Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

This report was not approved formally by the Committee prior to the suspension of the Assembly on 14 October 2002, but is published by order of the Speaker.

Committee for
Finance and Personnel

Tuesday 17 September 2002

Marriage Bill:
Committee Stage
(NIA 18/01)

Members present:

Mr Molloy (Chairperson)
Mr Beggs (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Close
Mr R Hutchinson
Mr Maskey
Mr Morrow
Mr Weir


Dr D Stevens ) Irish Council of Churches

The Chairperson: Dr Stevens, you are very welcome.

Dr Stevens: I am the general secretary of the Irish Council of Churches, which has the three largest Protestant Churches - Methodist, Presbyterian and Church of Ireland - in its membership. It also represents the following smaller Churches: the Salvation Army; the Religious Society of Friends; the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church; the Lifelink Network of Churches, which is a recently formed body; the Greek Orthodox Church; the Coptic Orthodox Church; and the Moravian Church. The Committee has taken evidence from representatives of some of those Churches, which I will supplement.

The legislation is generally welcome, because it will tidy up marriage laws and treat all religious bodies equally, which currently is not the case. However, any mention of Churches or clergy is absent from the wording of the Bill, which reads strangely in a place such as Northern Ireland. It simply talks about "religious bodies".

My main concern is with clause 9, which addresses the registration of officiants. The proposals would work for smaller Churches, but there must be careful thought about their practicality for larger Churches. Most Irish Churches are all-Ireland bodies, and there is a significant movement of clergy from North to South and vice versa. Furthermore, some clergy have responsibilities that straddle the border, which is also the case for some administrative areas. It may be that, in practice, all clergy from the four larger Churches would be required to register, which is a significant number of people, probably in the region of 5,000.

The Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland are organised in dioceses, and clergy in good standing is determined at diocesan level, not central Church level. Therefore, a significant number of administrative centres will have to be contacted under these proposals. Also, in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, religious orders must be factored in. The system proposed by the Bill will cause a significant administrative headache, and careful thought must be given to that.

It would, perhaps, be better if clergy, or other persons authorised by prescribed religious bodies, were automatically entitled to solemnise marriages, and a mechanism to allow admission to the status of "prescribed religious body" created. Such provisions could be created through Regulations. That proposal would meet the equality concerns and avoid much of the administrative headache that the current proposals would generate.

Clause 4 addresses objections. The officiant could be put in a difficult position if it is not practical for the registrar to notify him or her of an objection.

Under clause 5, in the process of preparing the marriage schedule, it is important for the registrar to ensure that the officiant agrees to conduct the ceremony before the documentation is prepared. Some clergy will object to conducting a marriage that, for example, involves divorcees, and those circumstances must be provided for.

It is important that the prescribed period under clause 5(2) be a reasonable length of time; for example, three months. Preparation for marriage is not just about administrative detail. The officiant is also required to work with the couple. Clause 5 should contain a provision for a duly authorised deputy to act if, for a very good reason, the named officiant cannot act.

Clause 12(1) states that temporary authority to solemnise marriage may be granted by the Registrar General to "a member of a religious body". Does that mean any member of a religious body? That wording is a consequence of removing any mention of clergy from the text. It must surely mean "an authorised person". Surely the Bill does not intend for every person in the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church to be authorised to conduct religious marriages?

Clause 14 deals with the registration of religious marriage. Subsection 14(3) states that parties to the marriage

"shall arrange for the marriage schedule to be delivered to the registrar within three days of the marriage."

I suspect that that will not be a high priority for newly married couples, and there must be a danger that a couple will neglect to do that. There is an issue of record-keeping there.

Mr Weir: Can you clarify that? Clause 14(3) reads

"The registrar shall register the marriage as soon as practicable after he receives the marriage schedule."

The clause 14(3) that you read out does not correspond with that.

The Chairperson: Did you mean clause 14(2)?

Dr Stevens: Sorry, I meant clause 14(2).

The proposals remove the responsibility on Churches or religious bodies to keep records, which is a very significant change. More thought must be given to record- keeping. I suspect that Churches will still wish to keep their own records, but the Bill should encourage records to be kept as a useful backup.

Mr Morrow: What is to stop Churches or religious organisations from keeping their own records?

Dr Stevens: There is nothing to stop Churches from keeping records. However, it would be useful to encourage the keeping of backup records.

Mr R Hutchinson: You said that the Irish Council of Churches represents the three main Protestant Churches: Methodist, Presbyterian and Church of Ireland. You mentioned the difficulties that they would have in registering their ministers, but when the consultation paper was issued to those Churches, there was no adverse comment about removing the responsibility to keep records.

Dr Stevens: The consultation process happened over the summer. The Churches have found it difficult to get their machinery into action to consider the Bill.

The Principal Committee Clerk: The consultation process began before the Bill was introduced to the Assembly.

Dr Stevens: There was a consultation process, but the Churches did not expect the Bill to move in this direction. In Scotland, for example, there is a prescribed list of authorised religious bodies. This Bill is a big departure from legislation in other parts of the United Kingdom or the Republic.

Mr R Hutchinson: Are you suggesting that the Bill should name the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church and the Church of Ireland, and that all ordained ministers within those Churches should automatically become officiants?

Dr Stevens: Yes, and the Bill should have a mechanism for allowing religious organisations to become prescribed bodies to do that -

Mr R Hutchinson: It is kind of you to allow other religious bodies to be nominated, but there are several smaller denominations in Northern Ireland that have no difficulty in having their ministers' credentials recognised through their central organisation. Why should we make an exception?

Dr Stevens: The proposal will not present problems for smaller Churches. However, there will be problems in administering the system, and not necessarily solely for the larger Churches.

Mr Beggs: I do not fully understand your point. The denominations and the dioceses that you talk about maintain a list of authorised ministers, or whatever one wants to call them. Is that correct?

Dr Stevens: Yes.

Mr Beggs: My understanding of the procedure is that the denomination or the diocese can simply pass a copy of that list to the Department, and it will update the register. That can be done once a year if a particular denomination decides to do so, or it can be done every week if there are regular amendments with names being added or removed.

Dr Stevens: Have you considered that ministers move to and fro across the border a lot?

Mr Beggs: Is there anything in the legislation that stops you simply registering all of the members of a particular denomination in Ireland?

Dr Stevens: All of the clergy -

Mr Beggs: I presume that each particular denomination has a list of all of its authorised ministers.

Dr Stevens: The dioceses, as opposed to the central Church, sometimes maintain such a list.

Mr Beggs: Could a copy of a diocesan record be sent to the Registrar General for registration?

Dr Stevens: Yes, of course it could. However, this is a major administrative change. If the Registrar General feels that that is the way to proceed, that is fine. That is substantially different from what happens in the remainder of this island and the other island. We should be harmonising things, not moving in a radically different direction.

Mr Beggs: I am trying to understand the administrative difficulties that the various groups might have with this, and I do not fully appreciate them. I understand that England and Wales, and perhaps even Scotland, might be moving towards this system.

Dr Stevens: I do not know how they are proceeding. There are approximately 5,000 clergy in the four larger Churches, and that is a significant register to maintain.

Mr Beggs: The point is: do you maintain it?

Mr R Hutchinson: To my knowledge there is what is called a yearbook, which is changed annually anyway. What is the difference? It will be the same difference. In other words, if a Methodist minister is moved in June from Belfast to Larne, for example, that will be stipulated in their yearly book anyway, so there is no difference.

Dr Stevens: The yearly book includes all sorts of clergy; some are active in congregations, some are retired, and some are in sectoral ministries.

Mr R Hutchinson: You are missing the point. I am saying that the work has already been done.

The Chairperson: The Committee Clerk will clarify the Department's response.

The Principal Committee Clerk: The Department consulted with the main Churches prior to the Bill's introduction. It advises that this will be a one-off responsibility, after which it will be responsible for inputting names to the computer; a list will then be sent regularly to the respondents for updating. The Department has also advised that that updating can be done online.

The Department says that every effort will be made to minimise the administrative burden that will be placed on religious bodies.

Mr Weir: I want to pick up on that point. Mr Beggs made a useful point, which is that to get round the issue of congregations in cross-border parishes, as most of those Churches are organised on an all-Ireland basis, everybody in Ireland should be registered. When a new minister is ordained, for example, every church is notified, either at diocesan or central level. However, that does not happen every week.

The Presbyterian Church told us that, on average, there was perhaps one change a week, whether it was a death, a change of address or a change of ordination. Given that that administration is happening anyway, and that a church will be notified if, for example, a new minister is ordained, it does not strike me as an undue burden for the church to pass on that information centrally, because that type of registration does not require a particularly lengthy letter.

Secondly, on Mr Hutchinson's point, if there were a power to add Churches to a prescribed list, how would you answer the allegation that you are creating two tiers of Churches and the idea that certain Churches are, for want of a better term, second-class citizens?

Dr Stevens: I am sure that everybody would be entitled to register.

Mr Weir: Yes, but the point is that at the moment, the proposals are such that every religious body is treated on exactly the same level. Your suggestion of a category of prescribed Churches to which others could then be added immediately creates a two-tier system in which certain bodies would perceive themselves to be second-class citizens. Is that not a major drawback of your proposal?

Dr Stevens: I would have thought that every religious body would be able to pass that test.

Mr Weir: Yes, but if virtually everybody is prepared to think that, what is the point of having that initial list? What difference does that make?

Dr Stevens: It reduces the need to have a register of 5,000 or 6,000 names.

Mr Weir: Presumably, if there is any dispute at any stage on whether, for example, a marriage has been conducted properly by an appropriate officiant, the state must be able to check whether that person is a properly ordained officiant. That means that they must go either to the church or to their own records to check whether that person is properly ordained or not. Records must be kept somewhere.

What happens to a minister who falls out of favour with his Church? That has happened in several Churches. There is a question mark over whether that person is counted as a proper Christian. Look at the well-known case of Pat Buckley. An ordained minister might fall under your definition but not be recognised by his Church as somebody who could conduct a marriage in a Catholic church or diocese. It might well be that they could be registered by a different religious body by a different route. Records are kept, no matter which system is used. How is this system avoiding the administration?

Dr Stevens: I am proposing an extension of what has operated up to now. There have been few problems. It is not as if there have been huge problems with the present situation.

Mr Weir: There are two other points. You mentioned the marriage schedule and the prescribed period; you said that there should be some reference in the legislation to a three-month period.

Dr Stevens: Or in the Regulations.

Mr Weir: OK. You are happy for that to be dealt with by the Regulations. However, is there not an opportunity for any Church, if it feels that that period is insufficient, to refuse to marry a couple whom they feel have not sufficiently prepared?

Dr Stevens: That is a drastic thing to do in the context of a pastoral relationship.

Mr Weir: By requiring a three-month period, are you not asking the state to get the Churches off the hook, so that they do not have to refuse people on the grounds of insufficient preparation? It allows them to say that their hands are tied. Many Churches, with good reason, may feel that three months is an appropriate minimum period. Others may take a different view, and have a shorter or a longer period. Should it not ultimately be up to the Churches themselves to decide what is an appropriate period?

Dr Stevens: The state also has an interest in good marriages. This is not just an administrative tool. Preparation for marriage is something that the state has some interest in. The more stable relationships there are, the better.

Mr Weir: I remember making that point elsewhere today.

You made a couple of points in relation to clause 4, which is concerned with objections. You said on each occasion that the concerns that you had were matters that should be clarified in Regulations. Would you be happy if the wording of the legislation was not changed, but in each case there was clarification in the Regulations?

Dr Stevens: That is fair enough, as long as they are there. We must look at the wording "a member of a religious body" in clause 12(1). That should be changed to "authorised person".

Mr Morrow: I am slightly lost, because I am not sure who I am meeting today. Is the Irish Council of Churches speaking on behalf of the three main Protestant denominations on this issue?

Dr Stevens: No. In my original submission, I made a comment on one particular issue. I encouraged the Committee to call the four larger Churches in Northern Ireland to give evidence. I was not expecting to be called to give evidence, so I am not claiming to speak on behalf of the Churches mentioned. I have consulted them, and some of our smaller Churches, and I have sought to supplement the evidence given by them.

Mr Morrow: Is it correct to say that the Irish Council of Churches represents the three main Protestant denominations plus a number of other smaller denominations?

Dr Stevens: Yes.

Mr Morrow: But you are not speaking for them today?

Dr Stevens: No. Nor did I seek to speak on their behalf.

Mr Morrow: But you say, with all due respect, that you have around 5,000 clergy throughout Ireland.

Dr Stevens: No. I said that the four larger Churches have 5,000 clergy.

Mr Morrow: By inference, would that not lead anybody to believe that you are articulating their particular stance on this issue?

Dr Stevens: I did not seek to give evidence to the Committee. I was asked to give evidence, which I have done. I am not claiming to speak on behalf those Churches. I have seen their evidence.

Mr Morrow: They did not articulate the same point that you are making today. Is that correct?

Dr Stevens: Yes. They are concerned about the issue of officiants. You will see that in the Presbyterian submission.

Mr Maskey: If Dr Stevens is not representing the Irish Council of Churches, then, with all due respect, why is he here? He said that he did not ask to give evidence; he was asked here to give evidence. How is that?

The Principal Committee Clerk: I shall clarify the position on evidence.

Mr Maskey: May I also clarify whether he is speaking for himself?

Dr Stevens: No. I am the general secretary of the Irish Council of Churches. We made a submission on one particular point.

Mr Maskey: You are not here representing the Irish Council of Churches?

Dr Stevens: Yes, I am.

Mr Maskey: A moment ago you said that you were not.

Dr Stevens: I said that I was not speaking on behalf of our member Churches.

Mr Maskey: Who are you representing?

Dr Stevens: I am here as the general secretary of the Irish Council of Churches. We made a submission on one aspect of this discussion.

Mr Maskey: I am totally unclear. You told Mr Morrow that you were not representing the Irish Council of Churches.

Dr Stevens: No, I did not say that. I said that we had made a submission on the issue of officiants and encouraged the Committee to seek oral evidence from the four larger Churches, which I believe it has done. I was then summoned to give evidence.

Mr Beggs: On the issue of ensuring that there is a deputy in case the officiant or minister becomes ill on the day in question, I noticed that the -

Mr Maskey: I am sorry to interrupt, but I wish to have that point clarified. I need to know how much weight to put on Dr Stevens's commentary.

Mr Beggs: Dr Stevens, you expressed concern about the need for a deputy. Under the registrars and local government legislation there are procedures to create deputy registrars of marriage who can officiate at marriage ceremonies. Is it your understanding of the legislation that a deputy is not listed? Is the minister in question listed, or is it simply the case that the registered officiant is present on the day in question? Are you still concerned that the issue of deputies should be clarified?

Dr Stevens: Let us say that a clergyman was flying in from London on the day of the wedding, and the flight was delayed, or something happened on the day of the wedding. Under the present arrangements, he could phone a colleague and ask him to deputise. It is that sort of emergency situation that I am concerned about.

Mr Beggs: The Department must clarify what would transpire, because I am not certain whether that could happen under the current legislation. It is an important issue to address.

The Chairperson: May we have clarification on Mr Maskey's point?

The Principal Committee Clerk: Dr Stevens is correct to say that he is here to represent the Irish Council of Churches and was invited in that capacity. The Committee agreed some time ago to take evidence from all those who provided written submissions. The Irish Council of Churches was one such group, through Dr Stevens, and he has been invited in that capacity. He clearly has a representative role with regard to all the Churches in that body, and has asked the Committee to take evidence from them, which the Committee has sought. Dr Stevens was not summoned here; the Committee invited him to give evidence and is glad to have him here.

Mr Morrow: I do not have a problem with Dr Stevens being here. I am just trying to find out in what role he is here. On the one hand he tells me that the Irish Council of Churches represents 5,000 clergy from the three main Protestant denominations, plus a host of smaller ones, yet I do not hear the comments that he is making coming from the Presbyterian Church, the Church of Ireland or others. I am trying to find out whether Dr Stevens is articulating their view or the view of some of the folk that he represents. I have no problem with him being here.

The Principal Committee Clerk: It is clear from the evidence provided by the Presbyterian Church and the Church of Ireland that they share the concern about registration of the Church per se, as opposed to the individual officials.

The Chairperson: I thank Dr Stevens for coming along. The Committee will take his evidence on board.

17 September 2002 (i) / Menu / 17 September 2002 (iii)