason why the more ordinary methods of solemnizing the marriage are unsuitable. When granted, a special license permits the wedding to take place at any time (within three months of the date of issue) and in any place, without restriction as to the residence of either party.

4. Superintendent Registrar's Certificate: A certificate to marry in accordance with the rites of the Church of England may also be given by a Superintendent Registrar.
The church where the marriage is to take place must be situated within the registration district of the Superintendent Registrar and either the man or the woman must have lived in the parish for seven days prior to giving notice.

The certificate will not be issued until 21 days after the notice is entered in the notice book and the ceremony may then take place within three months from the day on which the notice was entered. The marriage may be solemnized only by a minister of the Church of England and with the consent of the minister whose church is being used for the ceremony. This method of authorization is, however, very rarely used.


When, for whatever reason, the couple do not wish to marry in a church, the ceremony can take place under civil law in a register office or on approved premises. In England and Wales notice should be given to the local Superintendent Registrar (whose address can be found under 'Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages' in the telephone directory), who will arrange the marriage in one of three ways:

  1. By Superintendent Registrar's Certificate.
  2. By Superintendent Registrar's Certificate and License.
  3. By Registrar General's License.

With the exception of a license issued by the Registrar General, notice may also be personally 'attested' before any local registrar of births and deaths or local registrar of marriages, but the notice is not held to have been duly given until it is received by the Superintendent Registrar and entered in his or her book.

1. Superintendent Registrar's Certificate: The official in this case will complete a form giving the names of the parties wishing to be married, their residences and their ages. The form also requires mention of the building in which the marriage is to take place and concludes with a declaration, to be signed, which states that there
is no legal objection to the marriage.

Both the man and the woman must have lived in the areas controlled by the registrars for seven days prior to giving notice. Only one of them need appear to make the declaration. If they live in different registration districts, either or both may make the declaration before the registrars and they must each have lived in their respective areas for seven days prior to the visit. On being satisfied with the information supplied to him or her, the Superintendent Registrar will make the necessary entry in his or her notice book and, 21 days later, will issue the certificate for the marriage. The ceremony can then take place at any time within the three months following the entry in the notice book.

2. Superintendent Registrar's Certificate and License: For marriage by certificate and license, a similar declaration must be made and signed as for a marriage by certificate, but the residential qualifications are different. Only one of the couple need give notice, even though they may live in different registration areas, provided that one of them has lived in the area for 15 days prior to the visit. However, the person not appearing must be within the borders of England and Wales or have his or her usual place of residence in England or Wales at the time notice is given.

One clear day after entering the notice, the Superintendent. Registrar will issue the license for the marriage (Sunday, Christmas Day and Good Friday are not counted). The license is valid for three months following the date of entry in the notice book.

3. Registrar General's License: This method was introduced in 1970 and is reserved for cases of extreme illness where it would be | impossible for the marriage to take place in a register office or other registered building. The license permits the marriage to be solemnized in any place and at any time within three months from the date of entry in the notice book. There is no residence qualification and no statutory waiting period before the license is issued.

Notice of marriage must be given (in person) by one of the couple to the local Superintendent Registrar.

Keeping on the Right Side of the Law

In addition to the formal procedures which have to be observed before any marriage can take place, there are a number of essential regulations concerning the conduct of the wedding ceremony itself and the freedom (in law) of the parties to marry.
a. With the exception of the Jewish and Quaker ceremonies, the special license and a license issued by the Registrar General, no wedding can take place before 8 a.m. or after 6 p.m.

b. A wedding cannot be private, hence the doors are not to be locked while the ceremony is proceeding.

c. Before the ceremony, all relevant certificates or licenses must be produced and handed to the registering official.

d. Two persons must be present at the wedding, who will be required to sign their names as witnesses to the ceremony. They can be total strangers to each other and to the couple about to be married.

e. People under 16 years of age may not marry. In the case of a person over 16 but under 18, written consent to marry must be given by the parents (or parent) or other lawful guardians or guardian.

If there is no parent or guardian to provide the necessary consent, application should be made to the courts for permission to many. If it is felt that a parent or guardian's permission has been unreasonably refused, an application to overrule their decision can be made to the courts.

f. The marriage will not be valid if either party is already married.

g. Neither party to a divorce may remarry until the 'decree absolute' has been granted.

h. The parties must be respectively male and female by birth.

i. Both parties must be acting by consent and be of sufficiently sound mind to understand the nature of a marriage contract.

j. Marriages are forbidden between people who are closely related. Those relationships prohibited by law are listed below

Additional restrictions may apply when a marriage is to be performed according to the rites of some religious denominations.

Prohibited Degrees of Relationship

A man may not marry his:
mother, adoptive mother/former adoptive mother
daughter, adoptive daughter/former adoptive daughter
father's mother
mother's mother
son's daughter
daughter's daughter
father's sister mother's sister wife's mother wife's daughter father's wife son's wife
father's father's wife mother's father's wife wife's father's mother wife's mother's mother wife's son's daughter wife's daughter's daughter son's son's wife daughter's son's wife brother's daughter sister's daughter

A woman may not marry her:
father, adoptive father/former adoptive father son, adoptive son/former adoptive son father's father mother's father

son's son daughter's son brother
father's brother mother's brother husband's father husband's son mother's husband daughter's husband father's mother's husband mother's mother's husband husband's father's father husband's mother's father husband's son's son husband's daughter's son son's daughter's husband daughter's daughter's husband brother's son sister's son

The Marriage (Prohibited Degrees of Relationship) Act 1986 (for England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland) allows a man to marry his mother-in-law, step-mother, step-daughter or daughter-in-law without having to obtain a private Act of Parliament. By the same Act, a woman may marry her father-in-law, stepfather, step-son or son-in-law. However, for marriages between inlaws, the former spouses must have died. Marriages under this Act are not permitted with the calling of banns, but can take place in church by license or by a Superintendent Registrar's Certificate.

Any further information or clarification about whom you may or may not marry can be obtained from your local Superintendent Registrar.

The Order of Service used by the Free Churches (United Reformed, Baptist, Methodist and other Protestant bodies) is broadly similar to that of the Church of England. First of all, the chapel or building where the marriage is to take place must be registered for marriages and the registrar or other authorized person (usually the minister) must be present to register the marriage. In addition to the 'authorized person' the marriage must be witnessed by at least two people who have reached the age of 18.

Although there is considerable similarity to the Church of England, each of the denominations has its own Order of Marriage which should be read beforehand. Your local church or one of the following organizations should be able to provide further help and advice.

Baptist Union of Great Britain, Baptist House, 129 Broadway, Didcot,
Oxfordshire OX11 8RT
Tel: 01235 5120 77

Methodist Church Press Office, Westminster Central Hall, . Storey's Gate Westminster, London SW1H 9NH
The United Reformed Church, 86 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RT
Tel: 0171 222 8010
Tel: 0171 916 2020

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