a wedding for pounds 787 - praise be to god!

Ron Leatherbarrow is a vicar with a mission: to provide his parishioner s with the least expensive wedding reception and honeymoon that money can buy. By Emma Cook
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IF the only thing that puts you off marriage is - besides a one in two chance that it may end in divorce - the outrageous expense, then you could do worse than consult the Reverend Ron Leatherbarrow, rector of St Mark's Church in Blackley, north Manchester.

Thanks to Ron, happy couples can enjoy their special day safe in the knowledge they've only had to shell out pounds 767. His agency, Halo Halo, provides cut-price deals that include outfits, hairdressing bills, the reception and photographs, a honeymoon in Southport or the Lake District and even free flowers - courtesy of the local crematorium. As Ron wisely points out, flowers are flowers wherever they come from.

Acting as an agency, Halo Halo relies on different businesses in the area: "We know a company who do a lovely buffet for pounds 3 per head," enthuses Ron. "You can have the wedding videoed for pounds 50, the organist at pounds 30, a three-tier sponge cake for pounds 75 and a honeymoon suite at Windermere costing pounds 72 for two days." If a Rolls-Royce is too pricey to hire, he recommends a mini-van laid on by a taxi firm for pounds 55.

With such low prices, his scheme now under-cuts more established companies in the field - one has already criticised him for encroaching on the market. "But we don't make money," Ron insists. "We're a charitable organisation acting as an agent for companies who can make special offers."

He came up with the idea of weddings-for-all several months ago while baptising babies of various unmarried couples. "I thought, these people are bothering to come to church to get their children baptised, so what's stopping them getting married?" Apparently, the money. "They say that's definitely the reason. It's amazing actually - it's got nothing to do with cynicism. They would love to have a ceremony but just can't afford it."

The church, he believes, should be more active in encouraging couples to "put the special seal on their relationship". "They're just sitting on the sidelines wringing their hands at the failing marriage figures and doing nothing about it." Something Ron could never be accused of.

In a flurry of activity, he is now doing all in his power to increase the rather paltry annual rate of four weddings a year at St Mark's to at least 20 by 1996. "The phone is red hot at the moment," he says happily. "Word has got round and it's surprising who calls you up. They're coming in from Rochdale, Oldham and all over."

He is currently advertising in the back of the church magazine: "From hairdressing to honeymoons in one heavenly package" - and has a large poster displayed outside the church hall. It shows a silhouette of what Ron describes as "a gorgeous girl" complete with a halo and an admiring male on-looker. The caption reads: "Girls, Look Like An Angel. Boys, See It To Believe It".

His approach appears to be successful. So far a dozen couples have contacted him and plan to marry this year. Numbers have never been so high and, as far as Ron's concerned, everyone is set to gain: the church receives pounds 60 for every service and the generosity of the newly-weds can also be a bonus.

"One couple gave us pounds 100 towards the roof repair. I think they were so grateful somebody had taken care of them."

But, he is keen to point out, money isn't the primary motive. His main aim is to promote the institution of marriage and all that it symbolises - by making it financially accessible. "The couples I speak to are looking for a spiritual dimension," he says. "And it's only fair they should be given the chance to marry in a church rather than a register office."