For better, for worse ...

I was only trying to help, says teenage server who officiated at wedding
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The Independent Online
For richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part ... or at least till they find out the "vicar" is a schoolboy.

This is the extraordinary circumstance faced by a "married" couple in West Yorkshire, joined in holy matrimony last August by a church server standing in for the real vicar, who turned up late.

Yesterday the server, Stephen Grant, now a 19-year-old undergraduate at St David's University in Lampeter, Wales, told his side of the ecclesiastical drama which has forced church historians and canon lawyers to dust off their textbooks as they decide whether the wedding was legal.

The ceremony at St John the Evangelist in Golcar, Yorkshire, took place nearly six months ago. The legal minefield it created is still being carefully negotiated. Public knowledge of the stand-in row only emerged last week.

Hiding in his university chaplain's attic to escape media attention, the would-be vicar - who this week refused a pounds 30,000 offer from a Sunday tabloid newspaper for his "exclusive" tale - said the affair had left him spiritually enriched.

"I have spent a lot of time on my own. It has been a wonderful - just to pray and reflect. I have a tremendous feeling that everything is going to be all right. I do not know what right is, but God is in charge, and I leave it to him."

Marriages, they say, are made in heaven, but in Mr Grant's case the fact he was wearing a cassock did not make it kosher.

While solicitors argue over who may be about to sue whom, and which, if any, part of the Church of England is responsible, Mr Grant has for the first time admitted he officiated knowing he was acting without legal authority. Giving interviews to the Church Times newspaper, on radio, and in an interview with The Independent, he said he had been in the church to hand out hymn books before the wedding of Rodney Earnshaw and Shirley Wilson. Some 20 minutes before the ceremony began he telephoned the Rev Robin Townsend, the vicar who was to conduct the service. He was told the vicar was on his way. But Mr Townsend was late.

"Mrs Woodhead, the acting verger, and I, decided I could start. When Mr Townsend arrived we could immediately swap," said Mr Grant. "I only wanted to help." He changed into an alb, and as far as the 100 guests were concerned, they were in front of the real thing.

Although Mr Earnshaw, "thought the lad looked a bit young" he had no reason to doubt. To string things out in the hope that Mr Townsend would arrive, Mr Grant added a long sermon and prayers to the service. "I was absolutely terrified and could barely speak," said Mr Grant. "I just kept to the prayer book and tried to make it a special day."

Fortunately, Mr Townsend arrived in time to avoid the then schoolboy stand-in illegally signing the register. After the service Mr Grant maintains that Mr Townsend gave him pounds 10 and said: "This will make a good sermon one day."

One of the relatives was so impressed by Mr Grant he was asked if he would take part in another wedding.

The Church of England initially believed the ceremony was illegal, opening the way for a potentially complex lawsuit from the couple, who paid pounds 8,000 for their special day. However, Mr Grant's lawyer, Richard John, told The Independent: "The Marriage Act 1949 states that if a couple knew they were being married by a person not ordained, then the marriage is invalid. But this couple believed Mr Grant was ordained so the ceremony may be valid and there is legal precedent dating back to 1660 and 1820 for this."

While the diocese, solicitors, the couple, canons and bishops sort out the ramifications of Mr Grant's actions, Mr John said: "The traditional concept, both in Common and Canon Law, is that the essence of marriage is the formal exchange of the voluntary consents from the husband and wife."

Church of England lawyers now appear to have partially accepted this submission, stating the ceremony may be valid under Halsbury's Ecclesiastical Law.

Mr and Mrs Earnshaw, however, have yet to accept the situation. Mrs Earnshaw said: "The biggest day of our lives was ruined." Mr Grant has challenged their complaint saying: "At the end of the ceremony it was suggested they could go through it again. But they refused, saying it was a such a good service."

Speaking from his solicitor's office yesterday, Mr Grant said that despite the difficulties he faced, "I am still determined to become an ordained priest."

But has the episode left him disillusioned with the church? From initially being told that he should consider another profession, he now believes the "extraordinary" events mean "I have now come to see God in a different light."