Church says social mobility makes banns 'less relevant'

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The Independent Online

Pity the poor Church of England. It does its best to move with the times – which it is frequently lambasted for failing to do – and it finds itself in the stocks once again.

A row is brewing over a proposal to scrap the 800-year-old tradition of reading marriage "banns" (the word is from the Middle English word for proclamation) in Anglican churches three Sundays before the wedding, so that anyone knowing of "any lawful impediment" to the union can object.

The plan comes from a church review that aims to modernise the Church of England wedding service to attract more young people to marry in church. Today, three-quarters of the 250,000 marriages that take place each year are celebrated in registry offices and in exotic locations from country houses and football pitches to potholes and hot-air balloons.

The review group, chaired by the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, the Right Rev Richard Lewis, has drawn the line at allowing Anglican clerics to preside over weddings held in such extra-mural circumstances. But it does want to do away with the requirement that the groom, or more traditionally, the bride-to-be reside in the parish where they marry and that banns should be published in their churches.

Clerics think the tradition, introduced in 1200, is outdated, because many people no longer live in the same parish for most of their lives. The Rev William Beaver, a church spokesman, recognised "a dramatic increase in social mobility among young people, which makes the banns less relevant".

Traditionalists will attack the plan when it comes before the General Synod in November, as undermining the sanctity of marriage. They attribute the decline in church weddings to the decadent influence of secular materialism.

That will cut little sway with the majority of the population. One in 10 weddings in Anglican parishes, like 40 per cent of civil weddings, follows the divorce of one or both parties. A separate report moving towards lifting the ban on divorcees remarrying in church is expected to be debated by the Synod next year.

What ought to be of concern is that, in church thinking, a couple do not marry before their family and friends alone, but take their vows in the sight of the community in which they live. The reading of the banns is an acknowledgement of what binds them to that community.

The review group's proposal to replace the banns with a "pastoral welcome", where the priest asks the congregation to pray for the couple, goes little way towards addressing this.