Church is in sickness, but marriage is in health

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A couple found out recently that the devil does not have all the best words when they were forbidden to "have" and to "hold" each other during their wedding vows. The marriage was a civil ceremony, which has a zero tolerance attitude to religious content. Not that having and holding is particularly Christian, but the words come from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, so were banned along with "in sickness and in health".

With civil ceremonies now accounting for 70 per cent of weddings and church weddings dropping 6.2 per cent in a year, registrars are at last able to call the shots. On the Church of England website they say: "Congratulations! You're welcome to marry in church whatever your beliefs, whether or not you are christened and whether or not you regularly go to church. And, marrying in church has never been easier – there are more churches to choose from then [sic] ever before." They're practically dragging people in off the street to fill up those empty churches – they even post a link claiming that "marriage is good for your sex life".

To book a civil wedding, on the other hand, you have to fall into line. "The law does not allow for a civil marriage to take place in a private house, in open air, a tent or marquee or in any other movable structure, such as a boat or hot air balloon", says just one of the rules. "Recent publicity has highlighted that there will be a more flexible approach to marriage locations in the future. This is no longer part of the current government plans and so for the foreseeable future the above restrictions apply."

You do have a choice of vows – from a "thee" and "thou" version to the stripped-back legal necessities – but you're not allowed hymns at a civil ceremony, just any music that is "solemn and dignified" and has no God in it. Though I was told that Abba is completely fine. (That'll be the King James version of Abba and not the later stuff, presumably.)

Pace my colleague Janet Street-Porter, it all seems fair enough to me. If you have genuinely dreamed since the age of 11 of saying "to have and to hold" to an unspecified groom, as the woman in wedding-gate has apparently done, you are more than free to get married in a church, but you have to accept the God bits, too. The Book of Common Prayer does have all the poetry that you've seen in the movies, but it also insists upon the presence of God and "the dreadful day of judgement". You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.

Trust me, any couple choosing a civil ceremony and subsequent party will hear an awful lot of nonsense about what is appropriate for their wedding (all of which will cost an extra fee per guest, not including VAT), but most of it won't come from the registrar. Just be grateful that you can get married (gay couples still can't), and say the vows. You can always honour and obey each other when the registrar has gone home.

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