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
Ms Lewsley
Mr Maskey
Mr Morrow
Mr Weir


Rev Edmund Mawhinney )
Rev Winston Graham ) Methodist Church in Ireland
Rev David Mullan )

The Chairperson: Welcome, Gentlemen.

Rev Winston Graham: Thank you for inviting us to represent the Methodist Church. I am Rev Winston Graham, president of the Methodist Church in Ireland. My colleagues are Rev Edmund Mawhinney, the general secretary of the Church, and Rev David Mullan. We have made a written submission to the Committee, but we would like to draw attention to some points pertaining to the Marriage Bill.

Rev Edmund Mawhinney: Thank you for giving us the opportunity to contribute to the consultation. I want to expand on two or three of the points that we made in our submission.

The Methodist Church has several concerns about officiants and their registration. People, and Churches, who are already authorised to conduct marriages should not have to apply for registration. Current officiants should already be included in the register when the legislation comes into force. That register can be updated as new officiants come forward.

Keeping the register updated should not be a huge administrative task from the Methodist Church’s point of view, because it will affect approximately 200 ministers. However, it may be a bigger task for larger denominations. The registrar might have to take on a greater administrative role.

All Methodist ministers who have been approved to conduct marriages, in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, should be included in the register. Our denomination requires that for two reasons. First, ministers in the Republic of Ireland are frequently asked to conduct weddings in Northern Ireland. Secondly, and more importantly, the Church moves its ministers around the whole of Ireland. Ministers from Northern Ireland can spend a period of service in the Republic of Ireland and vice versa. The legislation should respect that system.

In our submission we also made a point about the training of officiants. The new legislation will represent a sea change, and training must be made available. The Church does not want to take responsibility for that training, and it asks that the registrar or the appropriate Department be responsible for it. That said, there would be some merit in the Church working in partnership with the organisation responsible.

The submission highlighted several other points. The Church is concerned about the places where a wedding can be held and the position of deputy officiants. Although we hope that such a situation would not arise very often, it is possible that a wedding could be arranged for a particular venue on a specified date but, for reasons beyond anyone’s control, such as community strife, it cannot be held at that place. All the other wedding arrangements would be in place for that date. A provision must be made under which it would be possible for that wedding to take place in another venue nearby, which could be arranged fairly quickly in extreme circumstances. However, the legislation does not allow for that at present.

There does not seem to be legislation for the possibility of using a deputy at short notice. If I were to take sick suddenly on the day of a wedding, it would be possible, under the present arrangements, for another minister to conduct the wedding ceremony. There does not seem to be the opportunity for that in the Bill, and that should be clarified.

In several places the Bill refers to the fact that Regulations will be drawn up, and we accept that. If this Bill became law and the Regulations were in place, and if there were a dispute of any nature on any issue, I am assuming that those responsible for making a judgement would turn to the primary legislation, so it would be useful to see what the Regulations will cover and to approve them.

Mr R Hutchinson: I congratulate Rev Winston Graham on his appointment as president and wish him well for the year.

Every denomination that we have spoken to has referred to ministers taking sick. Would you be happy if the Bill stipulated that any minister, or ministers, under licence to the particular denomination could conduct the marriage if a minister took sick?

Rev Winston Graham: I would be very happy with that.

Mr R Hutchinson: That point has been made to the officials, and we may propose an amendment to get that sorted out.

Would there be a problem if the venue had to be moved in the event of civil unrest, as the minister had the licence to marry? Would it not be irrelevant where the ceremony took place?

Rev Edmund Mawhinney: Does the legislation not say that the ceremony must be at a given place?

Mr R Hutchinson: Within the marriage schedule? Sorry, my mistake, I apologise.

The Chairperson: The information received from the Department was that necessary last-minute changes could be made in an emergency situation if the minister was either late and could not make the venue or took sick. I assume that the same would apply if the ceremony were transferred to a different venue, provided that that venue was registered as a place where a marriage could take place.

The Principal Committee Clerk: The place is not registered; it is named in the schedule. The Department’s advice is that late changes can be made by phone on the day, if necessary.

You wanted clarification on the issue of clergy in the South of Ireland. The Bill will provide for churches to register any officiants, wherever they may be, as long as the marriages take place in Northern Ireland.

Mr Weir: That point has been raised because one possibility that the Committee will be considering is amending the legislation to have greater flexibility for late changes, especially of officiant. The Department suggests that, instead of a change to the legislation, the matter is dealt with through Regulations. I presume that your preference would be for that level of flexibility to be built into the actual Bill. Would Regulations offering flexibility be sufficient?

Rev David Mullan: We could work with the Regulations if the flexibility was built in. The difficulty would be if, for example, a dispute arose. We cannot see where any dispute could arise, but if it did, primary legislation would win the day. Even though we could work with Regulations that incorporated flexibility, we would prefer it if flexibility was contained in the primary legislation.

The Law Reform Advisory Committee’s report on marriage law (LRAC 9/2000) does not give clear guidelines about trans-jurisdictional marriage — for example, where a couple who have been residing in America, or even Great Britain, return to Northern Ireland to be married. There is no clear indication as to how that should be dealt with.

The Principal Committee Clerk: A couple would give notice by post, and it would be dealt with in the normal way, or so the officials behind you are telling me.

Rev Winston Graham: Does that answer apply to couples in the UK and outside the UK?

Mr Weir: It does not matter.

Mr R Hutchinson: The other two main Churches — the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church — want individual Churches to be named in the Bill. If the Churches were named, the ministers belonging to a Church would not have to be individually registered and would be covered by a blanket approach. The Methodist Church does not seem to have a problem with that. Are you quite happy for the proposed legislation to register each minister individually?

Rev Edmund Mawhinney: As a religious body, we would not have a problem with Churches being named. We would live with the legislation.

Mr R Hutchinson: Is that your preference?

Rev Winston Graham: Yes. However, we did not want to have a totally defensive response to the Bill. As our secretary said, we could live and work with the legislation, although we recognise that it might be a problem for Churches with many more officiants to register. We would prefer the bodies to be named, but we could work with it if they were not.

Mr Morrow: Would that mean that every denomination would have to be named? Bearing in mind the litany of denominations in Northern Ireland, that might lead to further complications.

Rev Winston Graham: That issue needs to be addressed.

Following on from that, clause 8(1) makes reference to "a member" being included on the list of officiants. What is meant by the word "member"? We would take that to mean additional clergy. However, we are not sure what is meant by that word and what the implication for all Churches or denominations would be of the inclusion of those members on the list.

The Principal Committee Clerk: The Bill provides for officiants to be registered by religious bodies, whether they be standard denominations or small religious bodies that meet regularly. That means that if the Methodist Church wished, it could register non-ministers as officiants. It ensures that smaller organisations that are not standard denominations can nominate their members to be officiants at marriages.

Mr R Hutchinson: The Methodist Church could nominate its lay preachers.

Rev Edmund Mawhinney: After ministers have been registered and accepted, and the list has been updated, I imagine that a central office of each Church would respond to the Registrar General to update the list. Heretofore, in our case, that has been done to inform the Registrar General of the names of those who had been recently ordained and were therefore eligible to conduct marriages and to remove those from the list who had died or moved away.

Clause 8(5) states that a religious body shall not apply to register members to solemnise marriages

"unless it is satisfied that there is a need for a larger number of its members to be registered".

Is it possible that a dispute could arise? Could the Registrar General decide that a religious body did not need so many people to officiate at weddings? We assume that the people who are ordained each year and heretofore have been recognised as —

Mr R Hutchinson: The Registrar General would not be in a position to disagree with a Church about someone it considered suitable to perform marriages. That would exceed his or her remit.

Mr Morrow: Do you have an example in mind that demonstrates that such a situation could arise?

Rev Edmund Mawhinney: I am not thinking of a particular case. I was simply imagining a situation in which the Methodist Church already had 130 or 140 people registered to conduct weddings and had conducted 400 weddings that year —

The Principal Committee Clerk: The Department’s position on that is that the inclusion of the reference to "a larger number" is to ensure that various religious bodies do not register all their members, in addition to the clergy, as officiants. That would be seen as excessive and undesirable. I cannot imagine that the Bill would prevent a body, particularly a standard denomination, from registering all its ministers. The provision is there to ensure that smaller religious groups, in particular, do not register all their members as officiants.

Rev Winston Graham: At present, when the Registrar General receives an application from a couple who specify the name of the officiant they wish to perform the ceremony, the officiant is notified. The legislation does not make it clear whether that will continue. The officiant could question a wedding that he or she had been named to conduct. Then one is put in the awkward position of asking whether he or she is really considering doing it. Is there any comment on that?

The Principal Committee Clerk: The advice previously provided by the Department is that notice of marriage can be given up to a year in advance. An officiant need not marry the couple; his permission would need to be sought before he could be included in the marriage schedule in the first place. It obviously requires a degree of communication between the officiant and the intended couple. I suppose that one would expect that in the normal course of preparation for any marriage.

The Bill provides for the religious body to give whatever guidance is necessary under the regulations governing couples married by its officiants.

Mr Weir: One of the points that we should make to the various religious bodies that have made submissions is that there is always the option to refuse couples, although I appreciate that such a course could leave the officiant in a very awkward situation. What changes to regulations or legislation could get round that?

Rev Winston Graham: Hitherto it has been the case that couples married in churches speak to the minister about the matter before they make application, even if sometimes that has not happened easily. We receive notice from the registrar about every upcoming marriage after the couple have applied, asking us if we have any comment or response. I am not sure that that will continue to happen, though I think that it should.

Mr Weir: Regulations might provide a way round the matter. Correct me if I am wrong, but the couple must make an application naming the officiant. If the form had a space for the signature of the officiant, then, unless one were to forge that signature, that would be a way of holding them to account. The officiant would have to be approached by the couple and sign the form when they made the application.

Rev Winston Graham: That would be very helpful; as officiants we feel that we have quite a responsibility in agreeing to conduct a wedding. We want it to be clear that we are in agreement.

Rev Edmund Mawhinney: From a practical point of view, without prior agreement the wedding could be arranged at a time and place that did not suit the officiant.

Mr R Hutchinson: For example, Gary Mason on the Newtownards Road might refuse to marry a divorced couple, but Jim Rea in Portadown might say that he would do it. There is a potential difficulty if the couple name someone else to come and conduct a marriage in your church.

Rev Winston Graham: Yes, that is right. I am currently ministering in a church which is very popular for weddings because of its location and the kind of building it is. Several of the weddings are conducted by others, since I do not do them. There is a code of honour between ministers about the matter, and it is up to us to see that it works well. We think it important that there be something such as a signature to show that the officiant is aware of the intended marriage and agreeable to it.

Mr Beggs: Could the issue not be dealt with by the internal regulations of your denomination? You will have your own procedures stating that permission must be granted to use the church building, the minister agreed with the church’s governing group and so on. Can that not be inserted into an individual denominational area for the different faiths to have their own regulation in addition to the overall guiding Regulations that the Department issues?

Rev Edmund Mawhinney: It is quite clear that, when all the legislation is in place, Churches will have to draw up their own codes of practice in addition. That is accepted, but — and do not think that we want to make too much of this — there is still potential for conflict and misunderstanding if, for example, a ceremony is arranged and the minister named is not available at that time. We are not always available to comply with people’s requests as and when they choose, so there is a need for further checking and clarification.

Rev David Mullan: If a couple go directly to the registrar for the schedule, it could happen that other arrangements may have been made for the church on that day.

The Chairperson: It would be foolish for anyone to book a wedding in a church without first checking its availability.

Rev David Mullan: On the issue of where civil marriages may be solemnised, the Bill takes into account people in certain medical circumstances, but its provisions do not extend to cover religious marriage ceremonies in that set of circumstances. Are we to assume that the legislation covers both civil and religious ceremonies?

The Committee Clerk: Perhaps the officials will keep me right in this, but it is my understanding that the Bill covers both civil and religious marriages, and it is for the religious bodies to define where the religious marriage will take place and what sort of ceremony is performed. The Bill seeks only to set the legal framework for the formal preliminaries for the solemnisation of marriage that apply to both civil and religious bodies. It does not deal with the nature of the ceremony, premarital advice or guidance or any regulations that the Church may wish to stipulate.

Mr Close: Is it the case that the religious body could refuse to carry out a marriage ceremony in a specific place if it so desired?

Rev David Mullan: We are in sympathy with that suggestion; the only difficulty is that the Bill seems to specify civil marriage, while religious marriage is not mentioned. I am working from what the explanatory and financial memorandum says about clause 16, "Places at which civil marriages may be solemnised".

Mr Weir: The Bill’s intention seems to be that there will be certain restrictions placed on where civil marriages can take place, but, in the absence of any direct reference as to where a religious ceremony can take place, it seems that the only restriction is that imposed by the religious body itself. Some religious bodies only permit a ceremony to take place in their churches, whereas other religious bodies take a more flexible approach and may be happy to carry out marriage ceremonies in hotels, for example. There is no direct regulation, so the decision as to location will be at the discretion of the individual religious body. There would be nothing to prevent a couple marrying in a hospital, unless the religious body was unhappy with that.

Rev David Mullan: I appreciate that clarification. The issue that caused me to question the situation was that of medical statements and the fact that, although it depends on the internal regulation of the denomination as to where such marriages will be carried out, the medical requirements stipulated in the legislation still have to be met.

Mr Close: Again, that refers specifically to civil marriages. My understanding is that the religious body would still have its power and jurisdiction.

Rev David Mullan: It is entirely up to the religious body to come to its own conclusion, even though there may be a medical condition that raises concern.

Rev Edmund Mawhinney: Without intruding too much on your time, I would like clarification of clause 5(2), with reference to the marriage schedule. The clause says that in the case of a religious marriage the schedule shall be completed in accordance with subsection 1 and issued by the registrar at his office and — clause 5(2)(b) — "during such period as may be prescribed". Does that phrase refer to office hours or to the period of time in which the schedule is issued? If it is the latter, our point is that the period of time before the marriage schedule is issued should be defined in the Regulations. I am not sure which it refers to.

The Committee Clerk: I suspect that it is 14 days, and the officials are nodding in agreement with that.

Rev Winston Graham: We assume that the registrar will take responsibility for ensuring that the couple applying for the wedding are aware that, according to this legislation, it is their responsibility to make the return after the wedding about the details that the registrar needs, confirming that the wedding has taken place and who has taken part in it. Until now, the officiant has always done it, and we are quite concerned about this. Is there some way in which the registrar plans to make sure that couples are aware of their responsibilities? Does the officiant have to ensure that that happens, and how can we be sure that it has happened?

The registrar will write again in 14 days if he has not heard the response he needs, but many couples leave on honeymoon as soon as the reception is over. If we have taken responsibility for officiating at the wedding, we want to make sure that the couple are very aware, through the registrar’s office, of what is required afterwards.

The Chairperson: The responsibility is on the couple to make sure that they register. Where does the clarification of that come from?

The Committee Clerk: It falls to the couple to get the schedule and to bring it back.

Rev Winston Graham: Will the registrar advise them of that when they apply?

Rev Edmund Mawhinney: I have a vision of wedding suits being returned to the cleaners with the certificate in the pocket.

Mr Close: Surely there would be nothing to prevent the religious body taking on that if it so wished?

Mr Morrow: I suspect that that is not what they were asking.

Rev Winston Graham: No, it is not. Recently I had a wedding where the certified copy went back with the hired suit.

The Chairperson: The dry-cleaners might work wonders in that situation.

Many issues have been raised, and obviously we will raise them with the Department and get responses. Thank you very much for coming along.

17 September 2002 (iii) / Menu / 24 September 2002