The Solemnization of Matrimony: Duties and Deposits

by Philip Jones

It was reported in the news media last week that a vicar has taken to charging a deposit of £100 for weddings in his church.  He then forfeits the deposit if the bride arrives late for the ceremony.  (This is, of course, a well known bridal prerogative, but it seems that some brides have been abusing the prerogative by as much as 20 or 25 minutes.)

The vicar’s exasperation at such gross unpunctuality may be understandable.  But is he legally entitled to charge, and forfeit, a deposit in these circumstances?

It is universally assumed that parishioners have a common law right to marry in their parish church.  However, the incumbent and the Church authorities have no general common law right to charge a fee (not even a refundable deposit) for publication of the banns or solemnisation.  A contractual fee for performing the ceremony would constitute the sin of simony (cf Ecclesiastical Committee, 229th Report, para 58).

Common law would enforce an ‘accustomed duty’ of the kind described in the Prayer Book marriage service (i.e a customary marriage fee in a particular parish).  However, such a duty / fee was difficult to prove ‘from time immemorial’, and would only be worth a few pence in the money values of today.

So marriage fees are now charged under statutory authority.  This is provided by the Ecclesiastical Fees Measure 1986, as amended by an Amendment Measure of 2011.  The fees themselves are fixed by a parochial fees order made under s.2 of the 1986 Measure.

(S.12(2) confirms that the Ecclesiastical Fees Measure applies only to England.  How the Church in Wales is able to charge marriage fees is one of the great unsolved mysteries of ecclesiastical law, as the common law right is the same on both sides of the Severn.)

Under the Parochial Fees Order 2017, 2 fees are payable for a marriage service, to

(1) the diocesan board of finance (‘the DBF’) and

(2) the parochial church council (‘the PCC’).

Following the 2011 Amendment, marriage fees are no longer payable to incumbents (cf.s.1(1)).  This is a sensible reform.  Weddings are part of an incumbent’s paid duty.  He should not be paid twice for the same work.  Many weddings are solemnised by non-incumbent clergy.  And the DBF is now responsible for payment of all stipends and other clergy remuneration.  Hence the DBF is the appropriate recipient of the fee that was formerly payable to the incumbent.

These 2 statutory fees correspond to the 2 elements of the common law right

(1) the duty of the incumbent to solemnise the marriage, either personally or by deputy and

(2) the use of the church building for the ceremony.  As the Prayer Book rubric says ‘the persons to be married shall come into the body of the church with their friends and neighbours …’.  The PCC is now responsible for the upkeep of the church building.

As amended, the 1986 Measure empowers an incumbent to waive a fee payable to the DBF in a particular case (s.1(9)).  He may likewise waive a fee payable to the PCC, though only after consulting the churchwardens (s.1(10)).

These provisions indicate that the vicar may waive part of a marriage fee, i.e reduce it by £100, as an incentive to bridal punctuality.  But they do not empower him to impose an additional deposit, over and above the statutory fees.

However, the common law right to marry in church is a bare right, limited to what is legally necessary for the solemnisation, i.e reading the marriage service in the church.  It does not extend to the traditional accompaniments of a church wedding, such as music, bells, flowers and photography.  The extras, as they are called.  All these require the incumbent’s licence.

Canon B35(5) of the revised canons confirms that ‘When matrimony is to be solemnised … it belongs to the minister of the parish to decide what music shall be played, or what furnishings or flowers should be placed in or about the church for the occasion’.  Canon F8(2) provides that ‘No bell … shall be rung contrary to the direction of the minister’ (see also canon F15(1)).

Thus, although an incumbent could not charge a deposit in respect of a bare solemnisation, he may attach reasonable conditions to his licence for any extras.  He is therefore arguably within his rights to charge a deposit against late arrival, as a condition of granting  permission for the extras.

Those who supply the extras (organist, choir, bellringers) generally expect to be paid for their services.  Provision of the extras will then be a matter of contract. The incumbent will usually be the link between the couple and at least some of the suppliers of the extras.  He will be involved in making arrangements for the extras.

It may therefore be possible for the incumbent to charge a deposit on a contractual basis, as event organiser for the couple and / or as agent for the suppliers.

So the vicar in this case may be entitled to charge a deposit, on the basis of licence and / or contract.  However, the boundary between

(1) common law right (for which only statutory fees are chargeable) and

(2) extras (for which additional fees may be charged)

must always be respected.  Couples will be illegally overcharged if it is not.

Introducing the 2011 Amendment Measure, the Bishop of Exeter admitted that ‘there is considerable variation between parishes on services that are charged as extras over and above the statutory fees … people who are getting married are surprised to be asked for substantial sums for administration, vergers’ fees and so on …’ (House of Lords Official Report 23rd March 2011, column 794).

The Ecclesiastical Committee confirmed that ‘the PCC [has] never had a power to set fees of its own … over and above the statutory fees’ (229th Report, para 70).  If the incumbent has no common law right to charge a marriage fee, a fortiori the PCC has no such right.

The 2011 Measure was intended to resolve the confusion between rights and extras, but it may not have been entirely successful in this.  The 2017 Fees Order explains that the cost of lighting the church is included in the statutory fee, but that the cost of heating it is a contractual extra.  It also provides that the verger (if any) is a contractual extra.  Yet it is arguable that a verger’s work pertains to the use of the building, and is therefore covered by the statutory fee.