Wedding banns face axe after 800 years as senior clergy think practice of reading out names ahead of ceremony is 'antiquated'

  • Church of England urged to scrap the tradition of reading marriage banns
  • Some members of clergy feel 800-year-old practice is time-wasting red tape
  • Allows worshippers to object if they believe a couple's marriage is illegal
  • Critics say couples now far less well-known in local areas than in the past 

Some senior clergy say the banns are time-wasting red tape and a medieval anachronism (file photo)

Some senior clergy say the banns are time-wasting red tape and a medieval anachronism (file photo)

The ancient practice of reading marriage banns is under threat after senior clergy urged the Church of England to scrap it.

The 800-year-old tradition, in which a couple’s names are read out during at least three Sunday services before their wedding, allows worshippers to object if they believe the marriage is illegal.

But some members of the clergy say the banns are time-wasting red tape and a medieval anachronism, and are calling for the Church of England’s ‘Parliament’ the General Synod to find an alternative.

Critics say the banns, designed to guard against incest, bigamy and secret ceremonies, were effective when communities were close-knit and everyone knew everyone.

However, many couples now move frequently and are far less well-known in their local areas.

The Rev Stephen Trott, who is to table a private member’s motion when the General Synod meets in London tomorrow, says all couples who want to get married in church should go through the same preliminaries as those opting for a civil ceremony in a register office, making the banns redundant.

But supporters believe the Church should not axe such a quintessential part of services.

They argue that it can draw lapsed Christians back to church, as not only the marrying couple but friends and relatives often attend to hear the banns being read.

Under the current arrangements, clergy ask the congregation if anyone knows of any impediments to the marriage at three consecutive services within three months of the wedding.

As the banns have to be read not only in the parish or parishes where the couple live, but also in the church where the wedding is taking place if this is elsewhere, the practice can cost the couple up to £110 in fees. 

Clergy complain that, following scandals over sham marriages, they are now expected to scrutinise the couple much more – including checking nationalities – which they say would be better done by civil registrars.

It is unheard of these days for churchgoers to object to weddings, but in previous centuries, fathers wishing to intervene sometimes left a coin on the altar to indicate they wanted a word with the vicar.

Others objected more directly, such as when jilted lover Jane Sutton tried to prevent the marriage of Henry Robbins in Maidstone in 1655 by announcing she was ‘with child’.

The banns have also featured in novels, such as Thomas Hardy’s The Return Of The Native.

But some members of the clergy say the banns are time-wasting red tape and a medieval anachronism, and are calling for the Church of England’s ‘Parliament’ the General Synod (pictured) to find an alternative

But some members of the clergy say the banns are time-wasting red tape and a medieval anachronism, and are calling for the Church of England’s ‘Parliament’ the General Synod (pictured) to find an alternative

Mr Trott, a church law expert, said: ‘The attachment to banns in the 21st Century is at best sentimental. This is not the England of Jane Austen where everybody knows everybody.’

Fellow Synod member the Rev Paul Benfield agreed that the bureaucracy surrounding banns had become more complicated since new Home Office requirements were introduced in the last couple of years.

And senior cleric Canon David Houlding, a prebendary at St Paul’s cathedral, said: ‘Banns of marriage are so antiquated and a complete nuisance. They should be scrapped. It is all a money-making exercise.’

But Synod member Prudence Dailey, chairman of the Prayer Book Society which counts Prince Charles as a patron, said that while she would support axeing red tape, she wanted to keep the symbolic reading of the banns in church. She added: ‘This does bring people into church because they often want to hear the banns being read.’

Mr Trott’s motion is expected to have significant support – although it will need to garner the signatures of at least 100 fellow Synod members before it can be debated.

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