02 May 2002

Couples getting married in church still prefer traditional 'of the shelf' weddings

Many couples getting married in church still prefer a traditional, 'off the shelf' wedding and are happy to let the minister decide what to include in the service.

When it comes to picking hymns for their wedding, couples steer towards old favourites. 'All things Bright and Beautiful' was the clear winner in a list of favourite hymns for those getting wed in Methodist churches.

Methodist ministers have expressed disappointment that couples are not more adventurous in planning their wedding service, according to a Methodist Church survey. Despite encouragement, many couples are happy to stick to a set service for their big day.

The findings, to be published in a report to this year's Methodist Conference, provide a snapshot of current marriage practice in Methodist churches. The report goes on to identify challenges facing Methodist ministers in preparing couples for marriage at a time of great social change.

The report will call on the Methodist Church to continue to develop thorough marriage preparation and other support for family life at all stages in the life cycle. This includes offering more support over social concerns such as domestic violence, and the abuse and neglect of children. More than four out of five Methodist ministers provide couples with some form of marriage preparation, but less than two out of five work in churches that provide ongoing support structures for marriage and family life.

The Methodist Conference will be asked endorse work to respond to major legal reforms of marriage practice in Britain. The recent White Paper, 'Civil Registration: Vital Change - Birth, Marriage and Death Registration in the 21st Century', is recommending the setting up of 'civil celebrants' who will enjoy greater freedom to officiate at weddings anywhere and at any time of day. These changes would see ministers becoming 'religious celebrants' - able to conduct weddings in places other than Methodist churches for the first time.

"This change has considerable implications for marriage practice in the Methodist Church," says the report. Church officers are considering whether to offer guidelines to ensure that weddings conducted by Methodist ministers continue to be an expression and the concern of the whole community and not simply a private matter. They will, for example, need to consider whether it is appropriate for a minister to conduct a wedding at a couple's home or at a favourite beauty spot.

One challenge facing the Church is the possible legal introduction of 'civil partnerships' - giving cohabiting couples including gay and lesbian couples similar legal rights to married couples. Another is the idea to allow civil celebrants to officiate at baby-naming ceremonies and secular marriage reaffirmation services, which "some Christians will see as meaningless or threatening".

An ongoing debate in the Church is whether ministers should stick to conducting marriages of members or whether being involved in the weddings of those who do not attend church can be a worthwhile pastoral or evangelistic opportunity.

Notes:

  1. Two surveys of Methodist ministers were conducted in Spring 2001 and January 2002 on current marriage practice in the Methodist Church. In total 222 ministers were interviewed in detail by post, email or telephone. This represents more than one in ten of the 2090 active Methodist ministers in Britain.
  2. A summary of the result of the surveys is published in the report 'Marriage in the Methodist Church', which will be considered by the Methodist Conference in Wolverhampton in July 2002.
  3. Other parts of the survey found that ministers conduct five weddings per year on average - with some conducting no weddings at all but others conducting up to 25 weddings annually. A majority of weddings in Methodist churches involve at least one partner who has been married before.

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